Early life

Born on the 13th December 1960 in Middlesex, Peter Robert Norfolk had once wanted to join the Army but a motorcycle accident on Boxing Day in 1979 left him paraplegic as a result of a broken back and shoulder blades.

Recalling his school days Peter says:

Sport was very important to me when I was at school and growing up. When I was growing up I was playing football all the time; then I went to a different school and it was rugby, cricket and all sorts – and I played tennis as well, but particularly squash... so yeah, very important to me. I think it’s the foundation of what we do, it helps integration and socialisation and everything. I think whether you’re disabled or not it should be part of everyone’s life.

Peter Norfolk at the Japanese Open using an early three-wheel chair for wheelchair tennis in 1998

Life as a Paralympic athlete

He sees his move to Stoke Mandeville, soon after his motorbike accident, as "very lucky” and took the opportunity to try table tennis which he continued to play after leaving in a local league in Guildford and Woking and basketball which he played in Sussex.   

Peter was inspired to take up wheelchair tennis after watching a demonstration at Stoke Mandeville in 1990, which included Paralympic athlete, Jayant Mistry. In 2000, after Peter lost strength in his right arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist because of a C7 (hemi T4) complication he started to play in the Quad division of wheelchair tennis (for players affected in three or more limbs). His commitment was apparent in this statement:

I had to have my spine cut in half just to allow me to play. But I have a passion for tennis.

He went on to compete in the inaugural Quad Singles wheelchair tennis competition at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, winning the gold medal in Singles and the silver medal in Doubles. Peter defended his gold medal in Singles at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics and won the bronze in the Doubles.

In a 2011 interview with the Evening Standard, Peter, nicknamed 'The Quadfather', talked about the effort involved in playing wheelchair tennis, saying:

It takes someone in a wheelchair 40% more effort to play tennis than an able-bodied person. We've only got our arms and our shoulders. We are fitter than Nadal.

In his 2013 interview Peter recalls his experiences at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Games:

Athens was exciting….. it was my first Paralympics; obviously I’ve got great memories winning a gold and a silver….the four years leading up to Beijing, there was much more media anyway, there was more awareness, people wanted to know more. I also got recognised more because I’d won Britain’s first ever tennis gold medal….. I’d been into Beijing and done a reccy and walked around Beijing itself and even then the general public were still unused to people in wheelchairs – white people in wheel chairs. It was an exciting time, a very exciting time

At the London 2012 Paralympic Games Peter had the honour of leading the Great Britain team into the Opening Ceremony as the flagbearer before going on to win a silver medal in the Quad Doubles.

Peter Norfolk had the honour of leading the ParalympicGB team into the Opening Ceremony as the flagbearer at London 2012

© Getty Images

Recollections

Asked to reflect on his greatest moment, he says:  

It’s really difficult; the London Games, being asked to be flag bearer, which I was voted for by the other athletes - that was an honour. It was also the first opening ceremony that I’d actually been to. I didn’t go to the other two because they impacted on my game. Coming into the stadium with a 100,000 people in your home Games as flag, at the head of our athletes was an enormous achievement and I’m really proud to have been asked. Winning the first ever tennis gold medal, perhaps... But you know repeating the process in Beijing was also solidifying and confirming that it wasn’t just a one-off. So, it’s quite difficult to choose which is the best achievement; I don’t know. I’m proud of all of them now I’m coming off my competitive stage; I’m proud of all of them.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Peter announced his retirement from full-time tennis and the Tennis Foundation's performance programme in January 2013, to spend more time with his family and develop the business he established in 1989, originally named Equipment for the Physically Challenged and now known as EPC Wheelchairs Ltd.

In 2013 Peter said:

Other sports are similar but because they’re team sports, most of them, there is more camaraderie, more fun let’s say. Tennis is a bit more isolating; and also we’re out on the world circuit so we are not here, we are not as integrated with the other sports. It’s a pretty lonely and selfish life actually. It’s one of the reasons that I’m stopping my competitive career because I‘ve got a young family now. My little boy actually said a couple of times; he didn’t like me playing tennis. Why not? We have a great time we play, he plays? It’s because he associates it with me going away; every couple of weeks I’m going away somewhere. So, I had to make a decision as well.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Peter has had a glittering career, winning gold in the first Quad Singles Paralympic wheelchair tennis, which also made him Britain’s first Paralympic Tennis Gold medallist, and silver in the Doubles events at the Athens 2004 Paralympics he went on to successfully defend the Singles and win bronze in the Doubles at Beijing 2008 Paralympics. He added to his medal tally with a silver in the Doubles at the London 2012 Paralympics. 

Watch BBC coverage of Peter at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics here.

Other sporting events

In addition to the Paralympic Games, Peter won 49 Quad Singles and 19 Doubles titles on the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour, 22 of which were Super Series and Grand Slam Singles titles and was victorious at the US Open in 2007 and 2009 and the Australian Open in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012.

He also represented Great Britain as a member of the Quad title winning team at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) World Team Cup in 2001, 2002 and 2009.

