I didn’t get to meet Roger Bannister…

Sir Roger BannisterBut when I was editing Oxfordshire Life magazine, and the idea was pitched that we included an interview with Sir Roger Bannister to mark his 80th birthday, I jumped at the chance to give readers an insight into his latter years in Oxford.

Meeting your heroes

It’s one of the disadvantages of being the editor, rather than the writer or photographer, that you get stuck in the office pushing paper rather than getting to meet your heroes. Both Justin Bowyer, who pitched the idea, and Paul Wilkinson, the photographer, set up their own successful businesses and keep in touch via social media. Some articles, more than others I’ve commissioned as an editor, have stuck in the mind. This one because I’m a mad-keen sports fan, and because both Justin and Paul were thrilled to have met Sir Roger Bannister, and the announcement of his death on March 3, 2018 made me think of them.

The passing of one of our national sporting greats prompted tributes on all media channels and at the IAAF world indoor athletics championships in Birmingham, plus a celebration of his life. No-one lives forever. You can ask no more than you leave a good mark on the world, and tellingly, Roger Bannister rated the achievements of his professional and academic career at least as highly as his sporting successes. Had he been born in the era of professional athletics, he may have chosen to concentrate on his running for longer, once qualified, pretty much as veterinary student and double worlds medallist Laura Muir plans to do. But athletics was a gentleman’s hobby back in the fifties, and if you had to earn a living it couldn’t be through paid appearances.

3 minutes 59.4 seconds

Iffley Road running track

I smiled when I heard Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram discussing how many thousands of people would say they had been at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6 1954, watching the historic scenes, when the real figure was around 1,200. Many people will be able to say they met him during his 88 years, but not me. But I am glad that Paul and Justin did. Meeting your heroes is one of the privileges of working in our business. Being a hero – well that’s a different story.

© All pictures and text used in this post are subject to copyright by the original authors, photographer and/or the publishing company. Design and layout in Oxfordshire Life by Louise White.

Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson
Nicky Henderson

henderson2 henderson3

If he were a film star he’d be cast as the strong, silent type: as it is, he’s one of the country’s most respected and successful figures in National Hunt racing. I spent a morning in the wind and rain with trainer Nicky Henderson. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.

When you have 110 horses and 50 stable staff under your care sitting down is a luxury. Those entrusting racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson to deliver include HM Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JP McManus. Apt then, that Nicky is a bundle of energy, marching forward to greet me at his yard just outside Lambourn, striding off to his all-weather exercise ring and jumping into his Jeep to whizz up to a vantage point from where he can watch his wards, human and equine.

Seemingly impervious to the blustery weather, his blue eyes are inscrutable as he scrutinises his horses. He has rugged good looks but doesn’t seem bothered by appearance. His only adornment is a signet ring bearing his family crest. Hatless, he’s lightly dressed in unbuckled boots, a pair of blue canvas trousers and a waterproof jacket of the kind usually worn by hikers. But mere morals venturing to Seven Barrows in winter should wrap up more warmly – a vest, jumper, tweed jacket and a long waterproof, windproof coat prove just about adequate and within seconds of meeting Nicky I’m mud-spattered despite wearing wellies. This has been one of the wettest winters on record and the weather is causing Nicky, and his owners, enormous disappointment – pools of water lie everywhere and Nicky dubs his all-weather exercise ring ‘the best building we’ve got’.

The gallops at Seven Barrows are fine, but the nation’s racecourses are struggling to put on meetings. When you have favourites peaking for races and owners itching to see their asset placed, cancellations are exasperating.

Seven Barrows straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and is dotted with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows. From the hilltops on the gallops the only house to be seen for miles is Nicky’s own. The house and yard were built in the mid-1800s and the soil hasn’t been tilled since. At least part of the everyday pleasure of Nicky’s job lies in being outdoors and he’s proud to be the guardian of this landscape.

Though Nicky’s expensive Eton education wasn’t intended to equip him for a successful career in horse training he says, with a wry smile: “We all knew where the bookies were.”
He trod a more conventional path initially, following in his father’s footsteps to become a stockbroker. Two years on, having told his father he hated his job, he started riding as a professional jockey – not such a leap as it appears – he’d been an amateur before. His father, Johnny Henderson, was an extraordinary man, whose vision and drive kept Cheltenham Racecourse from being sold for property development. He had been an amateur jockey himself, was a racehorse owners and breeder and he supported his son’s decision.
“He was very good. I was expected to do the other job, but I didn’t want to sit in the City all my life,” says Nicky.
Johnny Henderson saw his son ride 75 winners and become an assistant trainer under the tutelage of the late Fred Winter before making a name for himself as a top trainer in his own right.

