Big Interview: Team GB wheelchair rugby ace Myles Pearson
It is probably the most un-PC sport there is,' Myles Pearson flashed me a devilish but knowing smile. 'I mean how many other sports do you see a group of disabled people in wheelchairs hitting into each other?'
Indeed first-time observers of wheelchair rugby – or ‘murderball’ as it is often affectionately referred to – may be shocked by the intense physicality of the sport.
A game certainly not suited to the faint-hearted, the rough and tumble tactics employed by its participants often result in opponents hanging upside down with their wheels flailing in the air.
For Lancashire paralympian Pearson – who represented Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team in London 2012 – the fiery side of the game is what he loves the most.
“It is a brutal sport – everybody who has watched it says that,” said the 24-year-old, who has a condition called arthrogryposis, which is a rare disorder which affects joints and muscles.
“The contact involved in the sport is a massive part of it and also the pace of it surprises a lot of people. They don’t realise how fast it is until they actually watch a game.
“I am usually one of the smaller players so I get thrown about a bit, but it’s what I love about it.
“I am one of the fast and nimble players, who tries to create gaps for other players, but I still take my fair share of hits.”
Created in the late 1970s by a group of Canadian players looking for an alternative to wheelchair basketball, ‘murderball’ has grown to such an extent that it is now widely regarded as one of the most popular on the Paralympic event list.
Played on a basketball court, with four members on each side, the aim of the game is to carry the ball across the goalline, although players must have two wheels over the line for a try to count.
A player in possession of the ball must bounce or pass the ball within 10 seconds. Such is its entertainment value, matches at the London Paralympics were often played in front of sell-out audiences at the ‘Marshmellow Arena’.
However, despite its popularity as a spectator sport and the ever increasing participation levels, the sport is at serious risk at the top level in this country after it was stripped of its financial support by UK Sport.
After the GB team finished fifth at the last two Paralympics, the governing body took the decision to prioritise other sports which they felt had more of a chance of winning a medal at the next Games.
It all means that Pearson – who missed out on competing in Rio last year as he decided to concentrate on his education – appears unlikely to get the opportunity to go to Tokyo or the World Championships,in Australia, next year – unless he is able to attract sponsorship.
“I think it’s disappointing for the sport as a whole and disappointing for the athletes because we put so much into it,” said Pearson, who hails from Lytham and studied at Newman College, in Preston.
“There was a report earlier this month which said that UK Athletics get something like £27million of funding and the paralympic athletes get £11m.
“I’d like somebody to explain to me how that is fair.
“ Eleven million pounds is still a lot of money, but when you compare it to what the Olympic athletes get, the paralympians are doing the same amount of work. We are training just as hard.
“You would think that we need more money really because we need more equipment. We need more support staff.
“We were fully-funded and I was able to support myself.
“It allowed me to be a full-time professional athlete, but now with the cuts, it’s becoming impossible.
“Our funding has gone down from £3m to zero.
“Before we were stripped of our funding, a wheelchair athlete was on £12,000 per year.
“That is nothing really, and we are not able to claim too much in benefits either.
“I am not able to go out and claim the jobseekers allowance because we are not available for work.
“We just have our disability allowance, which isn’t much.
“When the news came through that we were losing all our funding, it was devastating.
“I was just coming back into the sport at GB level post- Rio and it left me with a lot of questions: What do I do now?
“But I am looking for sponsorship to help me get to Tokyo in 2020.”
UK Sport’s decision to withdraw all of its funding seems all the more perverse after the GB team returned from the European Championships in Germany last month as winners.
“We are the best team in Europe,” said Pearson, who plays for Southport-based West Coast Crash Wheelchair Rugby Club.
“To put it all into some kind of perspective, in Rio the team lost to Australia by just two points and they went on to win the gold medal.
“We lost to Canada 50-49 and they scored the winner after 0.07 seconds of overtime. So how UK Sport can turn around to us and say that we are not medal potential, it’s bizarre.”
With all the controversy surrounding the funding cuts, Pearson admitted it was hugely satisfying for himself and his team-mates to return from the Euros with a gold medal hanging around his neck.
A European silver medal winner in 2011, the Lytham lad revealed the success that they enjoyed in Germany last month was the greatest achievement of his career to date.
“It was hugely satisfying,” said Pearson, who is moving into a new home next week with his girlfriend Charlotte.
“For me, it was the cherry on my cake in terms of my career so far.
“I started my international career when I was 18 by winning a silver medal at the Euros.
“Then to take some time out, then come back and star the final against Sweden; To win it, it felt like I had come full circle.
“Especially with everything which has happened with the funding cuts and also we went into the tournament not as the favourites.
“So it was a great moment to win the gold medal.”
Despite the funding set-back, the former St Bede’s Catholic High School pupil is still eager to continue with his career at the highest level – his determination built on a lifetime coping with a major disability.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “I went to a mainstream school and naturally when you go through school, the majority of disabled kids go through that stage of bullying.
“But as you get older , you kind of just take it as par for the course.
“I was quite lucky getting involved at rugby at the age of 15. I went into a team full of grown men and they gave me the support I needed and I was able to join in the banter.
“I think being bullied has given me a sense of toughness and that has helped me in my sporting career.
“I think wheelchair rugby has also given me back that extra bit of grit which you need. I certainly give as good as I get.”
If you would like to sponsor Myles Pearson, please contact him on: [email protected]