Our Race – teaming up with track stars to tell their story

Last Friday, I published my second book. It’s called Our Race.

Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis were told no over and over again. Our Race is the story of how they came together to beat the vastly superior foe that was the USA Men’s 4x100m Relay team at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, in a sporting shock for the ages.

These four men battled adversity throughout their lives, told they were troublemakers, low achievers, that they wouldn’t amount to much.

Then once they found a focus, a goal, a passion, they heard they weren’t good enough, didn’t have the head for it, weren’t tough enough, were wasting their talent. In the cutthroat, solitary, alpha male world of sprinting Jason, Darren, Marlon and Mark had to put aside ego and bravado and find a way to connect with each other to achieve the impossible.

The team had a real rollercoaster ride, from pushing the heavily fancied USA athletes at World Championships to having their last leg finisher banned for performance-enhancing drugs and being bombed to the bottom of the world rankings. The book goes into the guys backstories, the sacrifices that they and their families made in order to even get to training as youngsters, and follows them through their development as senior athletes. Until the National Lottery came in with some funding, the guys were used to working part-time to support their athletics careers as they were competing at the top level, with Darren Campbell even dabbling with professional football. Mark Lewis-Francis, the youngest of the four, won a World Junior gold medal making him the best young sprinter in the world but was regarded as a busted flush by the time he was 20.

Even when they got to the final in Athens, they had some of the greatest sprinters of all time against them on the USA team. The book explores how the guys planned for this triumph and how their win was no fluke. It was the result of years of training, trial and error, self-reflection, self-belief, hard work and yes, a bit of luck too.

Making a new team environment

So many athletes miss the team environment when they leave sport. I’m no different and one of the joys of this project is that it’s been a true collaboration between the 4 athletes and myself and Trystan Bevan as coauthors.

Trystan conducted some initial interviews with the guys which he turned into a first draft before I came on board. We then rewrote the text together, following up with the team, bringing in an editor, test readers and then finally a proofreader before calling time on the text. We also have Clickbox Media providing design work for the cover, a website and social media marketing with some further surprises in the works. I’ve been coordinating this effort and we’ve definitely made something that’s better for having all of us involved.

Exploring old interests

It’s funny for me to see how my childhood interests have come back around. At school I loved playing sport and reading books. Now I’ve written two books about playing sports. ‘Follow your interest’ is cliche advice for a reason and while I believe you can have a perfectly fulfilling professional life without a genuine interest in what you’re doing, many athletes aren’t like that. Most of them are really into their sport, or at least began that way. It’s only natural to want to find something else that fits that criteria. For me personally, books seem like a good bet.

My first book told my story, that of a professional rugby player outside of the top tier of competition. It was also an exploration of what professional sport is like for that calibre of athlete, someone who gets to do their dream job but perhaps not in the way they imagined.

Writing that book was a bit of an experiment. I had no idea if it would be any good or if anyone would care. In the end it was regarded as pretty good and a fair few people did care! After a few months it built some momentum and had some success but it took time. As athletes we’re used to having fast, regular feedback to know how we’re doing. The slower pace of the working world is something I’ve found to be one of the main challenges of athlete transition.

But then what?

Even when the book had some success I still had to confront the same question I’d had to confront on leaving rugby: what’s next?

Writing a book was something I’d always wanted to do but once I did it, it didn’t give me any immediate answers.

It’s the same with experiencing a sporting success; it’s unlikely to be an endpoint for you. You’ll always want another challenge. Even the athletes that get to live out their childhood dreams and win a World Cup or an Olympic gold will ask themselves the same question.

After about 6 months this project came to me. Trystan is from a rugby background and was aware of Fringes. I spoke to the guys and came on board to help them tell their story. What I had done on my own attracted me exactly the sort of project I wanted to work on next. Who knows what this project might do for us as authors or for the guys themselves?

Taking ownership

With Our Race, we’re all stakeholders in the project, with no publisher or outside influence. The guys have had full creative control over their story, how it’s told and crucially, they own the content. I published Fringes independently but for us to distribute the revenue and make this one widely available, I had to set up a publishing imprint. Once I found out this was necessary, I knew I wanted to do it. Sometimes running into a problem will present you with a solution you didn’t know you were looking for. Now I have a vehicle for me to collaborate with other athletes if they want to follow a similar route.

As an athlete you don’t get to own what you do. Your performances are a sort of a gift to the audience and to whoever broadcasts your efforts. You’re paid for your time but then whatever happens to your moment, it doesn’t belong to you. Think about the biggest moments in sport, like Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup winning drop goal, Usain Bolt breaking the 100m world record record or Andres Iniesta’s extra time goal for Spain in the World Cup final. The athlete doesn’t own those. With Our Race, the guys get to claim some ownership of their story and of their achievement.

I wrote one book as an experiment, telling my story and taking ownership of my rugby career. That project then brought me this one, helping some amazing athletes tell the story and take ownership of their greatest moment. You don’t know what will bring you your next project or next career but you need to start by showing something of yourself and taking some ownership of where you want to go. If you make something you’re interested in and that you care about and you try really hard, as hard if not harder than you tried to be a good athlete, you might just open up a new adventure for yourself.

It’s not certain and it is difficult. But if you were put off by those things you’d never have become a professional athlete in the first place.

You can buy Our Race here!

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