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Grassroots to Glory - Cheavon Clarke

Cheavon is the 'comeback kid', and he's only just turned 30.

As a man who has survived two near-death experiences Cheavon Clarke chuckles at the label ‘the comeback kid’ - but only because he is just turned 30.

Clarke’s journey from Jamaica’s Montego Bay to Tokyo has taken the long and winding road, which is sorting of fitting for a boxer who, disillusioned, quit his sport just seven years ago to become a long-distance lorry driver.

Indeed, among the slew of Olympic-themed ‘how it started / how it is going’ posts on social media you will see in the days ahead, Clarke’s is a tale worth telling, a Team GB backstory deserving of a podium place. Aged eight he fell from a ladder, impaling himself on a spike. As medics battled to save his life, Clarke’s mother convinced herself her son had died. Another medical miracle followed when, just a decade later, he survived a burst appendix—despite his vitals flatlining during the desperate operation that followed.

Clarke, who only took up boxing aged 19, competed for Jamaica at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow before leaving the ring for life on the road.

It was only the persistent nagging of long-time coaches Len Trusty and Jason Weeks that forced him to pull on the gloves again, with a switch of allegiance to Great Britain leading to Clarke’s Olympic debut in the heavyweight class this summer.

“It’s my story but there’s a lot of people behind it,” says Clarke, one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding on UK’s Sport’s World Class Programme, allowing him to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. Len, Jason and I, we’ve got a pack. I would not be an Olympian without them, no question, they are the family you need in this sport.

“I know they’d go to the end of the world and back for me, nothing is too much trouble and my trust for them is total. Whatever is happening in my life, they are the first people I call. When I got my first car and crashed it, I rang Jason before my mum, they aren’t like coaches but best friends.”

Amir Khan was just 17 when he won boxing silver in Athens and Anthony Joshua a youthful 22 when he struck gold at London 2012. But Clarke prefers to take his inspiration from other 'old boys' - fellow heavyweights like Audley Harrison, who was 29 when he won in Sydney, and Joe Joyce, aged 30 when robbed of gold in Rio.

Indeed, Olympic and Paralympic sport in the UK has transformed over the past two decades, thanks to investment from National Lottery players, and Clarke hopes to be part of that success story.

"I like the boxers who have to hustle, work the other jobs and take the tough road, levelling themselves up, never settling, keeping striving," he adds. Every athlete takes their own journey, that's what makes the Olympics special. Everyone has the same goal; everyone has taken a different route there."

Clarke even believes the time he spent out of the ring has made him sharper, hungrier, and saved the toll on his body that ends many a career too soon. Perhaps life does begin at 30 after all?

"I loved those couple of years on the road, working hard, making honest money and not being a slave to my trade. It was fun, I always think that whatever happens, if things don't go right, I'll be right back in that lorry and be really happy. I know boxing has the reputation for being all about the money - the big pro fights and making millions.I think I've got perspective about money - it's about being happy in what you do, which is why I loved my lorry job. Offer me a million pounds now or an Olympic gold and I'd be nope - give me that medal!

I know I can beat anybody in the world - now I've just got to do it. I know it would change my life but I also want it to change the life of a whole new generation of boxers too. If I can come from this tiny place in Jamaica that no-one knows, live all these experiences and become Olympic champion - it's a perfect story."
The entrepreneurial spirit has always run strong in Clarke, who shared many tales of his 'side hustles' - from selling chocolate to school friends to starting his own clothing business, Level Up Nation, taking orders directly and managing stock and distribution in spare time between training.Born and raised in rural Jamaica, Clarke moved to England in the winter of 2002, becoming the first Black child in his school and discovering he could fight after an altercation with a racist bully.But football was the youngster’s only sporting passion until his first fateful trip to a boxing gym—and a chance encounter with Weeks.“He told me, ‘You can be a champion’,” he adds. When Clarke steps into the ring in the days ahead, his long-haul story can come full circle.

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