Interview with Oliver Lam-Watson
Oliver Lam-Watson (photographed above, image from Scope) is a world-class wheelchair fencer for team GB, having won medals in both the world championship and world cup, and is a proud disabled athlete on a mission to change the face of disability by tackling the misconceptions and stigma surrounding the word “disability”. He spreads his message through the clever use of social media and his career as an elite athlete, he even did a TED talk called “If you’ve ever been told “You Can’t””
He was gracious enough to accept my request for an interview so that people can further understand how hard he has worked in the past 3 years to show the world that having a disability doesn’t stop you from accomplishing your dream.
So my first question is just for anyone who doesn’t know really, how did you come to be involved in wheelchair fencing?
Yeah, so wheelchair fencing is a funny one, essentially, to cut it a bit shorter; after university, I decided to go to the doctor to see what I could do with my leg. As I went through a lot of doctors, surgeries, physio, procedures whilst I was in school, and that kind of held me back a bit, and I wanted to, throughout uni, leave that behind.
And so I had a couple of years where I didn’t care about my leg as much for once, which was really really nice. Then after university, I decided to go back to the doctors and say “what can I do with it?” and he said, “look, you could amputate it, or you can live with it, either way, you’ll have a prosthetic, or you’ll be on crutches for the rest of your life. You’ll never walk normally, you’ll never run, you’ll never be an athlete.” and this was quite difficult news at the time. I never had this idea of being an athlete or anything like that, I hated sports as a kid, and it was something that really separated me from the other kids and sort of highlighted my difference.
So, eventually, I went down the route of not amputating due to the risk, so I kind of really wanted to find out, with this statement from my doctor saying “you’ll never be an athlete or walk again.”, in my head I kind of went through the idea of “what can I do? What am I capable of?”, so I started going to the gym! I got into my fitness, I went a lot and trained really hard. Then I decided to put that to the test, so I signed up to an obstacle course race. It was really good fun and a source of self-exploration for me.
Yeah, I remember you recorded them didn’t you? They’re on your Youtube channel.
I did, yeah! There are a couple of them on there. And when I signed up for my first one I didn’t even know whether or not it was possible for me to even complete one. But then after that, I was hungry for more, so I decided to sign up for a few more, you know, give myself a year of documenting these, putting them on Youtube, showing people myself, who have grown up with a disability, what was possible, and at the same time sort of just exploring where my limits were, as someone growing up and living with a disability. Because there’s not a lot of social media showing what it is to live with a disability.
I know there are athletes and Paralympians, but there was always this disconnect between the average person with a disability and the people to see on tv in the Paralympics. You don’t get to see a lot of behind-the-scenes and so I really wanted to document that.
So I decided to take a year out and go to a heart and sports doctor, going from someone who had never done sports before to doing all these races and training really hard, I wanted to make sure my heart was okay for it. And he was like “what sport do you do?” and I said “oh, I do these races on my crutches!” and I was really pleased with myself, and he was like “…But that’s not really a sport.” which kind of really annoyed me at the time.
So I then went back and googled that night “paralympic sports”, I was, you know, determined to prove these doctors, and everyone who told me what I couldn’t do, wrong and show them that I could be an athlete, I could do sports. And so I basically found wheelchair fencing and I thought, “wow that looks cool!”, so I called up every single fencing club in London and I said, “look, I’ve got a year and I want to push this as hard as I can. I’m physically fit, I’ve got a good platform to work on. Can you train me?”. I heard back from one of them, and they said “Yeah, we’re closing for the summer, but in a few months time you can start.” and I said, “No, I want to start now.” and I sort of twisted their arm into giving me a lesson, had my first lesson about 3 years ago now, trained the whole summer with my coach, and hit the ground as hard as I could. About 6 months after that I got selected for my first international, to be part of the GB squad.
That was actually my next question, so you’ve segwayed beautifully there! I was going to ask how you came to be in team GB?
So 6 months into my training I was selected to go to Hungary, and I got my ass absolutely handed to me on the world stage, which was humbling. But it was amazing to see all these Paralympians I’d seen on Youtube and to be actually fencing them. That was a great experience, but then I really got carried away with it. There was this opportunity in 2 years time to potentially go to the Paralympics and so I thought, “You know what? I’m going to give it 100%”, and so I kept training really really hard, I knew I had a lot of ground to make up because of these guys who had been doing it for years and years and years and had a lot of experience under their belts. But I felt as though my kind of fresh take on it, and my sort of disrupting attitude, I wanted to get in there, do things differently, be a sort of disruptor, and my background in cross fit and fitness I felt could really help me.
