Sleaford wheelchair athlete Joel’s Tokyo Paralympic dream is in sight

Wheelchair athlete Joel James on the track. EMN-160715-113445001
Wheelchair athlete Joel James on the track. EMN-160715-113445001

Young wheelchair athlete Joel James, of Sleaford, has his sights set on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo after getting some celebrity support.

Feisty 15-year-old Joel lives with cerebral palsy and periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) as a result of contracting meningitis at birth. Walking is a struggle and he can’t go far. But Joel’s willpower and training regime means he has his sights set on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

“I can’t do as much as a regular kid my age can do,” he says. “So wheelchair racing is a good way to express my feelings. I also play wheelchair basketball but I really prefer the racing – it makes me feel fast and I like the independence of being solo.”

Mum, Karen, 47, explained that in 2012 they spent five months raising enough money, with the support of children’s charity Tree of Hope, to take Joel to America for an operation to relieve the spasticity in his legs. This involved cutting nerves in Joel’s back to release his leg muscles. Joel’s dad, Stewart, 51, had high expectations.

“But it soon became obvious that the surgery hadn’t achieved all that we’d hoped,” he said.

“Joel has much more movement than he would have had without the operation and he suffers less pain. He is able to walk with crutches and splints. But Joel’s condition means that it’s particularly difficult for him to generate muscle so it’s essential that he keeps exercising.”

The fundraising helped with post-operative therapy and then Karen and Stewart took Joel, then 12, to taster days to try out wheelchair based sports.

Joel’s first chance to try out a racing wheelchair was courtesy of Jamie Carter, London 2012 Paralympian. He then started using a chair belonging to Paralympian Jade Jones, who is coached by 11 times gold medal winner Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. It was pink so his first move was to have it painted blue instead.

The teenager’s first formal event was the three-mile London Mini Marathon in April 2014.

“I drove to the finish line expecting to see him cross it,” said Stewart. “But he was so fast that he arrived 10 minutes before I did!”

In 2015 Joel was placed second in the London Mini Marathon after knocking an astounding seven minutes off his previous year’s time and this year he knocked a further three minutes off.

With more than 80 races now under his belt, he has put in 14 personal bests this year and is ranked number two in the 1500m.

Joel says: “I see Lee, my personal trainer, twice a week for strengthening, conditioning and training, then at weekends I am competing or out on training runs.

“My aim is really to be selected for the 2020 Paralympics. I’m working with Job King from the Coventry Godiva Harriers. He also coaches my hero Ben Rowlings who’s a T34 athlete like me and is the current British record holder over four distances.”

Meanwhile, he got asked to audition for a TV ad for the Paralympics but didn’t get chosen.

Joel is a member of the Jaguars Wheelchair Basketball Club in Newark, where he plays in the Under 15 team. He also swims and trains with a hand cycle, giving him an alternative possible future as a triathlete. But his next goal is the IPC Athletics Junior World Championships at Notwil in Switzerland next year.

The family continues to be supported by Tree of Hope, which is a specialist charity for children with complex needs. Further fundraising is essential - racing wheelchairs need to be custom designed, costing more than £3,000, and Joel’s chair will need to be replaced as he grows.

If you would like to support Joel, you can donate through his JustGiving page