Grassroots to Glory - Oliver Lam-Watson
From a Spartan Race to the Paralympics...
The question would stump even Paralympics founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann: what do you do with your popular YouTube channel when you need to completely commit to the Games?
It’s been 61 years since Rome 1960, where wheelchair fencing was one of eight sports on the programme for the first international Paralympic Games – attended by 400 athletes from 23 countries. Six decades later, it’s one of 22 featured at the marquee multi-sport event set to welcome 4,400 athletes to Japan.
Oliver Lam-Watson, from South London, is among the ParalympicsGB contingent in the mix for one of the most traditional medals in Tokyo, but the 28-year-old’s entry point was quintessentially contemporary: he found his sport on Google.
“My journey is a bit unorthodox, I hope that’s ok,” begins the épée swordsman, who has ‘DO MORE’ tattooed on his forearm.
“I loved to watch sport. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch the Olympics and stuff, and my auntie told me recently, I don’t remember this, but when I was about nine I was watching wheelchair racing at the Paralympics and I said to her, ‘Could I do that?’ But I always felt there was a gap between these amazing heroes that were on screen and me as a young, disabled person growing up. So that’s why I try to do a lot of social media, to show behind the scenes, to be more approachable, to show the journey and almost humanise myself.”
Nonconformist Oliver would probably balk at the term ‘influencer’, but he does fit the description. The Dulwich native’s – temporarily paused – YouTube channel has over 6,700 subscribers, who tune in to watch the athlete candidly discuss his complicated relationship with perceptions of disability and traditional masculinity or – with a healthy dash of humour – answer frequently asked questions about driving and running.
In 2019, he was invited to give a TED talk at London’s Barbican Centre.
“It was the biggest public speaking audience I’d ever stood in front of…I was pretty much bricking it,” he captioned a throwback post.
“But it’s something I’m super proud of,” adding his life’s mantra, “always push your limits.”
At first glance, the fencer’s Instagram feed, with nearly 8,800 followers, looks like most Millennials’. The keen photographer packs a camera for every competition, ready at a moment’s notice for the one-arm handstands he favours performing in front of famous monuments. There are numerous skateboard shots – zooming down the street in Scotland, on the airport tarmac en route to a meet, down the back alleys of Oxford Street – alongside workout snaps, self-portraits, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
Oliver is the sort of person equally at home at a gallery as he is at the Games, though creativity came first. It’s what led him to qualify as an architect, so his feed features stunning sketches too. But look more closely at the athlete’s social media and you begin to appreciate how he’s trying to achieve something bigger. Captions range from behind-the-scenes descriptions of the graft that goes into training, including honest admissions about motivation when the going gets tough—and the not-feeling-so tough early morning freezing water swims or gruelling workouts.
There’s a post admonishing people who doubt blue-badge holders and another encouraging open dialogue around mental health. And no matter what the adventure or activity, Oliver is accompanied by the crutches that have been a ubiquitous presence since age eight, when his Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, affecting his left leg, worsened.
These days, they are simply a feature of a life the athlete now sees as limitless—provided he puts in the hard work. He hopes his candid creative endeavours will help others feel the same about their own potential. After all, it wasn’t always this way.
“As a kid I hated sport, I hated sport,” he recalled.
“It was always something that really highlighted my difference, showcased my kind of lack of ability. So I always strayed away from it as much as I could. It’s why I don’t really like being told what I can and can’t do.”
It started with a Spartan Race. Oliver’s friend Josh Ritchie, then a personal trainer, suggested his mate give them a go. Growing up, Josh remembers, Oliver would not always tell the truth when asked about his crutches.
“It would be like skiing accident, cricket problem, ice skating, all manner of random excuses. I knew that wasn’t the case, but I just kind of let him go with it,” said Ritchie, who has known his close mate for two decades."
Even at university, admitted Oliver, “I told everyone I was getting better soon.”
It was only after graduation that Oliver came to Josh looking for a new challenge. He wanted to get into shape. The trainer gave his friend a programme, “and he stuck to it completely. Absolutely smashed it out of the park, and wanted to keep pushing.”
So Josh invited Oliver to join him on a few Spartan Races, a series of intense obstacle courses comprised of challenges like fire jumps and mud crawls.
“He loved it,” said Josh. “It really became a situation where he wanted to push against the grain of what people thought he was able to do. [The races] give you a sense of identity and push you into a new realm of perspective of what you’re capable of.”
No more made-up mishaps. The kid who hated sport had completely transformed into a bona-fide athlete and wanted to keep testing his limits. But there was a problem. A sports doctor told Oliver what he did “wasn’t really a sport.”
“I was kind of annoyed,” he said. “So I sat in a café that night Googling Paralympic sports, [thinking] these are official sports that athletes do. There’s no way anyone can take that away from me.”
Wheelchair fencing appealed, so, he continued: “I called up every fencing club in London. “One said OK. I really twisted their arm. I said give me a coach. I want to push this 100 per cent.”
Oliver committed the rest of his gap year to training. Six months later, he was selected for his first World Cup in Hungary, dyeing his hair an Andre Agassi-inspired bleach blonde for the occasion. Knowing he wasn’t going to beat everyone on skill or tactics, Oliver explained, he insisted on at least having the upper hand in self-expression. He “got absolutely spanked – it was a real wake-up call.”
He persevered, winning his first individual medal, an epee bronze, in 2018, then team foil silver in Warsaw. A world bronze followed at the worlds the next year, Great Britain’s first global team podium.
Oliver was put on UK Sport’s World Class Programme in 2020, just before Covid hit, becoming one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. He trained religiously throughout lockdown. In June, he officially became a Paralympian.
“I put my head in my hands and I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “I was asking my coach, ‘are you serious?’. I took a walk after that, and just had a little blubber."
"I’m an absolute kit fiend,” he added. “I lost my mind when it arrived.”
True to character, Oliver’s favourite item is arguably the least conventional, but the one that speaks volumes about the present moment.
“I was really excited about the face masks with ParalympicsGB on them,” said Oliver, who is acutely aware the fortunes of ParalympicsGB have transformed over the past two decades with the boost of National Lottery funding.
“They’re significant to the 2020 Games. You get t-shirts and trainers from every Games, but you don’t get a mask. [It] marks it historically, that this will be the first one with a face mask in the kit. That was really cool to receive. That nice little memento of what we’ve all had to struggle and go through.”
Adding, the artist in him ever-present, “I love the retro look to it. It’s wicked.”
DO MORE, the Paralympian’s wrist reads. What could possibly come next?
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk; and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen