“My target is first”: Lancashire cyclist James Huntington talks Special Olympics and the thrill of the race
In November, almost 140 members of the Salt Ayre Cog Set Cycling Club gathered to pay tribute to one of their members. James Huntington smiles as he recalls the applause he received from his fellow cyclists. And the claps were warranted: James had just been selected by Team GB for the Special Olympics World Summer Games next year.
“Having everyone at the club congratulating me made me feel proud of myself,” says James, 18. “And my target is first.”
Shedding the stablisers
The Lancaster-born James fell in love with cycling from an early age, recalling fondly how he and his brother Andrew would go out on their bikes together, nurturing a seed of passing interest into a burgeoning hobby and, for James, a serious personal pursuit. “I started cycling when I was like eight,” says James. “Me and my brother would do it together.
“I loved it from the very start and I liked that my brother would help me a lot - that made it more enjoyable. I tried a bit of rugby and football, but cycling was the one for me,” says James. I ask if it’s because it’s such a freeing pursuit that he loved it from the start. “Yes,” he says with another broad smile.
“James and Andrew are only 12 months apart, so they tended to do a lot of things together growing up,” says James’ mother Trish Huntington, 53. “But Cog Set,which is our local cycling club, was and is fantastic for them - it’s where they learned a lot of skills and, when I saw James getting into cycling, I saw he had a passion for it from the start and that was lovely.
“James has always enjoyed being outdoors and cycling seems to appeal because every ride is different and it can be competitive, social, a team-sport, solo, a time-trial,” adds Trish. “That variety is great and suits him so much. It’s very expensive having two boys who are serious cyclists, though! We must spend an absolute fortune on kit and bikes!”
The road to Berlin
Since receiving word of his inclusion in the Team Special Olympics GB (Team SOGB) for the Games, which take place in Berlin next June, late last year, James has been training hard. Just one of two athletes from Lancashire to make the squad, the other being swimmer Charlotte Foster from Blackpool, he is determined to wow at the 16th edition of the Games.
“I wanted to race from the start - I was practising my brother a lot, so I wanted to race because we were competitive,” says James, who also cycles for Special Olympics North West and last summer won three golds at the Special Olympics GB’s Summer of Sport. “From my very first race, I wanted to come first - that was always my target.
“When I won the golds, my mind was straight on to the Special Olympics,” he adds. “I always wanted to race away from home in different countries and stuff - that’s exciting, especially doing it with my family. My reaction to getting in the Special Olympics squad was ‘yes, I made it,’ but then I thought ‘I’d better get training more!’
“I need to be in my best form, but it’s all about going out there and enjoying it.”
James is set to be one of more than 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities competing across 26 sports over nine days at Berlin 2023, with events ranging from athletics, swimming, artistic & rhythmic gymnastics, and cycling to team sports such as basketball and unified football.
Following on from the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019, the Berlin edition will be the world’s largest inclusive sporting event of the year - Team SOGB will have 28 coaches and a 22 support and medical staff alone - so Trish is naturally extremely proud of her son.
“Seeing James’ progression has been wonderful and it’s fabulous to see him thrive,” she says. “I think he’s just grown in confidence as well, which is lovely to see because, as a mum, you just want your children to have a passion and something to keep them busy and focused. For him then to enjoy a lot of success as well is brilliant.
“As James started competing and had more success, it was just fantastic,” adds Trish. “For him to have the chance to showcase his abilities, his gifts, and his talents was inspiring. And, when he won his golds this year, he did a massive Tour de France arms-out celebration when he came across the line! That’s my image of James: winning in style.”
The Special Olympics
Set up in 1978 as a non-profit charity, Special Olympics GB is the UK’s largest provider of year-round sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. It currently boasts 95 accredited programmes in England, Scotland, and Wales and provides coaching opportunities for more than 6,500 athletes across some 27 sports.
Thanks to their small army of over 3,500 volunteers, SOGB is transforming lives. Building participants’ confidence and helping them realise potential, it also enables athletes to develop physical fitness and mental well-being, demonstrate courage, experience new friendships, and above all have some fun. And the summit is the Special Olympics.
A global, International Olympic Committee-recognised organisation which was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities, the Special Olympics reaches more than five million athletes in over 190 countries every year.
Operating with a slightly different remit to the Olympics and Paralympics, which focus on elite sport exclusively, however, the Special Olympics offers opportunities for athletes of all abilities. And, with an estimated 1.5 million people with intellectual disabilities in Great Britain (Papworth Trust 2010), its inclusive work truly changes lives.
“To represent Team SOGB as an athlete with intellectual disabilities deserves the highest praise and recognition,” says Colin Dyer, CEO of Special Olympics GB. “Winning a place in the squad is not only an incredibly proud moment for our athletes, but for their loved ones and our fantastic team of volunteers who make Special Olympics GB happen.
“We’re also very grateful for the backing of our partners on this journey to Berlin 2023,” adds Colin. “Not only will this help raise awareness of the work we do to transform the lives of people living with intellectual disabilities through the power of sport, but it will - vitally - help us to reach out to more people and help them get involved.”
A family affair
In the cold depths of January, a summer games in Berlin certainly seems a long way away, but with James already in training, Trish is looking forward to watching her son compete immensely. “The whole family is going out to Berlin, we’re just looking at flights now!” she says. “When James made the squad, he actually said ‘what have I done?!’
“My reaction to him making the squad was elation,” adds Trish. “I couldn’t believe it - there are only four men in the squad, so it’s such a brilliant achievement and he’s had such good support from friends and the cycling community. It’s been lovely.
“He always thought he was going to get in - when he first learned about the Special Olympics and started training, he said we should go out and buy a bike box in preparation because he knew was going to make the squad,” Trish continues. “We said that might be a bit premature, but obviously he was right! We should’ve taken his advice!”
To contribute to James' fund to get him to the Special Olympics this summer, please go to: https://www.justgiving.com/page/james-huntington-1670431253267