About a year ago I got put on the World-Class program funded by UK Sport, and now I train full time as a GB athlete in Bath, in the Paralympic Center, aiming towards the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics.
The Paralympics have been moved to August 2021 now haven’t they?
Yeah, they were delayed by a year and now they’re going to be taking place in late August.
I was looking at some of the fencing competitions and some of them have been canceled altogether. So I was wondering what is left now for you guys to quality for the Paralympics?
So, two of the people on my squad have qualified individually. Unfortunately, I haven’t qualified individually, although I gave it my best shot, I was actually a couple of places off, which for me is a huge achievement to actually be in the runnings of almost qualifying for the Paralympics.
After 3 years!
Exactly, yeah it was pretty cool. But there is still a chance for me, given that my two teammates have qualified. The team is made up of 3 people, so there’s a chance that they will give me what they call a “wild card slot”, where they’ll give me a qualification so that team can then compete.
Oh wow! So is there anything you need to do towards that, or have you just got to wait on the decision?
Yeah, honestly it’s just waiting on the decision, it’s not anything to do with the team’s ranking or anything like that, although we’re ranked quite well. So we’re hoping that we do get the wild card and I will get to go.
So you’re effectively holding your breath now?
Yeah, I’ve been holding my breath now for about a year!
So this is probably something you’ve answered before, but what advice would you give to somebody looking to take up fencing for the very first time?
I’d say start as you mean to continue. When a lot of people start fencing when they’re young, they can do it once or twice a week and up those numbers, but for me, it’s always 100% or nothing. A lot of people laughed at me when I first started and I got the BEST equipment; the best and lightest jacket, the best sword with the lightest handle. My philosophy was that if this sword is a little bit lighter, and I can hold it for a little bit longer, I train for an extra five minutes a day. If my jacket is a little bit lighter and I don’t get as tired or as hot in it, I can train for an extra one or two minutes each day. And if I do train every single day and give it 100% in every session, then those little five minutes here and there really add up.
So I would say, don’t be afraid of what people say to you, I had people laugh at me saying “you have all the gear but no idea.”, but that has given me the platform and ability to actually be a contender. They said to me “you’re an idiot for quitting architecture to take up a random sport.” but if it’s something you want to do and you believe it in, then just give it 100% and see where it goes. Giving that 100% and not letting people discourage me has really paid off for me. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it, but the only way you’ll know is by actually doing it.
Lockdown. That’s been a lot of fun since last March(!) And I was just wondering what your main method of keeping on top of your fitness has been, with gyms being closed and travel restrictions?
That’s a good question. I think in the first lockdown it was a bit touch and go, I would do what I could at home, I had some weights and was doing home workouts, going for runs around the local park, trying to stay fit. Also looking after my diet, as an athlete I usually eat quite a lot but during lockdown, I was having to dial that back as I wasn’t training as much. I really tried to be creative with it, I was skipping in my back yard and using bottles of water as weights for shoulder mobility exercises to get that consistency that I would have got from a low weight at the gym.
I was lucky enough, during this last lockdown, to be able to train at the gym with my team in a bubble because we’re an elite sport, and there have been huge improvements throughout the team. But, I know that’s not very relatable, and for those who don’t have that I’d just say be creative, look for online workouts, can you go skipping or running around the local block? Think about what you have and get creative.
Now I wanted to ask you about the Olver Lam-Watson Nike By You collaboration you did recently, you released some Air Max 90s which have sold out now, and I was wondering if you’d ever want to do another collab with Nike?
Yes, they’ve all sold out now. I would love to do another collaboration with Nike, I think it was a really great opportunity and a brilliant platform to spread my message. So I designed these shoes around growing up in London with a disability, and so the shoes themselves with the material and colourways were based on my story.
They’re white shoes to signify society’s unconscious and unfair bias towards the perfect and pristine. I also used fencing white which is something I am passionate about. The Nike swoosh is in blue to represent the disability blue badge, and I wanted it to stand out against the white, like disability standing out in contrast to society’s perception of the perfect and pristine. There’s also the colour of orange on it, which is called “rust”, and of course, rust is seen as imperfection and undesirable, and so I liked the idea of, rather than hiding that, showing the imperfection as opposed to hiding them, and being proud of it. There’s also an athletic gum sole, so the bottom has the traditional gum sole, so when you move you see it. That’s the idea of being seen through movement, creating change through sport.
It was a great opportunity and I would love to do something with Nike again. I think it was an amazing opportunity to start that question and would love to do something again with them.
