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This month we have been ‘throwing back’ to blogs published over the past few years. When we got in touch with Paralympian, business owner, coach and influencer James Roberts (2013) he not only obliged in letting us share his blog, he offered his time to catch up on his path since, as well as reflecting on Black History Month 2020. James releases content on a daily basis on his Facebook tribes: The Mindset Athlete and/or AIM: 24/7 Fat Burning Support Group. Adam Kerr, Students’ Union VP for University Centre Shrewsbury, asked James a few questions over Zoom about his life in sport, business and lots in between!

AK: Just for those who don’t know you can you tell us a bit more about who you are and what you have done?

JR: I was a postgraduate student at Parkgate Campus in Chester from 2011-2012 and graduating class of 2013. I spent a year at the University, and anything I can give back to the alumni community or to the University itself, it’s my great pleasure to do it.

AK: Great! Can you tell us a bit more about your journey in sport?

JR: I am a two-time Paralympian. I competed in rowing in Beijing 2008, finishing 5th, and then I competed in Volleyball in London 2012, finishing in 8th place but losing to the eventual silver medallists in the quarter final, so not so bad!

I’ve always been one of these people, especially when it comes to sport, if you say no to me I’ll probably ask why, and then I’ll look to challenge it, in a positive way, in terms of well, why not? Why can it not be done? I started swimming training at 11 years old, and I was told it was a bit old to start swimming. To a certain extent that’s true, but I used that as motivation. James had a different route, a plan B, I don’t agree with your plan A and ultimately within the space of 12-18 months I was in the development squad for GB. So, if we fast forward to my first world championships in 2006 they said “don’t worry about that year”. I’d never competed on the world stage to that point, but I said I want to compete. I want to compete at my first World Championships. I’ve been like that from as early as I can remember! It’s set in stone from a family perspective, stubbornness in a good way!

AK: Was there any specific person who inspired you to pursue a career in sport?

JR: My family is very sporty. My mum competed in swimming at county level. I’m half American; my Dad competed in track and field, American football and basketball at high school. It’s hard wired into my DNA.  I’ve always loved sport, I’m always watching it. Outside of my family influence, one person growing up for me, was Ryan Giggs, and his on-field accolades and that alone, irrespective of him also being mixed race. I’ve learned since as an adult, that his father is black as well. His is ultimately a career to want to aspire to, not emulate. I did want to emulate when I was younger, but to use a Kobe Bryant quote, he didn’t want to be Michael Jordan he wanted to be Kobe Bryant. Everyone should take that advice. There is no point wanting to be a carbon copy of somebody else.

If I could take anything from that I think I’ve moulded it into myself. If I could talk to myself at 24/25, me being 34 now, that would be my little bit of advice, you need to look at your younger self, because that person was very driven, hungry, determined for everything that laid in front of me. I was not scared of the uncertainty of the future as I didn’t know any better or different.

AK: What are the difficulties you have faced during your journey as a Paralympian?

JR: Where do we start with that one? That’s a good question. I suppose if we go back to the beginning, me as a 15-year-old starting out on the journey, one of my coaches said “you need to fit into a box because you are disabled you need to go and do disabled sport.”  There has been a massive shift in terms of overall perception towards Paralympics and disability in general – even I looked down on Paralympics and disability sport when I was a kid because it wasn’t on the television, this is going back only 20 years. It was only on the TV for an hour.  This is a three-week major event, supposedly parallel to the Olympics, so 20 years ago it was far from equal. For me it has been a humbling and eye-opening experience of probably 20 years as it has given me so much and so many opportunities to represent my country on the highest stage. It’s something I’m so passionate about, to be able to give the next generation the best opportunity they can, irrespective of whatever stage they want to compete on, be it recreational level, competitive, international or on the elite stage. Within the sport you are looked at from what you can bring from an ability standpoint, not a disability. We have come a long way from the 1960’s and 70’s where people were put in different sectors of education and so on, but I think we still have a long way to go, not just in sport, but in society.

AK: What have you been up to since your last blog?

