Write Up: From Playground to Podium
On the 18th of March, we were honoured to have Naomi Riches, OBE talking as part of Naidex Virtual. Naomi will be well-known to many people as the Paralympic athlete who (along with her teammates) won the gold medal for adaptive rowing in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. At Naidex Virtual, she gave us the story of her life and her success in the hopes of inspiring people who may have been made to feel like they can’t be successful due to their disabilities.
She opened with a quote from the US organisation, Easter Seals: “The worst thing about disability is that people see it, before they see you.” Naomi has found this to be very true to life, with people not knowing what to say when they encounter her or often even making awkward or uncomfortable remarks. Today, she feels that her disability is relatively invisible, but this hasn’t always been the case...
Growing up Registered Blind
Growing up, other people, particularly other children, made Naomi feel like an outcast. She was young, creative and enthusiastic, but whenever she wanted to try something new, people often responded in the same way: “You can’t because...” and that sentence was one that had lots of different endings:
You can’t because we don’t have the facilities
You can’t because it’s not safe
You can’t because you’re not clever enough
Over time she came to the cold, hard realisation that what all of these people really meant was “You can’t because you’re Registered Blind.” That kind of treatment really takes a toll on someone and Naomi didn’t want to be defined by the fact that she was Registered Blind, she just wanted to be seen for who she was, to be treated like any other little girl.
She has one particular memory of a school photo day. Naomi was insistent that she not wear her tinted glasses for her photograph, because they’d set her apart from the other students. She knew that, once again, people would be defining her based on the fact that she is Registered Blind and she wanted her disability to be invisible. So they went ahead and let her have her photo taken without the glasses on.
One problem: when the photo came out, her right eye was looking at her nose. She remembered thinking to herself that no matter what she did, she’d always look different to everybody else. She felt terrible. Nobody likes to be defined by things which are beyond their control, least of all a growing child who’s still trying to find their place in the world.
PE lessons were some of the most difficult times for her as well. She explained the way she sees the world: in black and white, incredibly blurry and with very poor depth perception. This meant that all of the ‘traditional’ sports like rugby, rounders, football and so on, were not really possible for her. She couldn’t judge the speed at which objects were headed towards her, so any sport that involved a ball was pretty much off the table. Hurdles were a nightmare as well. Who would have thought, during those early, difficult PE lessons, that she’d one day find huge success in sports...
The area in which she really excelled was art, but rather than celebrate her success and creativity, people would say “You’re meant to be blind, how come you’re better at art than we are?” and she couldn’t answer that question. All she knew was that she loved listening to audiobooks at home and filling up thousands of sketch books with her artwork.
The end of her school career
When the time came for Naomi to leave school, she’d endured years of people belittling her and only seeing her as Registered Blind, rather than as a unique, creative person with her own thoughts and feelings. All teenagers experience some element of self-doubt, and Naomi felt this so much more intensely.
She can remember the day of her GCSE celebration evening – a memory which is sure to be warm and nostalgic for many, but Naomi’s thoughts of that evening leave a bitter taste. Her form tutor, somebody who is supposed to nurture and encourage the students she works with, was heard to remark, “That’s the blind girl from my class. Unfortunately, we have to have girls like that in our school.”
She hadn’t even used her name. To this person, Naomi was Registered Blind and nothing more. A “blind girl” who, for whatever discriminatory reason, the tutor didn’t even believe deserved a place at the school. The school only accepted students like her because they “had” to.
But this disgusting remark evoked something in Naomi. In her own words: “It somehow awakened this spark, this fire. A little fire in my belly of, I somehow am going to prove to you, to the world, to all the doubters, to all the bullies that I am worth something.” and that little spark, it seems, never stopped burning...
The burning spark
Following her time in compulsory education, Naomi was left with the burning desire to stop people from defining her based on her disability. She did an art foundation year and went on to study silversmithing metal work. Her father was an engineer and the two of them enjoyed making things together. She loved doing this – it was an outlet for her creativity and something she felt supported in.
Then one day, in her second year, the trajectory of her life was altered dramatically. Naomi was cleaning the kitchen (she quipped that she remembers this because students never clean the kitchen) when she received a phone call from a man named Simon. He asked her if she wanted to row for the Great Britian Adaptive Rowing Team.
That felt very out of the blue, but someone had recommended her to them. As a tall woman who was Registered Blind, she ticked all the right boxes. It felt very weird, but she decided to go for it. After all, how many people get the opportunity to row for their country just like that?
What made this experience particularly cathartic for her was the fact that after all those years of people telling her “You can’t because you’re Registered Blind.” Now someone was actually telling her “You can because you’re Registered Blind.”
On to the World Rowing Championships
In 2004, Naomi went to the World Rowing Championships for the first time. Despite how far she’d come, at this point in her career she still felt like a little bit of a novice. Regardless, this was a wonderful experience for her and something which was endlessly exciting.
Winning the gold medal for these championships was a tremendous experience and what made it all the better is that she finally felt like people were accepting her for who she was and not defining her by the fact that she is Registered Blind. The team loved and appreciated her for her humour, her warmth, her ability to make delicious brownies and so many other personal qualities. It meant so much to her.
Her success at the World Rowing Championships didn’t go unnoticed and in 2005 she and her team won the bid to go to Beijing in order to participate in a new Paralympic sport. This was the first time that Adaptive Rowing was done as part of the Paralympics and so this meant that everybody around the world was going to be stepping up their game. The next steps in her path to international success were going to be challenging...
