Terry in front of the score board at the Toronto 1976 Paralympic Games.  Image© Terry Willet

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

Early life

Terry Willett broke his back in 1963 while inspecting a coal mine when the roof caved in. He was on a mining management course at the time.

Terry was treated and rehabilitated at The Lodgemore Spinal Unit in Sheffield.  He was there for approximately four and half months – which was quite short in comparison to some of the others in the hospital – who could be rehabilitated there for up to a year.  It was one of the leading units of the time for physiotherapy and rehabilitation.  Their strategy was first of all to teach their patients to deal with their disability by learning how to handle themselves and secondly to become independent.  This was generally achieved through a lot of upper body work in the gym and swimming pool.  Following this, sport in general was introduced – initially to get the patients as fit and as able as possible and to help with mental health.

However, for Terry and many others, once the competitive nature began to be introduced, it became sport for sports sake instead of as therapy. Most sports were available in Sheffield including archery, wheelchair basketball, swimming, water polo and snooker.

You’re introduced to sport in general and that’s the direction that ultimately worked out for me and changed my life again really.

Once Terry left hospital towards the end of 1963, he went back every Wednesday afternoon to use the sports facilities and participate in the Wednesday afternoon competitive sports clubs. This was beneficial to Terry as it enabled him to get fit and strong and build up his arms but also served as mentoring and motivation for the more newly disabled patients at the hospital as it helped them to see what was possible. 

By playing so much sport and getting so fit, Willett, although now paralysed from the waist down, become quite confident on elbow crutches and could walk up to one hundred yards if necessary and even got to a point where he could climb certain steps and stairs.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

The two main sports that Terry clicked with in the beginning were swimming and wheelchair basketball – and these were the two main events he competed in at his first national Games in Stoke Mandeville in 1964.

He loved those first games as he appreciated the facilities at Stoke Mandeville and was able to compete against a much wider field of athletes from all the spinal units in the country and stay in the dormitories with them.

Terry started to attend the nationals every year and in 1965 was first selected for the International team for the European Championships in St Etienne in France.  By then he had become very interested in fencing and competed in both basketball and fencing.  It was a very successful championship for Terry with the basketball team winning the competition and getting two team golds in fencing and silver in the individual.  This was a turning point for Terry with sport becoming his ultimate lifestyle with the amount of training he was doing and dreaming of becoming a professional sportsman.

In his personal life he had also married and owned a riding school with his wife.

First Paralympics

Terry’s first Olympics was in 1968 in Tel Aviv which he loved – and he built many friendly and competitive relationships with his fellow team mates and those from the other nations.

Terry’s best moments from the games:

Right at the very beginning, back in 1968 when I went to Israel the GB basketball team got the bronze medal in wheelchair basketball. Now we’d never had an Olympic medal before 68 in basketball, so it’s probably not as high as we would have liked, but to have got an Olympic basketball medal for the first time for the GB team we felt was quite an achievement; so that was what I classed as the first big medal that really meant a lot to me.

Aggression in wheelchair basketball

Wheelchair basketball ‘was very competitive and really that was a brilliant outlet for energy and basically physical ability, you could really rough it up if you wanted to in those days and a lot of that I thought was great sport.’

It has to be very subtle nowadays whereas in my day you could actually decide if somebody was roughing you up you could return the compliment and rough them up and it sometimes got quite physical.

Some of the instances that I’ve seen with fights breaking out… you can’t believe it really, but two paraplegics lining up to try and take a swing at each other.

Pinnacle of his achievements

Terry Willett competed at many international, European and Olympic tournaments and received many medals but the Toronto Olympics in 1976 was another standout championship for Willett.  He was starting to be on the fringes of the basketball team by this stage as all of his mental focus was on fencing. He won silver in the individual sabre and gold in the individual epee – which was the pinnacle of his achievement to this point – and at that time he was world, European and Olympic champion – for about 3 years.

When they played the National Anthem when I was on the top tier of the medal-giving ceremony, well I was just stunned actually, I couldn’t believe that I’d come so far in such a short time. And it gave me so much pride and self-confidence. (…..) Really I think it was the making of me, I really do.

Fencing

As fencing is one of the sports where there is a lot of common ground with coaching able bodied and disabled fencers, Terry used to train at the Sheffield Sword Club with the able bodied.  Also, the able bodied and disabled were encouraged to fight against each other as both were able to train in a slightly different and more challenging way by doing so.

At the time Sheffield (and the national team who had the same coaches) were lucky to have top class coaching staff which was key for fencing as it would be impossible to compete successfully in fencing without the right levels of coaching.

Stoke Mandeville Games in 1984 – Terry’s final Games

By this stage, Terry was involved with the Executive Committee at Stoke Mandeville and was also investing much more time in the family business so wasn’t able to prioritise training in the same way as before. This meant he wasn’t able to compete to the same level in the individual events but still won a team medal.

The most significant part of these games for Terry however was that he was chosen to light the Olympic flame, which he described as a massive honour.  Terry had also designed a modified version of a wheelchair so he was able to hold the flame and push the wheelchair at the same time.

That was just a fantastic experience, to sit on that base at the side of the flame just before I put it into the Olympic flame itself, I just felt all the years of hard work and all the training, it just eclipsed everything. It was just the ultimate.

Legacy of the 1984 Games

As Terry was on the Executive Committee by this stage, he was involved in the discussion which led to Stoke Mandeville stepping in to save the 1984 Paralympic Games when America pulled out with only 3 month's notice.  He felt Stoke Mandeville did exceptionally well to pull it off.  Everybody locally was involved; schools and many community facilities were used.

It was the first time too that the games attracted a fair amount of media coverage – with coverage in the press and some TV coverage.  The legacy of this was that it continued to progress with more and more coverage, attention and recognition culminating in the current levels of recognition, whereby:

you’re just an athlete, you train the same, you use the same facilities and luckily you get the same recognition now as an able-bodied athlete, which is fantastic.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Fencer and GB Wheelchair Basketball captain, Terry Willett competed in the 1968 Tel Aviv, 1972 Heidelberg, 1976 Toronto, 1980 Arnhem Paralympics and 1984 Stoke Mandeville games winning gold, silver and bronze medals in the individual and team Epee & Sabre events.

Other sporting events

The GB wheelchair basketball team in 1973

The GB basketball team who won the 1973 IWBF final. Terry Willett is no. 11 and Cyril Thomas no. 10.  Image © Terry Willett

The precursor of the Gold Cup, was held at Bruges in 1973. The Wheelchair Basketball final was between Holland and Great Britain and Terry Willett captained the victorious GB team. Britain dominated the sport in the early 70s.

Terry also competed in numerous national and European championships from the early 1960s to early 1980s.


Interviews with Terry Willett

Interviewer Jon Newman, August 2012

Fencing in the 1970s

Terry Willett fencing on his way to winning gold at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics

Terry Willett fencing his way to winning gold at the Epee at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics. Image © 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.

Holland and Great Britain teams at the start of the 1973 Gold Cup.  Image © 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


References

  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/page_id__20_path__0p4p14p.aspx
  • https://www.channel4.com/news/paralympic-archive-last-minute-games-1984
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/terry-willett
  • Brittain, I.S. (2012) From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing.