Paul Cartwright was born with spina bifida, a condition where the spine and spinal cord does not develop properly, leaving a gap in the spine. He started wheelchair racing in 1978 and competed at the 1984 Paralympic Games in the first ever wheelchair marathon for which he achieved the British record.

Paul Cartwright competing in wheelchair racing on the athletics track

Early Life

"All my life I have been brought up to believe I am not different. My parents deliberately brought me up to be as able-bodied as possible. I originally went to a 'special school' and then was moved to an ordinary school and all my mates there were all able-bodied; I wasn’t interested in being labelled a disabled kid. I used to play football with my mates. Of course, I say ‘play’ football; I was always the goalie in my wheelchair. I really used to get riled when people would say things like, ‘You can’t do that; you shouldn’t do that’. It just made me want to go out and prove them wrong."

I wanted to be treated for what I am, for what I can do and to be judged by my abilities rather than my disability. In those days people did tend to judge a book by its cover.

Paul attended the Hollybank Trust school in Lindley, Huddersfield between the ages of four and 10, before moving on to the mainstream Newsome High School in Huddersfield.

Life as a Paralympic Athlete

"I was determined to do well at something and though I loved history, I was not an academic success at school. I went to BDSA athletics championship with Yorkshire Schools around 1978.  I started to make a bit of a reputation, and a chap called Morris Hallas used to run the Kirklees Disabled Sports Association came to my School to recruit me to the Association. I’ve always been a fisherman and I asked if they did fishing, and he said they did even though they didn’t in order to get me involved. 

I competed in my first international event as part of the GB Team in 1981 at the International Stoke Mandeville Games, and then I really started concentrating on my training for wheelchair racing.

Back then you had to find the money and the sponsorship yourself. I did a sponsored 9-mile wheelchair push in an old Everest and Jennings chair from Batley to Huddersfield to raise money for my new sports wheelchair, it absolutely poured with rain, the sort of rain that bounces off the road, and it was tough going in those chairs. 

I made a point of joining an able-bodied athletics club, at Spenborough, West Yorkshire to train. The reason for this was that I had already realised I needed some professional athletic coaching on a full-time basis – rather than just at squad training weekends, every 6 weeks. In Spenborough, I had coaching every week night in the gym. You have to remember I was working full-time as well, working for Kirklees Leisure Services. 

Of course, it wasn’t that easy in 1981, because no one had ever considered taking on a disabled athlete, in fact prior to joining the athletics club, I had initially been refused access to the club, because of fears that my wheelchair would damage the track.

In 2012 I briefly returned to sport when I found there was a lack of big power lifters. So, I turned my hand to that with a view to getting to London 2012, helped by Anthony Peddle and for a short time I was the UK Power lifting champion, but I have to admit there were no real competitors, but because of my age I couldn’t get to the Games. I was benching nearly 200 kilos as in my earlier years."


"When I was selected for the British Olympic team in 1984, I had already put four years of my life into it. I was 19, just turning 20. And then when we all heard that we weren’t going to Illinois it was simply the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me in my life. We all thought nothing was going to happen. It was just heart-breaking."

But then the Games moved to Stoke Mandeville at the last minute. I’d been selected to do a job and as it turned out it couldn’t have been a better place: to be selected to represent your country at anything, is a great honour, but to compete for your own country in front of your home crowd, at such an important event, as the Paralympics is absolutely unbelievable and emotional. I qualified for the 100 metres final; I didn’t win, I came 5th; but it was just such a fantastic experience. Twenty-six years later I still get very emotional just thinking about it. To be glorified in sport is just one of the greatest things that can happen to anyone.

Paul Cartwright

Sports wheelchair used in the 1984 Games, made by Bromakin Wheelchairs

The foot rest was too high so I had a new version built which was more of a V shape to cut down wind resistance. It moved my centre of gravity forward to give me more power to push.

"One strong memory is competing in racing at the World Championships in Sweden 1986. It was very expensive out there, and of course we were funding ourselves and I desperately needed more money and it was not easy to organise such a thing in those days. Luckily, we had brilliant support team and Jean Stone, involved in the Games since 1960 worked her magic to ensure I got some."

3 wheeler sports wheelchair prototype made for Paul Cartwright in 1986.

3 wheeler sports wheelchair prototype made in 1986 by Jackson Cycles in Leeds

"Despite my successes and outward drive, I had a real fear of failure that I believe held me back. Today with sports psychologists there is help to get athletes in the right mental state. ‘Sporting Body Sporting Mind’ was a book I read at the time, that gave me the appearance of confidence that I didn’t really have."

Retirement as a Paralympic Athlete

"I competed up until 1987, when I burnt my foot very seriously, I had no feeling in it and fell asleep in front of a fire. I had to take a break to recover from the injury, got married and divorced and came back in 1990 briefly to compete in the National Paraplegic Games and won the pentathlon.

I retired after 1990, and with my love of fishing became the organiser of the Regional Office for the Disabled Course Fishing for the North East on behalf of what was the National Federation of Anglers. As a Team we won two national championships."

Today I stick to my early love, fishing.

In 2012 Paul carried the Paralympic Flame on a lap of honour around the Leeds Road Playing Fields in Huddersfield. In the same year he became an ambassador for Hollybank School (his first school) and in 2013 participated in the Great Yorkshire Bike Ride, using a specialist hand-cycle adaptation for his wheelchair, to raise money for the Hollybank Trust.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

At the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympic Summer Games he competed in the Class 4 100m, 200m, 400m and marathon. He was the first British Paralympic wheelchair racer to reach the 100m final and, in the first ever wheelchair marathon, he took the British record with a time of 2 hours 41 minutes and 57 seconds.

A display of Paul Cartwrights Paralympic medals, sports kit, photos.

Exhibition display of Paul's Paralympic medals, sports kit, programmes and photos

Other sporting events

Over his career Paul held all the British records in all distances, but he left the middle distances to people like Mark Agar. The 100m, 200m and 400m were his realm,

The middle-distance boys knew that if I was still with them at 200m to go they had a race on their hands.

Including power-lifting and fishing Paul has amassed more than 80 national and international medals.

Oral history interview with Paul

Interview by Dr Rosemary Hall, 3rd November 2020

Paul talks about his early life and how his parents encouraged him, how he got involved in sport and went on to compete in wheelchair racing.  You can listen to the full interview below or download the transcript.