“I have three daughters, [Sarah, Tessa and Camilla], I don’t think any of them wants to get into training, though you do get women trainers. If they did, I’d help them,” says Nicky.
Though the youngest rides out for him when she’s home, Nicky has plenty of stable boys and girls working for him. They address Nicky as ‘Guv’nor’ and the rapport between them implies not only great respect, but also warm affection. No barking of orders, he exchanges very few words during his observations, but he knows exactly how each horse is riding. In horseracing circles Nicky is recognised as a bit of a softy, resisting the pressure to send his horses out unless they’re in tip-top condition.
“I can be criticised for it, but when my horses run, they are fit… there’s not a lot of point firing them at the wrong races in the wrong circumstances,” he says.

“Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses”

He later revisits the subject.
“We do have the best owners, which is quite important,” he says and looks embarrassed when I suggest such owners appreciate his handling of their valuable horses or they would go elsewhere for success. “They are the most understanding and the nicest. Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses,” he says.

There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear.

Nicky’s been on the go since 6am, but he hasn’t had breakfast and won’t be having lunch. A single cup of coffee will sustain him through the day.
“I’ve never thought of it before,” he replies when I ask him how he manages to expend so much energy on so little food. There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear. Instead, Nicky hits the phone, resting in a chair for a microsecond, then jumping up and walking around as he talks to a hospitalised jockey, an owner and his assistant trainer. Then he’s discussing nutrition with vet Buffy Shirley-Bevan, trying to find the perfect balance of nutrition for an off-colour horse.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight. You have to make hundreds of decision every day – it’s inevitable there are going to be wrong ones, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

His office features wall-to-wall photographs of times that went right – horses in winners’ enclosures with their proud owners; horses clearing Becher’s Brook perfectly in the Grand National; bronzes of horses and a wide-screen television for watching race meetings. In Nicky’ words, horse racing is about hours of agony for a moment of glory. Like Olympic athletes, racehorses are highly tuned and their systems work at the extremes of their physical capabilities.
“One of my biggest frustrations is injury,” says Nicky as he’s called out of the office to examine a horse with a cut on its leg that’s not improving.

“I’m no good at doing nothing”

So what does Nicky do to relax?
“We do go on holiday. I go to buy horses in France – that will be our main objective this year. The last 10 years it’s been the place to buy,” he says.
“I didn’t learn much at school but I learnt enough French to be able to have conversations with a French trainer and I got a maths ‘O’ level which keeps me in the office for an hour or so,” he says, cracking a rare smile.
“I do go to Scotland – I’m not good in hot weather and I’m no good at doing nothing. I can’t sit on beaches,” he says.
He used to ride his own horse but says, practically: “It takes up a box and you have to keep it. It doesn’t make sense to have a box with a Dobbin in it.”
Nicky likes fishing and shooting (although the season clashes with National Hunt racing) and has been known to hit the odd round of golf. He enjoys eating out, but the pleasure comes from the company, not from the food. His passion and his life-blood are in the training.
“Everybody who does it is mad. We all stick together. It’s good fun around here,” he says, adding that without the fun there would be no point doing it.
Can Nicky see himself continuing until he’s too infirm to stand outside in all weathers or will be able, one day, to retire and relax?
“I haven’t thought about it. It depends how long I last. You last as long as anybody wants you to keep going. If things go badly for a couple of years people soon forget you,” he says. (Nicky needn’t worry, a quick check of the next day’s results shows that he had two winners at Ascot.)
“You only give this sort of thing up when you’re too decrepit to do it,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards”

We go outside again and clamber into the battered old Jeep; it’s filthy inside and houses a diary, notebook, two pairs of binoculars and a pair of warm gloves that Nicky shows no sign of putting on. We’re heading back up the hill to watch the final runs of the day. “I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards,” he says, surveying the landscape.

Such stark beauty could move the most dispassionate man and as another of his horses thunders past, tail flowing, sinews straining and nostrils flaring, Nicky tells me it cost £75,000 as a six-month-old and is due a win. His face is alight with the thrill of watching it gallop.
The gods can spit fire and spout rain up here, but it’s clear that Nicky Henderson is in his element. At one with nature, the closest he can get to heaven on earth – and that’s without the winning, or maybe, it’s part of the reason for it.

[Written for Oxfordshire Life magazine to highlight Lambourn Open Day on March 21 2008. It’s a unique opportunity for members of the public to see the racehorses and meet the trainers.]

60 Seconds with… Pro surfer and Eco-warrior James Pribram

Click here for a pdf of the original article James Pribram


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International professional surfer James Pribram became a world environmental campaigner for the sea after contracting a serious illness through surfing in polluted waters. Besides appearing on television, he has written for the LA Times and many other publications, raising awareness of his EcoWarrior clean-up project. He also runs the Aloha School of Surfing.


What’s the best thing about life as a surfer? Going to the beach. For me, growing up on Laguna Beach, I would wake up in the morning as a little kid, open up the sliding glass door, go out on the deck and look at the beach and the ocean. Besides my parents, surfing’s always been my everything in life; it kept me from making some of the wrong decisions that some of my friends, unfortunately, made when we were kids.

