“Originally I wanted to be the fastest 100 metre guy, but it turns out I’m one of the fastest 400 and 800 metre guys.”
I’m meeting Rich Chiassaro on a beautiful warm and sunny summer’s evening at Mark Hall athletics ground. I arrive to find him sat on the edge of the track, chatting with Active Essex Foundation team mate Paul.
His records are glittering. Rich is a GB T54 wheelchair sprinter. He is currently the British record holder for 200, 400, 800 and 1500m, European record holder for 400, 800 and 1500m and in May he claimed the world record over 800m (it got broken the weekend before our meeting).
But in spite of all the records, he’s brilliantly down to earth and friendly. He’s proudly sporting his GB shirt but there’s no entourage or rules about our meet, in fact it was Rich who arranged for us to meet at the track and train with him.
He jokes with us as we join him around the track, first on foot and then on the bike although he’s quick to tell us that his world record pace is around 25mph and his coach in Loughborough needs a carbon fibre bike to keep up with him. My 9.2mph 400m run effort isn’t going to test him anytime soon, even though I have to tap out after one lap!
He also takes time out to chat with my kids who have come along to watch, even getting them into the wheelchairs he’s made available so they can have a go at wheelchair basketball (my 7-year-old is immediately hooked) and speaking openly with them about how he moves around given he cannot use his legs.
It’s clearly track night, since around 50 children and teenagers are already busy warming up for Tuesday night training.
Whilst the track is a little tired, the car park is full. Throughout our interview and training it’s clear it’s the place to be on a Tuesday evening, with pockets of activity taking place in every available space.
It’s inspiring! Not just to see wheelchair athletes training alongside able bodied athletes but to see so much activity, camaraderie and commitment going on in one little pocket of Essex.
KL: When did you first start racing?
RC: In 2009. My friend’s mum invited me to come down to the club to help coach some of the disabled kids. I’d played basketball for a long time and I’m quite quick in a basketball chair. When I tried racing I thought it would be easy because I’m quick in a basketball chair but it’s far from easy. The type of training you need to do to be a wheelchair racer at a top level is tough.
KL: What’s your training schedule like?
RC: I do between 80 and 120-130 miles per week. On the road, on the track and in the gym.
KL: What are the differences between wheelchair basketball and sprinting?
RC: Basketball is short sharp movements, controlling a ball and working with a team but on the track I’m on my own, so decisions are down to me. I wanted to be the fastest. Originally I wanted to be the fastest 100 metre guy, but it turns out I’m one of the fastest 400 and 800 metre guys.
KL: How did it feel to get your world record?
RC: It was amazing. I didn’t think it was going to be that fast but I got out to the front and held it. I crossed the line at 1.30.35. Unfortunately it’s just been broken again, so I’ve got to go out again this weekend and try to break it. All the guys who are competing in that 800metres event are improving the sport. The American went sub 1.30 the other day so we’ve got to up our game.
KL: Why are you backing the 30:30 Challenge?
RC: Everyone should do some sport of some kind just to have a healthy lifestyle. Hopefully after the 30 days they’ll carry it on.
KL: What could we do to encourage more people to get active in Essex?
RC: You need to find a club and join in. We could do with more clubs in Essex. There aren’t many wheelchair racing clubs and there are only a few coaches in Essex, we’re lacking a lot of coaches.
KL: Do you still get to play basketball?
RC: Basketball’s my favourite sport. I love the team element of it, I love the contact and the crashing. I love that. You meet a lot of people when you play sport but I’m not allowed to play anymore because of the risk of injury.
Rich loves to visit local schools, to talk openly about disability sports, being a Paralympian and to and teach others to play wheelchair sports. We wish him every success in reclaiming that world record.