JR: I’m a business man. I’m in the midst of finishing the promotion of a recipe book. I’ve also gone back to basics looking at my business and asked myself what’s missing, and asked my audience if I was to put this out, who would buy it, that kind of thing. I was talking to the publisher this morning and probably made a little more money than I thought I would but where I had a little bit more of the James of old, the teenage athlete, I was getting ahead of myself. This is my first book, this is my first time having to do so many things, even things like postage! There is a lot to learn from it because there have been a few mistakes, I’ve been knocked to the canvas maybe three, four or five times in the last month alone, but I’ve got back up every time and said ok, it’s a little bit of a setback, how do I solve this problem? I’m open to every opportunity, I’m willing to say yes to most things. I’m looking at the bigger picture and with this one in particular, as a Chester alumnus, when I was asked if a previous blog could be re-used, I thought, why not create some fresh content?

AK: You talk about business there, there seems to be a very similar mindset with being a pro athlete and getting into business?

JR: Well, business people say it’s relatable, they like to make comparisons, I don’t think sport probably would. Sport is a business that’s for sure, it’s probably more ruthless than the corporate world, it won’t think twice about getting rid of you if you are dead weight. I’ve been fortunate to only be on the wrong side of that once or twice in a 10-year career but I’ve come out the other side because of support from Disability Sport Wales, who supported my first transition into rowing. The second one was in rowing when they said what about trying volleyball, when I reinvented myself again. I think if I’d been a little bit more open I could have done it again, but I think it’s taken a bit longer,, because I’ve been in the wilderness a little bit and tried to do it myself and believe that maybe some of the sport I did it alone. I’ve been a little bit more open with business and I’ve been collaborative, sought advice from people a little more experienced or knowledgeable in certain fields. I’m starting to reap rewards.

AK: The comparison that I’m drawing from your attitude is in business, and the competitive drive as an athlete that you are honing, to never stay down and get back up, it really is inspiring.

JR: I didn’t want to throw in the towel. I’m working with a business partner. He will come to me for advice to do with nutrition and training, he’s a designer by trade, so anything I’ve got to do with advertising and marketing, I will get his advice.

It’s all about confidence. I don’t know anybody, that first walks on a campus at University 100% sure of themselves, for example. Am I going to fit in? Am I going to be liked? I was there, first time away from home, but I think everybody is very much in the same boat. I commend all you lot in 2020 because I don’t know what I would have done.  It brings a different uncertainty of having to do things remotely or having to have less contact time with your supervisors, your lecturers, your tutors, your peer group. Today, I am utilising my postgraduate study from Chester in my job as a transformational coach because I’m able to consider and analyse people’s environments.

AK: What does Black History Month mean to you, in the sense that you are being celebrated for your achievements as a role model? And the month in general?

JR: I wouldn’t put myself up there as a role model. I’m there to be someone to look upon, but then you want to surpass me, coming back to my point about Ryan Giggs. You don’t want to emulate me, you want to do better than I did.

For me, the month itself, it’s a weird one because it’s a weird year. Yes, things need to be brought to the table, yes, I’m mixed race, but I’ve never been viewed for the colour of my skin, that I’m aware of, I could be wrong on that. I know I talk to people about it and people will say we don’t judge you by your ethnicity, your religion or whatever, but there’s going to be social biases, there’s always going to be prejudice and injustice but ultimately, it’s your choice how you view that how you see it are you going to be. Yes, [racism] does exist. I had a conversation with a well-educated black person in the United States, very high up in his organisation, he attended Boston University and Harvard Business School so a very bright person, and I was very appreciative that I got to speak to him. He’s endured racism because he’s a black man driving an expensive German sports car.

I have probably used it sometimes as fuel, ammunition to produce, I might fit into a stereotype but I’m going to rise above it, I’m going to utilise my education for good, I’m going to prove that I’m bright, I’m going to prove it to myself first and foremost. I’d rather go against the stereotype and be viewed as the multifaceted person that I am. I don’t fit into one camp, I fit into multiple boxes and I will choose when I’m in one of the boxes, not somebody else.

AK: Do you have a quick piece of final advice for young black people in sport or young black people in business?

I’d say strive for greatness. Ultimately the only person that should really stop you from achieving is yourself. You are always going to have your haters, the idiots on social media, the keyboard warriors! You need to go your own way. There are going to be tough times, there are going to be battles, battles with yourself and it’s about challenging some of those inner beliefs, some of those thought processes, some of those inner dialogues. Who is saying you can’t be the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos?  Yes, they happen to be white, but why can’t you be the next black person to come up with the next massive thing to come out of the industry you want to go into? Be the innovator. Be the disruptor. Come up with something new, if it’s something that’s been done do it a different way, if it catches on you’ve created something that the world wants to have.

I think, go out there and create your greatness.


With thanks to Adam Kerr @ChesterSU for interviewing James.

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