A couple of years ago, in my job as a sports journalist for The Times, I went to interview an Olympic rower called Pete Reed. The last time I had met him he had just won his third gold medal. This time would be different. Pete was only 38 but a few months earlier had suffered a spinal stroke that had left him paralysed in a wheelchair. It was a profoundly moving meeting for me. He had started keeping a diary as he tried to regain movement. “One of my entries from week one is, ‘I didn’t poo the bed today’", he said. “They are positive things that can’t be seen but they are massive things. I’m making a new normal.”
The extraordinary mindset that had taken him to three Olympic gold medals spanning eight years was still there even if the circumstances had changed. He admitted to down days, but he was determined to make the absolute most of what he had rather than the things he had lost. I left feeling humbled, inspired and guilty for worrying about the traffic on the way to the hospital.
I have been lucky to watch, meet and interview some of the greatest sports stars in the world and I realised they have stories that can teach us all lessons. I thought about some of those people – Jessica Ennis-Hill, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Jonny Wilkinson, Simone Biles, Anthony Joshua and lots more – and thought it would be to write a book for children, telling their remarkable stories not just for the sheer drama, but also to see what we could all learn from them. Sports Legends - 50 inspiring people to help you reach the top of your game is the result.
The subjects in Sports Legends had all “failed”, been afraid or suffered crises of one sort or another. Some had been abused for their gender, sexuality and race. Some lacked confidence. Most had been written off. Anthony Joshua, the heavyweight boxer, was mocked after a crushing defeat but came back. Lionel Messi was called the “flea” because he was so small and had to leave his family, country and continent as a boy to get the hormone treatment that would make him grow. Usain Bolt had curvature of the spine and was told he was too tall to be a sprinter. Jonny Wilkinson was terrified of letting his team-mates down. Adam Peaty, the world record swimmer and Olympic champion, has a huge lion tattoo on his arm, but he used to be scared of water.
I realised I had been fortunate to see these stories unfold before my eyes and wanted to pass them on. I know that lots of people – young and old – treat sports stars as almost mythical beings, but I had seen their frailties and thought this was important too. They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things and if children could see what they had been through, as well as the results, it could have a positive impact.
I drew up a list of stories. I restricted it to people I had seen live, whether performing or through interviewing them and being up close and personal in press conferences. The exception was Jesse Owens, the great American athlete who had exposed the vacuity of Hitler’s Aryan beliefs at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Jesse had died in 1980 but I had interviewed some of his daughters and granddaughters. In front of Hitler in pre-war Germany, Jesse had forged a relationship with a blond, blue-eyed German long jumper called Luz Long. I have often thought what it must have been like for Luz Long to be so gracious in public with Jesse, knowing he was defying Hitler up there in the VIP box.
Jesse’s daughter, Marlene, told me that her father and Luz remained in touch after the Olympics. Then, in 1939, Luz had no choice and had to join the German Army heading into the Second World War where America would be the enemy. The last letter he sent to Jesse read:
“My heart tells me this will be the last letter I write. If it is so I ask you to do something. It is for you to go to Germany when this war is done, some day find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him Jesse – how things can be between men on this earth.”
Luz was killed in the war soon afterwards, but Jesse did go to Germany and he did find Luz's son and tell him how brave his father had been. Then, in 2009, the World Athletics Championships were held in the same Berlin stadium where Jesse and Luz had bonded some 73 years earlier. Jesse’s granddaughter met Luz’s son and they presented the medals to the winners of the long jump.
It is the oldest story in Sports Legends, but one of the most profound. I deliberately chose some lesser-known stories too, in order to show you don’t have to have medals, fame or glory to be brilliant. My hope for this book is that it helps some readers to become inspired, not to be superstars (although that would be great too), but to be the best they can be, and realise those people on the Olympic podium and in the World Cup Final have probably felt just like them.
SPORTS LEGENDS: 50 INSPIRING PEOPLE TO HELP YOU REACH THE TOP OF YOUR GAME from journalist and commentator Rick Broadbent will be published by Walker Books on 3 June 2021. The perfect book to inspire young readers with stories of their sports heroes and legends - with stories of courage, endurance, confidence and resilience.