Following on from that; if you could collaborate with any sportswear company, and produce any kind of footwear or apparel you like, what sort of thing would you go for?
Oh gosh…. I would probably say for me, this is quite niche, but there’s a fencing company called Allstar whose clothes I wear, and I would love to bring out my own range, or fencing gear, fencing clothing, or fencing blades, something like that I think would be really cool. Or maybe even go further into the sporty aspect of it, trainers maybe or other sporting garments that I could wear that would be based on fencing.
Other than that I think what springs to mind is the mountaineering company Patagonia, which is really really cool. They’re not really in my niche, but they do a really cool system whereby if you have old clothing that is ripped, torn, or broken, rather than throwing it away they can repair it for free. I think that’s a really cool idea being sustainable and showing the “scars” and imperfections after the clothes have been fixed.
During the covid-19 pandemic, people have struggled for various reasons. What have you found the most difficult to deal with since March 2020?
I think covid has affected a lot of people in different ways. In terms of my lockdown I’ve been locked down with my girlfriend, we got on really well together, and it’s the first time we’d moved in together literally just before lockdown, so it’s like moving in times ten, but we really enjoyed it. And even though I love social media and love to share my story, I’m not a massively social person, like I don’t go out for beers and hang out and socialise that much, so it wasn’t that difficult for me in that sense.
I think the difficulty for me was the delaying of the Paralympics. There was a year lad up and I was very anxious about whether or not I’d qualify, and then delaying it again… The silver lining is that it has given me more time to train and improve, which has been great, but then holding my breath for an extra year has been quite difficult.
This next question is in relation to one of your videos you did during lockdown, where you explain toxic positivity, and how trying to force a positive mindset on someone can actually have the opposite effect. What advice would you give to someone who is constantly having to deal with toxic positivity?
I mean, it’s a really difficult thing to deal with sometimes. Especially when you’re going through a difficult time and/or you suffer from chronic pain maybe, or you have a struggle or challenge in your life, and when you voice that you have a lot of people, especially with a disability, that say, “Oh, you’ll be fine!”, “Chin up!”, “Positive attitude!”, “The only disability is a negative attitude.” when in reality those are really unhelpful comments.
Those positive comments and just saying “Oh, you’ll be fine!” is a way of ignoring those feelings and emotions. I am a big believer in processing emotions, and I think that when you do feel upset, or down, or you’re struggling with pain or a chronic illness, to actually acknowledge that and say “Yes, that is difficult, but that’s okay.” then you can think “That is okay, I don’t need to feel positive, I don’t need to put my chin up and feel better or look on the bright side.” It is tough, but then acknowledging that helps you to process those emotions and move forwards. Otherwise, I think those negative feeling and emotions of being upset, having anxiety of worry can really manifest themselves as very directionless anxiety, which can be very difficult to manage.
For those that are around [toxic positivity], I’d say to try not to let it bother you too much, and to explain to people “Look, I understand this is your point of view, but I do actually need to sit with this for a little bit and acknowledge it.” And to take your time with it and remember that it’s okay not to be okay all of the time.
I wholeheartedly agree with you on that! My next question is about an argument that has been going on for a couple of years about the word “disabled”, and how some members of the community view it as derogatory in a sense, and others are unphased by it or even wear it as a badge of honor. How do you stand in the debate?
I think the problem actually comes from the fact that there is one-word “disability” which is an umbrella term for so many different types of people. Even 10 people with the same disability will have a different experience with it depending on their age, sex, nationality, upbringing. And that’s just with one when there are millions of disabilities ranging from physical impairments to mental impairments to invisible disabilities, and I think that having one word that covers all of those things is so difficult because everyone is going to identify with that word, and their disability and diagnosis in a different way.
One really good example of this is the LGBTQ+ community, who do it really well. They have so many different segments within that community, and you can’t define people as just “gay” when everyone is so different in that community. So to have so many different segments of that is just brilliant, to give people the chance to identify with a different part of it.
Bringing it back to disability, I think some people have difficulty identifying with it, they may think “I’m not disabled, I can do this.” whereas others may think “I am disabled, and that’s okay.”
Some people feel that the word “disability” has a negative connotation that comes with it by saying “DIS-ability”, it’s a negative word, it’s like if you were to call the dark “dis-light”, you wouldn’t say that, you have a word for it. I think the problem is that there is no word for discrimination against a disabled person, a term has recently been coined which is “ableism” which I think is a bit of a clumsy phrase.