Other awards and recognition

In 2005 Peter was awarded 'Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire' (MBE) and in 2009  'Officer of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire' (OBE), both for services to disabled sport.

In 2005, following his win in Athens, he was asked to perform the coin toss ahead of the Wimbledon Singles final.

At the 2012 Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) Wimbledon Ball, Peter received the Carl Aarvold Award for International Achievement, which rewards a person who has made a significant contribution to tennis at an international level. When presenting the award, then LTA President, Peter Bretherton, commented:

We are privileged to have this most prodigious and successful athlete playing tennis, and inspiring all who see him play with his determination and talent.

In April 2017 Peter was inducted into the Stoke Mandeville Hall of Fame and later that year was the recipient of the Master Wheelwright’s Award.

    References

    • https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/disability-sport/21252419
    • https://www.epc-wheelchairs.co.uk/
    • https://www.standard.co.uk/sport/sport-olympics/a-family-affair-for-peter-norfolk-6441261.html
    • http://www.wheelwrights.org/award2017.php
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgi7PgZ8bbI&ab_channel=lea0907
    • https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/57665/data.pdf
    • https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/59090/data.pdf
    • https://www.freebmd.org.uk/cgi/districts.pl?r=222149474:2164&d=bmd_1612775592
    • https://web.archive.org/web/20101123070323/http://www.tennisfoundation.org.uk/disabilitytennis/Wheelchair-Tennis/Wheelchair-Performance/Peter-Norfolk/
    • http://www.lta.org.uk/News/2012/July/2012-07-09/Peter-Norfolk-presented-with-Carl-Aarvold-Award-for-International-Achievement/
    • http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/disability_sport/7589590.stm
    • https://www.wheelpower.org.uk/characters/peter-norfolk-obe#:~:text=Peter%20is%20the%20winner%20of,Super%20Series%20and%20Grand%20Slams).

    Interviews with Peter Norfolk

    The beginning of his wheelchair tennis career

    Interviewer Jon Newman, June 2013

    At the end of the day I played sport. I tried archery and we did field shooting and all sorts of things. I think it was a case of... I did swimming, I tried water skiing, I went scuba diving... I tried lots and lots of things, but it wasn’t until I actually saw tennis being played and I realised that tennis could be played - that was my “light bulb” moment for me.

    Wheelchair tennis was still a very new sport in 1990?

    I just saw a demonstration sport at Stoke Mandeville; I think we had six players. Jayant was one of our founders, Jayant Mistry, and obviously went on to be a fantastic tennis player. We didn’t have many but we had lots of enthusiastic people who wanted to increase it, improve it, bring it out to the wider public and, to be fair, we’re still doing that. I still meet people who don’t realise that you can play wheelchair tennis. You know, what’s so difficult, tennis court, tennis racquet and a tennis ball; whether you’re standing up or sitting down, it’s the same game.

    I tried all the other sports and tennis became a release; it still is a release. It’s a pleasure to be able to go onto a tens court and play for fun or competitively against anyone, standing up or sitting down. When I first saw tennis, on the tennis court at Stoke next to the mortuary – which was a great place for it to be, on some days – and I came back home and I went to my local courts, an indoor court, and there was guy there, coaching, my first coach, Lieutenant Colonel Christie, and I basically, when he finished his lesson, I went to see him and I said, “I want you to coach me for tennis.” And he looked at me, my chair and sort of went “Never done that before.” And I went, “It’s tennis, you know” And he sort of said “Are you any good?” And I said, “Not yet, but I’m gonna be”. That’s essentially how I started, and I went to see Roger; the beauty of Roger also was, having come out of the army – and he’d had some pretty amazing experiences – his internal philosophy was also “not give up”, so when I... we were training and we’d be doing certain things and I’d be going “I can’t do that” and he’d go [shaking head] “That’s not in my vocabulary. That doesn’t compute”. So then it was, ok, my disability says that I can’t do this. So he says well ok, let’s find a way of seeing if we can make you do it. So it was quite good in the beginning to have Roger because he came from outside and didn’t know anything about disability. He questioned everything; and I thought that was quite instrumental in how I started because it made me question - and it still does, I still question – so instead of going “Oh no, I just can’t do that”. It’s, “Oh, I might be able to if I did this”. And that’s what the youngsters miss too because they then don’t have the benefit of my experience or the older athletes’ experience.

    In tennis when you hit a back hand you really need to turn into the court and not turn away; and it was a case of finding a way to turn into the court – because then you don’t lose sight of the ball or the court – and keep the speed up. It is easier to turn out (sometimes it’s faster) but you lose sight of the ball and the court. So we worked on certain things; and it’s not easy by any means, even something as simple as that. That’s the sort of thing you need a coach or whatever; someone to come in and start picking holes in things.

    The circuit was just starting. There were obviously very few tournaments; and the National Wheelchair Tennis Association was just starting – and didn’t have many members either – and it was all very much about finding places to play and finding other guys in wheelchairs to play with. Essentially it just progressed from there. We used to go into Fulham ‘cos the courts were free and we played come wind, rain sunshine, snow whatever.

    The differences between professional tennis and the Paralympic Games

    Download a pdf of Peter's full interview here