The Paralympic Games
Everything changed when Naomi was preparing for the Paralympic Games. While Simon had coached her on a volunteer basis before, she now had a full-time paid coach. She found herself receiving so much support in various ways:
With the added support in these areas, she was able to improve her athletic ability even further. Plus, the amount of kit she received to participate in the Paralympic games was crazy – she still has boxes of it at her house to this day!
When they went to Beijing, they were an unbeaten team. They were the best in their field. It felt wonderful to have been able to do something so incredible because of her disability, rather than in spite of it. When they got to the finals, they made it to the podium, but the result was disappointing... The bronze medal.
Of course, a Paralympic bronze medal is an enormous accomplishment on its own, but Naomi had come this far and was determined that she would one day win the gold. It also comforted her to think that the reason she hadn’t won the gold at Beijing was nothing to do with being Registered Blind. She wasn’t being held back and she had the confidence to keep trying. She resolved to work better as a team so that they could achieve greater success in future.
In 2010, Naomi came across another Paralympic athlete. She began to develop a little bit of a rivalry with her, feeling almost like she was back in school again. She found herself comparing herself to her – that person is better than me, that person is prettier than me, that person has achieved more than me and so on.
At the New Zealand Rowing Championships in 2010, the two of them competed on the world stage. She beat Naomi. By half a second. This was a tough defeat to process, particularly because she had been beat by just a hair’s breadth. Half a second is such a miniscule amount of time and because of this, her ability to take part in the London Paralympic Games in 2012 was being jeopardised.
Naomi had to return to her local squad, but even then she remained confident that she’d one day win that coveted Paralympic gold medal. Quitting was not an option, so she got herself a new coach. As it turns out, her new coach had never worked with anybody with a disability before so it was a learning experience for them, but just as the coach learned a lot from Naomi, Naomi also learned a lot from them. Being open to learning and trying to understand one another was key to their successful working relationship.
Over the next couple of years, she worked as hard as she could, trying to continuously improve her abilities and cut down her times. Eventually, she found herself preparing for a rematch with the athlete who had beaten her by half a second previously. This was it. Make or break time.
As it happens, she won. Rather than losing by half a second, this time she won by five and a half seconds. It was a tremendous victory and it meant that she would now need to start preparing for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
London 2012 Paralympic Adaptive Rowing
Naomi believes that one of the biggest keys to success is working well as a team unit. She and the rest of the Adaptive Rowing team got on wonderfully and worked together very well. They understood each other's abilities and disabilities and worked around them accordingly. They recognised the limitations each of them faced, not just in sense of disabilities but in the way each of them thought and acted and the things which they were sensitive to. When you recognise each other's strengths as well as each other's weaknesses, you can really support one another.
On that day in 2012, the team went home with the gold medal for Adaptive Rowing. Not only was this a life changing experience for Naomi, and for every other member of the team, but she believes that the 2012 Paralympic Games really helped to change the public perception of people who have disabilities. A record 2.7 million tickets were sold for the 2012 Paralympic games and those who went saw phenomenal human beings doing incredible things. The athletes weren’t defined or held back by their disabilities; they were defined by the extraordinary feats that they achieved.
Today, it's comforting for Naomi to think back on the girl she once was. That little spark within her never went away and turned into a roaring fire which allowed her to achieve incredible things. She’d been made to feel that she needed to prove her worth, that somehow, she wasn’t inherently worth something just because she was Registered Blind. Even though she was undeniably worth something even as a little girl, she’s now proven that worth to anybody who might have doubted or disregarded her in the past.
She also takes comfort in the fact that her disability feels much more invisible now than it did when she was a little girl, something she feels very lucky about. She joked that even she forgets that she’s disabled sometimes. She no longer feels as though she is constantly being defined by the fact that she is Registered Blind, though she does still encounter ignorance from time to time. She gave a few examples of awkward comments made by people she has encountered:
“It’s not that bright in here,” said a man in a supermarket, in reference to her tinted glasses.
“Oh, I know someone with a visual impairment!” is something she hears a lot.
“Can you get them fixed? Oh, that’s a shame.” is another common one.
“What’s a beautiful girl like you doing with one of these?” asked a bus driver after seeing her disabled bus pass."
“Let me know if you need any help.”
That last one may seem to be innocent enough to some people, but the phrasing often sounds as though the person saying it believes that Naomi is less capable than anybody else. She recommends that people wishing to be supportive should just say “Let me know if you need anything” as they’d say to anybody else – and that’s a key takeaway. She wants to be treated she like anybody else. She doesn’t want to be patronised and she doesn’t want pity. She doesn’t consider it a “shame” that she is Registered Blind, because that has enabled her to do amazing things. If given the choice, she wouldn’t change a thing.
Naomi hopes that this will help people without disabilities to better understand the needs of people with disabilities. Her advice to those who don’t know how to support a person with disabilities is to simply ask what they would prefer – every person is different, and you can’t make assumptions just because somebody belongs to a group.
Though these statements can be frustrating, she always tries to approach them with understanding. Rarely are they made maliciously, it’s almost always just a case of ignorance. She hopes that each time something like this happens to her, she can teach the ignorant person something, help them to better understand the experience of living with a disability.
Naomi brought her talk to a close, just as she opened it, with a quote, this time from David Brinkley: “A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others have thrown at them.”
“Whatever your gold medal may be,” she said, “I really believe that you can get it.”
Naomi’s talk is available to watch on demand until the 19th of April! Be sure to give it a watch for scenes from Naomi’s Paralympic career and lots of other extra details. Watch it now!