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Grassroots to Glory - Jude Hamer

Watch out Tom Daley, there's a new knitter in Tokyo!

Jude Hamer, ParalympicsGB

When Britons look back on Tokyo 2020, they will no doubt recall tuning in to find comfort in stars of yore, predictably filling the highlight reels like classic constellations. Comets will have emerged too, glittering glimpses of what’s to come in Paris and beyond.   

But perhaps, more than anything, they will remember the knitting. Tom Daley brought his to Tokyo and claimed it helped him become an Olympic champion. Jude Hamer is now keen to emulate the diver’s prowess in podiums and purling when she arrives in Japan, looking for GB’s first Paralympic medal in women’s wheelchair basketball.    

“I’m taking knitting with me,” confirmed the crafty athlete. “I’m not as good as Tom is, I’ve only made a couple of things. I’m going to see if I can start another jumper [in Tokyo] but we’ll see how far I get.   The movement is distracting. I like that you have a pattern, you follow it, and something comes out the other end.”   

Her childhood was far less predictable. Hamer was born with Proximal Focal Femoral Deficiency (PFFD) a condition in which the thigh bone closest to the hip is too short or not fully developed, resulting in a person’s legs growing to different lengths.   

Now 30, she had “countless” surgeries — going in, but never knowing what was going to happen when she came out the other end. Finally,Jude had enough. At 15, she made the decision to have her leg amputated so she could wear a prosthetic.    

“[PFFD] made me feel quite different,” she explained. “I just didn’t really know where I fitted in. My surgery was getting too complicated and I just wasn’t happy anymore.    [After the amputation] I felt like I could say yes to opportunities because I fit into the disabled community more.”   

In Jude’s case, opportunity didn’t knock so much as bounce. A teacher knew about a wheelchair basketball club, Exeter Otters, and suggested the teen give it a go. Though she went to a sports specialist college, Hamer “never really felt like sport was for [her]” but agreed to go check it out.    

“I just walked in and immediately loved it,” she said.    
“You go in, everybody is just getting involved, and it didn’t matter what disability you had. Men, women, young, old, it doesn’t matter.    Everyone was just in a chair, and it’s just a real leveller.   It was fast and aggressive. I can’t run, I’ve never been able to do any of that, so to find a way for me to have that freedom as a kid, to be quick and to not worry about falling over, it was very liberating.”   

Lord’s Taverners got in touch to say they were looking for a female athlete to support in Devon—and Jude got her first basketball wheelchair.    

Then another bit of luck. Clare Griffiths, one of the GB squad, happened to be in the stands one day. She was impressed by the 16-year-old from Exeter.   

Jude said: “I went home and told my parents this woman had asked me to come and play for her team. So they just put me on a train up to Aylesbury every other weekend, and just kind of went, ‘Well, I hope she comes home again because we don’t know this woman.’”   

Dad, Dan Hamer, though hesitant at first, was ultimately glad he agreed. They’d drive to Bristol services, where Jude would transfer cars to a team-mate’s like a human baton in a road trip relay.

“The senior players absolutely made it possible for Judith to properly engage and get where she is now,” he said.    

"Without their support, even though they knew that in some ways, they were supporting the people that were going to replace them in the squad.   It was inspirational, because it was selfless.”

Jude Hamer, British Wheelchair Basketball

Clare would go on to represent Great Britain in five Paralympics. One day, in 2008, Clare told Jude she couldn’t give her a ride to the train station as usual – she had to be at GB camp, but Hamer could tag along if the coach had no objections. He didn’t.   

So instead of a lift, “I got myself invited to a GB camp,” said Hamer, laughing.    

“That was before Beijing, and [the coach] said, ‘you’ll go on the long list, but I’m not going to select you.’   And I was like, ‘Ok, I don’t know what Beijing is, really’. It was not my plan to even try out for that.   [But then] I watched what very little bits you could watch on red button of the Paralympics back then, and I realised that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to play with them.”   

A year later, she was. Jude earned her first GB vest in a friendly at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. Then, with a home Games looming, Hamer got the call: she was going to London 2012. The whole family came out to watch. Great Britain ultimately finished seventh, but the experience was one Jude will never forget.   

“It was really surreal,” she said. “It just wasn’t what I was expecting it to be.   I don’t think it would have mattered what we did, because everyone was just so proud of us.    People were just so excited to see us, to be around ParalympicsGB, and they’d support us regardless.”   

Jude has spoken openly about the mental health challenges that made Rio, where GB finished fourth, a more difficult Games.    

“Five years is a long time,” she said. “And I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to manage.   I think it takes a while to realise that mental health isn’t a linear thing. Depression doesn’t just go away.   You have to learn how to deal with that, and you won’t just get better, you have ups and downs.”   

Jude started seeing fellow Paralympian Lauren Rowles during lockdown and said having a partner who “completely clicks and just gets” her has also been a huge boost.   

Knitting isn’t the only thing Jude has in common with TOm Daley, who used his gold medal speech to inspire young LGBTQI+ athletes — she is also an outspoken advocate, working as an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ athletic advocacy group based in the US

“She’s very passionate,” said her father. “If she feels there’s an injustice, or she feels there’s a disregarded group, and not necessarily a group she’s in, then she’s always been very vocal.   She’s very keen on access issues and rights for people with more disability than herself. She’s very clear on LGBTQI+ rights, and actually understands that she’s in a little bit of a privileged place as a successful young woman, and I think she wants that for everybody.”   

Like every Paralympian, Jude also wants a medal. Gold, preferably. Perhaps more than any other Games, the 2018 world silver medallists are in a position to land GB women their first wheelchair basketball medal—or even top the podium.    

Jude is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, which allows her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. Since 2017, the squad have been training in their new National Lottery-funded Elite Training Centre in Sheffield, which has transformed the GB Wheelchair Basketball setup.

“We’re capable of [gold],” insists Jude.  “I get a little emotional just thinking about it now.   I’ll probably cry. I know that’s what I’ll do. It’s what I’ve always wanted, since Beijing, since watching the girls play out there.   Knowing were our sport’s come from, winning a medal for our programme would be insane.     We’re the most successful women’s team [GB has] ever had. And whatever colour [a medal] is, I would be immensely proud of us.”   

Needles down for now, then.    

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