I personally identify as being disabled, and it took me a long time to identify as that, or actually WANT to identify as that. But especially as being an athlete I don’t like the term “disabled athlete”, I think “adaptive athlete” is much better, because it’s not less, it’s different.
Yeah, because now that you say it “disabled athlete” sounds counter-intuitive, one doesn’t agree with the other.
Exactly. A good example of this is people with physical disabilities who are told “you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’re too disabled.”, as opposed to people with invisible disabilities who are seen as not disabled enough, and they actually strive for that badge of “yes I am disabled”.
So I think there’s no right or wrong with [the term “disabled”], I think whether or not people choose to identify as “disabled”, “not disabled”, “differently-abled” is up to them. There are a lot of terms out there for people to identify with, and I think it depends on that person’s journey within their own life and association with their disability. If you’d have asked me 10 years ago I’d have said I wasn’t disabled. So it’s a very difficult one, nobody is right or wrong for saying they like it or dislike it, it’s just something that people have to go on themselves– that journey of self-discovery and come to their own conclusions.
So you’ve made a strong point of showing people that your disability does not make you incapable of becoming an athlete and that their judgment is frankly ridiculous. So I’m just wondering if you have any other disability assumptions or stereotypes you want to tackle in the future?
I think one is “you’re too young to be disabled”, I think that’s a huge one. Like sometimes Id go to park somewhere and someone is like “that’s disabled bay parking.” and I’m like “Yeah, I know.” and they say “Well, you’re not disabled.” and when I ask “How do you know that?” they say “Well, you don’t look disabled.” and I’m like “What does a disabled person look like?”. People have this preconception of what a disabled person is, and that usually comes in the form of someone who looks deformed or is incapable of doing things, someone who’s in a wheelchair usually. Not someone who’s fit young and healthy, apart from their diagnosis. So I think really changing that idea of disability, that it can come in so many different shapes and sizes.
Also, something that people really don’t talk about is that disabled people can be successful. Honestly, not to say that I’m very successful, but I’m fortunate enough to have a very nice car, and when people see me in that, then putting a blue badge on my nice car, people really have a problem with it. Like he’s just using that blue badge, or that disability to get free parking. It can’t be that actually, the blue badge is for accessibility so that I can park nearer to places, I still pay for parking. I think generally society sees disabled people on a lower social standing, and when they see a disabled person being successful and going against their preconceptions of what a disabled person should be, it really messes with their heads.
If you were to change the word “disabled” to “female”, “gay” or “black”, it would be the same thing. Like when a woman drives a Ferrari and people think “Oh, her husband must have bought it for her.” like maybe that woman has just worked really really f*cking hard (excuse my french) and bought a Ferrari. Or when a black person works their way up through the ranks despite a lot of systematic racism and has bought themselves a Ferarri, it doesn’t mean they had to use unethical means to get that money. I love to see it because it’s like “good for you, you’re turning the system upside down and you’re showing everyone that whatever preconception they had of your minority group, that’s rubbish.” and more power to them
Now for some general questions!
It is a well-documented fact that you are a great lover of coffee! What coffee would you recommend at this moment in time? What kind of brand are you favouring to make at home?
Yes, I love coffee. Well at the moment I get my coffee from Monmouth, they are a small company based in London. I buy it from Covent Gardens, there’s a company there that I buy it from. Usually, I buy it ground, I am yet to get a grinder, which I need to get one in my new flat which will be a bit bigger. Then I usually do filter coffee, which I love, drip-over which is great as well, I have an espresso machine, which I think is brilliant, mocha pots, again which I really love. I think they all have their own qualities, which is great, it really depends on what you’re feeling.
In general, I think a mocha pot, if you can get it right, is brilliant!
Obviously, you didn’t continue with architecture after university, but what was it about architecture that inspired you to study it to a master’s degree level?
I actually wanted to quit it after my bachelors, I actually did quite well in my bachelors though and I was given a job by my professor and he basically persuaded me by saying “it would be a real shame if you didn’t continue at least.” and I look back at it and at the time I thought “I’ve come this far, at least if I do my masters I can fall back on it if I need to.” and actually, you know what, I love it. Also, uni was great and it was an excuse to spend more time studying which I really enjoyed, and I think that with doing my master’s it was a decision I made because it was something I loved. Architecture is such a great great thing to study, it is so broad, there’s history, psychology, maths, engineering, there’s a creativity aspect to it and I just think it covers such a broad range of topics and I really enjoy creating things.
There was also photography, I wouldn’t have got into Youtube or even photography is it wasn’t for architecture. I did a photography designate class within my course, which then got me into buying a camera, and got me into making videos and doing photography. So I think what I do at the moment in my social media definitely harks back to my experience as an architect.
