Terry Willett used swimming & fencing as rehabilitation after his spine injury and went on to compete in wheelchair basketball. He competed in the 1968 Tel Aviv, 1972 Heidelberg, 1976 Toronto and 1980 Arnhem Paralympics winning Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the individual and team Epee & Sabre events.

Interviews with Terry Willett

Interviewer Jon Newman, August 2012

Fencing in the 1970s

Terry Willett, Toronto 1976.  Image credit: Terry Willet

Terry Willett fencing his way to winning gold at
the Epee in Toronto, 1976. Image credit: Terry Willett

This is Toronto, 1976, when I won gold in epee. I am on the right, possibly fighting the Frenchman, Benamar. He has just lunged at my body and I have decided, rather than defending myself, to just pick him off on the helmet. I had left myself wide open so I had to go for it. I got the hit; you can see the light showing it on the far left. You can tell by the way his body has fallen flat in the lunge that, like me, he was ‘complete’. In the 1970s the two fencing classifications were ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’: i.e. you either had complete lesions, meaning that you had no abdominal muscles, or ‘incomplete’ where you still had some abs…

If you were ‘complete’ then you had to hold yourself in position in the chair with your left arm as you have no stomach muscles to do the job. You can see how I am doing that in the right of the picture. But when you go for the lunge as he has then it’s all or nothing. You can’t easily recover from that afterwards as you have to push yourself back up with your arms.

Wheelchair basketball in the 1970s

The first unofficial IWBF championship, which was to become known as the Gold Cup, was held at Bruges in 1973. The final was between Holland and Great Britain and Terry captained the victorious GB team. Britain dominated the sport in the early 1970s and had already defeated Australia in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in what Terry recalls as a particularly tough and occasionally brutal match.

The GB basketball team who won the 1973 IWBF final. Terry Willett is no. 11 and Cyril Thomas no. 10.  Image credit: Terry Willett Dutch and English teams at the start of the 1973 Gold Cup.  Image credit: Terry Willett

Of course it’s supposed to be a sport of no contact. Well that always amuses us all, ‘cos there’s a lot goes on, goes on ‘off the ball’ and there’s a lot goes on with the wheelchairs. It has to be very subtle nowadays, whereas in my days you could actually decide if someone was roughing you up, you could return the compliment.

The Australians were a very hard team. Some of their players were still using old-style ‘travaux’ chairs, the ones with the large wheels at the front and the smaller ones behind. They might have been ancient and heavy, but those Aussies could spin them on a sixpence; they were actually far more manoeuverable than our Everest and Jennings chairs. There was one older man on their team, Mather Brown, who was the ‘hit man’ for the Aussies. He was a nice enough guy, but definitely a bit of an animal.  His tactic was to come in close to an opposing player and then deliberately spin his chair up against you; he did it so fast that unless you got your hands off your own pushing rims then you would lose your knuckles. It was one of those questionable tactics in the early days before the rules cleared it up; when challenged, the player would claim it was just accidental. Well our star player in that match, who was playing at Point, was Cyril Thomas. He was a good friend of mine, another former miner, big chap, six foot four and knuckles like a dust pan. And this Mather Brown kept trying to knobble Cyril; he had nearly chopped his hand off on a couple of occasions in the match and eventually Cyril just wheeled up to him and shouted, “Do that again and I’ll flatten you!” And what do you know?  Five minutes later Mather Brown did just that. So Cyril went up and laid him one, right on the nose, knocked him out cold. Cyril was sent off with a smile on his face, Brown was out of the match too; and we went on and won it and took the gold. It was one of the hardest games I ever played.

Look at the chairs we played in! The backs are so low and there are no side guards. In the team photo you can see I am sitting on a big thick cushion and I have got blocks on my footrests to raise my height and get my reach up. You couldn’t change the height of the foot rest; it had to be a standard 10cm clearance from the ground; so you got round it with foot blocks and cushions.

Lighting the Paralympic flame at the 1984 Stoke Mandeville Games

Download a pdf of Terry's full interview here