Some champions are born, some are made and some have far more circuitous routes. Northern Soul’s Andy Groves meets Jon Gildea and gets behind the story, the training and the ambition of the Sale-based aspiring Paralympian.
Watching the Winter Olympics got me wondering what it is that sets Olympians apart from the rest of us. All those clean-cut daredevil types at the top of their game. Now I’m enjoying the Winter Paralympics. But Paralympic sport always makes me think about the back story. What is their disability? How much does it impact on their life? How did they get it? Were they born with it? Did they have an accident? How do they fund their life and training? How dedicated do they have to be? How do they feel about their disability? And just how tough is it to get in the team and then qualify for the games?
Of course, the answers are different for each athlete. When I met Jon Gildea I gained a fascinating insight into all of these questions and saw what it means to be a man dedicated to his parasport.
Gildea, 34, is steeped in Northern cycling. He’s always been pretty good but not always a para-athlete. As a kid he rode cyclo-cross and mountain bikes, winning a place on the Kona sponsored team. He represented Team GB in the youth World Championships. He’s always been most at home on two wheels.
Then it happened. In May 2012 his life changed forever. He had a mountain biking accident so severe he pretty much folded his left leg in half – the wrong way. He was told that he may never walk again and certainly not ride a bike. That’s a lot for anyone to take in.
Two major reconstructive surgeries later he was told he’d permanently severed a major nerve so he now has no feeling in his left foot and requires an aid in his shoe to walk. It clearly was a huge effort to learn to walk again so riding a bike is amazing. But to get to the level where he could compete is far beyond anyone’s expectations. He says: “My consultant said I’d never ride again. When I saw him recently he apologised!” It’s clear to anyone who meets Gildea that if you tell him he can’t do something he sees it as a challenge.
The story continues. He was walking again by October that year and was on his bike not long after. It was during his rehabilitation this his sister told him that, if he could recover, he could qualify as a para-athlete. That was when the Olympic dream began.
It’s clear that qualifying as a C5 athlete has changed Gildea’s life. C5 is defined as ‘cyclists with least impairment, including single amputation and minimal neurological disfunction’. It can include amputations but it is Gildea’s neurological disability that sets him in this category.
“It’s a very tough category,” Gildea says. This is both in terms of the number of athletes but also the quality of the world records within it.
Gildea never stops. Having won a gold and two bronzes in the UCI P1 International Championships (the only international para-cycling championship in 2013) he then signed a sponsorship deal with Merlin Cycles and has now qualified as a British Cycling funded rider for 2014. Rio is getting ever closer!
So, is it an advantage being based in Manchester?
“If I wasn’t based here I’d have to do a lot of travelling,” Gildea says. Now a funded rider, he’ll be spending much of his time training with the Manchester-based British Cycling team. It’s obvious that he’s enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the stars.
“Jody Cundy is a dead nice guy,” he says, but he’s also looking forward to the prospect of Wiggins and Cavendish coming back to the track. Who wouldn’t benefit from riding with folk like them?
When asked how he feels about his accident now he doesn’t have to think long. While Gildea knows he can no longer play football or snowboard – and he will be limited when playing with his kids as they grow up – he believes that the accident has given a massive opportunity. Looking at his enthusiastic body language I find it hard to disagree.
“It’s a second childhood!” he claims. Gildea is clearly driven to be the best he can be and wants his family to be proud of him. From what he says, they are an enormous tower of strength and he really wants his kids to be proud of him and his achievements as they get older. Gildea values the support of those around him, too.
“So what is your ambition?” I ask. “Paralympic golds,” he replies with a glint in his eye. Yes, he’s aiming for more than one. Gildea hasn’t made a final decision on his target events but it seems like the road race, time trial and the track pursuit are among his options.
After Rio? He has no idea such is his focus on the next Olympiad.
And what advice would he give to other aspiring paralympians? “If you’re keen to get into cycling then contact the velodrome, otherwise go on one of the British Paralympic Association talent spotting events,” he says. As for the rest of us – have a go, ride your bike, join a club, get a licence and do a race.
So what does set Olympians apart from the rest of us? I left our bike ride thinking that there was genuinely something different about Gildea. His energy, drive and focus are undeniable but the thing that sealed it for me was during a talk as we rode two abreast down the Cheshire lanes. A nattily-clad guy rode past us. I didn’t pay it any attention as I was in chatty mode. Gildea twitched and said “Come on! We can get him” and seemed far happier once I’d got out of my saddle to make chase. “I don’t like being passed,” he said with a rueful smile.
You can follow Andy via twitter and instagram @riding_north
Jon Gildea writes his own blog for Merlin Cycles and can be followed on twitter @JonGildea and on facebook