As I understand it, you are quite well-traveled. But do you have a place where if you could go you would fly off tomorrow?
Yeah, I would go to Mauritius or the Maldives. You know those films where it’s like perfect blue water and white sand with a little hut in the middle, where you’d roll out of bed and jump straight into the water, like those places I want to go to. I’ve traveled a lot but not those kind of beach destinations and I’m such a beach bum, I love water, I love sand, I love swimming and I’d spend all day on the beach.
Other places I really love are Morocco, I think Marrakesh is a beautiful place, there’s so much character to it, the bazaar there is amazing, with the smells. The colours, the tastes, the sounds, everything is just brilliant. And New York, I try to go every year up until Covid, I love to go there for about 2 weeks every year and get lost in the city, I think it’s amazing. What I particularly love about it, and some might say it’s a controversial opinion, is that it makes you feel very small, I love feeling small and insignificant in a big city, it’s very humbling. Plus everywhere you point your camera is like a movie set.
If you had the choice of any alternative career path, so if you weren’t an athlete or an architect, what would you be?
I would love to be a fighter pilot. I love planes, I love aviation, and I love going fast. So I think, commercial travel doesn’t interest me that much, but I would definitely have tried to become a pilot and fly fast planes like fighter jets.
Have you ever looked into what it might take for you to learn to fly?
I don’t think it’s possible unfortunately for two reasons, the first being my leg, and second of all is my eyesight. I don’t have 20/20 vision, though that could be improved if I wear contacts, I’m not quite sure how it works these days, but I would have loved to have done that. As a kid I played a lot of flight simulators, I love the movie “Top Gun” and I just think it would be awesome.
I’ve noticed your Youtube channel [Oliver Lam-Watson] hasn’t had an upload in a few months, but obviously, your Instagram is constant. Are you considering starting it up again once the world returns to “normal”?
Yeah, that’s a difficult one. In the run-up to the Paralympics, I had to dedicate a lot more time to my training, so I went from training maybe three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening and maybe a lesson somewhere in between. So normally I’d go from about 9 am-12 pm, then I’d have a break from 12 pm lunchtime until about 7 pm when I’d have to train again. So that gave me so much time to shoot videos, be creative and create content every single day, as well as edit and put my things online. But since then, in the run-up to the Paralympics I’ve had to obviously sacrifice more of my time to training, because if I want to go I need to be on my best form, and that was a really difficult decision for me to make, I had to figure out “where do I find that time?” and it had to come out Youtube because I didn’t have enough time in the day to shoot videos and edit them.
It’s something I definitely wanted to start up again, and during lockdown, I did because I had the time on my hands. But after I stopped for a while I had a lot of anxiety about starting it up again. Even now I want to, I even shot some videos and some vlog style stuff, but I haven’t edited it because I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue doing it well. I don’t want to do it half-arsed, I want to do 100% or nothing, so that’s why I’ve gone more onto Instagram where I’m able to put that quick media online. I’m able to shoot regular content at a high quality.
This is my last question! I’ve seen on your Instagram that you have become an ambassador for BULK protein supplements, and I was wondering what about that company made you feel it was the right fit for you and your message?
It’s a really cool company actually! I’ve noticed in the past that a lot of companies approached me and it’s very much about the bottom line for them, you know, how much money can they make? What I really liked about BULK is that they took an interest in me, and I am very small as a creator and as an athlete, but I think the fact that they took an interest in me is really nice, it really diversifies their ambassadorship. The people they support aren’t always the top bodybuilding type stereotypical gym-goers, they are people with disabilities, they are females, they are people from multi-ethnic backgrounds which I think is great. We all have different processes, whether it be yoga, whether it be disability sports, whether it be people who are into their fitness, and I think that’s really nice to see.
Also, the care they show to their ambassadors and their product, which I think is very much about creating a really really good product, I think is brilliant. Their product is very simple, their marketing strategy, their branding, it’s not all about “Let me get in your face!”, it’s just like “how do we create a good product?” and people then will realise that. They’re all very good to me, they’ll constantly send me free things, they take care of me as an ambassador and a sportsman which is great, because I’m small, I mean they sponsor a lot of people like Anthony Joshua who is a world champion, and an amazing massive guy. They have these other people that have hundreds of thousands of followers, then you’ve got people like me who have only got about eight thousand, so I’m very small fish, but they give me the same amount of care and quality and attention that they do bigger people and I think that’s really really nice as a company, and I think it’s not something you seen these days with larger companies.
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