St Mary’s School welcomed two time Paralympic champion, James Fox for a special assembly and PE lesson last Wednesday.
James opened the assembly with the story of his journey from Peterborough Rowing Club to the Paralympics. Having started rowing at 11, James was selected to compete for the GB Rowing Team as a junior. However, whilst at university, he broke his back in a car accident and was unable to train fully for two years. James went on to row for the GB Para-rowing squad, winning three consecutive World Championships from 2013-2015 in the PR3 mixed coxed four. This success continued to the Paralympic Games, with James winning a gold medal in the PR3 mixed coxed four at both the 2016 Rio Paralympics and the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Both gold medals accompanied him to St Mary’s, and much to the children’s delight, were passed around the room.
The students were bursting with questions for James, from classics such as ‘who is your favourite rower?’ (to which he responded that it had to be Sir Steve Redgrave), to some more niche rowing-related interrogation (‘in a pair, can you go square blades, outside arms only, feet out, into a head wind?’)
One student asked James if he thought he would ever win anything after he broke his back, to which he responded, “I thought that was the end. I’d had a successful career from 11 to 18, if you can call it a career at that point. I’d enjoyed some racing, I got my first GB cap at 16 and I rowed for GB a few times after that. But once I broke my back, I thought that was game over. I didn’t row at all for a year, and it takes you to some dark places. It wasn’t easy, but with a good team around you — I know your teachers here are incredible — you can achieve great things. It was more my team than anything that got my through.”
Another student asked James what inspired him to start rowing in the first place. James answered, “I watched the 2004 Olympics when I was 12. I had already started rowing, but that was my real spark moment that ignited the flame inside of me that really wanted to do well. I watched the rowing specifically, and I saw Matt Pinsent and his band of merry men winning gold again, for the fifth or sixth time in that boat class, and I thought why do they get to have all the fun? Why can’t I be there as well? That’s what made me want to row hard and get my first GB cap.”
James said after the assembly that he was impressed with the questions he was asked by the children. He commented, “Sometimes I get ‘what’s your favourite colour’, and ‘what does your dad do’, and things like that, but they were really good. They were thought provoking. They’re a really nice bunch of kids, and I think they’ll go far. They’re really good at rowing as well!”
The students were able to demonstrate their rowing prowess in a special PE lesson with James, where he coached them on their ergo technique. Using two ergos loaned by Henley Rowing Club, the children were given expert tuition from James whilst being cheered on by their fellow classmates.
Speaking about why he accepted the invitation to St Mary’s, James said, “I take up an opportunity like this whenever I can, really. I think it’s important to try and give back a little bit. When I was 11 years old and started rowing in Peterborough, I didn’t really know what was out there and I think it’s important for these guys to know that if you work hard, you can achieve in whatever you choose to do — it doesn’t have to be sport, though I’d love it to be.”
He continued, “I think the biggest thing that will hold these kids back is bravery, and I think it’s important to go out there and be confident that you can achieve what you want to achieve. Hopefully, today will go some way towards making them believe that.”
St Mary’s Headteacher, Rob Harmer, said about James’ visit, “It feels amazing having a Paralympian in school and I think, with what James said about the journey he has come on, it’s truly inspiring not only for the children but for the staff. It just demonstrates that that message is so important, that they can be whoever they want to be as long as they put in the hard work and perseverance and determination. If they’ve got that goal and they can strive for it, then they will really achieve. It’s just been wonderful to have him in and I’m so grateful.”