And the worst? Do you know I’m not really sure there’s anything too terrible about being a surfer. Perhaps the worst thing is, if you’re like me and you love our oceans and beaches, to see pollution affecting them.

How does an American surfer boy from Orange County become a man tackling worldwide ocean ecology issues? It is just something that has happened naturally. In 1997 I was teaching a surfing lesson in Doheny Beach [made famous by sixties pop group The Beach Boys]. I had a tiny scratch on my wrist and two hours later I was in the emergency room with IVs [intravenous drips] stuck in my arms and the doctors said: ‘Had you not come in within eight hours, you could have died.’ That was something that changed my overall view of our oceans and beaches and really was the beginning of a major change in the person I was.

What advice would you give an environmentally-conscious seafarer? If you want to do something positive, participate, take that first step. Whether it’s attending a local Surfrider Chapter meeting, or Heal the Bay, or Reef Check, or Surfers Against Sewage or even your local city council. Get out there and voice your opinion and get involved.

 You tackle some huge worldwide issues through your EcoWarrior project. Last year it was the Mexican Gulf oil spill – this year it’s radiation pollution around Fukushima. How do you keep motivated? It’s easy to be motivated. There’s always a new issue, a new crisis, a new something going on in the world. I feel like I have a responsibility to those people and kids who look up to me as a role model so, being motivated, that’s the easy part. The most difficult part is finding better solutions and compromises in our world.

 If you hadn’t become a surfer what would you be doing now? For a school assignment we had to make a coat of arms and answer the question ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ and mine said ‘A professional surfer.’ That was 1977 and I was six years old. The first professional surfing champion was crowned in 1976. Let’s just say I was destined to be a pro-surfer and to be this person, I think.

Your EcoWarrior project has the wonderful tagline “We are all connected by one ocean.” How do you unite all who use the ocean? For me, the ocean represents so many different things. Obviously, I’ve made a living from it, but I feel a deeper connection to the ocean and the beaches. I think everyone can relate to the beauty of the sea – a sunrise or sunset, or watching the dolphins playing in the ocean – seeing whales.

 Where’s the most beautiful place you’ve been or surfed? Home – Laguna Beach Pearl Street. It shaped me to become who I am today.

And the most dire? Grand Isle, Louisiana [which bore the brunt of the BP Mexican Gulf oil spill disaster last year]. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. It smelt so bad and was like something out of a sci-fi movie. The ocean is dead there. The colour of it, the smell of it – it’s not blue, there’s no oxygen in it. It was something that I could never fathom happening within our own country – and let’s not forget, 11 people lost their lives there.

When you’re too old to surf what will you be doing? I don’t know – maybe I’ll be in politics!

You can keep up with James’s activities at http://www.jamespribram.com/blog, on Twitter and Facebook.

This interview appears in the summer edition 2011 of Seafarer Magazine.

Four-times Olympic Gold Yachtsman Ben Ainslie

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class.

I’m so thrilled for Ben Ainslie – he’s just won his fourth Olympic Gold sailing medal. Hats off to the gentleman assassin.

Fifteen years after bursting on to our sporting sightlines as a fresh-faced 19-year-old chasing a podium place in the Olympic Laser class, yachtsman Ben Ainslie is aiming for his fourth consecutive gold medal in his fifth games and a place among the world’s greatest-ever Olympians. Sandra Kessell caught up with him for Seafarer Magazine.

Yachtsman Ben Ainslie talks like a gentleman on a mission – he has fast, firm, decisive, soft-spoken replies for every question – until I ask him about qualifying for next year’s Olympics. It’s not that he stops in his verbal tracks, just his answers become very considered and measured.

Ben recently came second by a single point, after picking up penalties, to former training partner Giles Scott in the Olympic Classes Regatta in Miami. Giles is a man who acknowledges he has looked up to, and sailed in the wake of, Ben for a number of years. Ben, meanwhile, is very sporting in his praise for fellow British competitors, but there’s no hiding the quiet resolve in his voice when he’s talking about the crucial qualification regattas the squad will be competing in later this year.

Courteous and generous, Ben’s very far from being over-confident but he leaves you feeling you’ve just spoken to a highly-trained, extremely professional assassin – ruthless, clinical and effective with laser-beam sights. It’s these qualities he’s brought to bear while winning three successive Olympic golds as well as the silver medal he took in his first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. With all that Olympic success heading his list of accolades, it’s often overlooked that he’s also a nine-times world champion and nine-times European champion.

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class. Ben and Giles will be up against Wales’s current World Champion Ed Wright as they vie to wear the red, white and blue lion of Team GB in the Olympic Finn class 2012. Which means some excellent sailors will have to watch from the marina at Weymouth and Portland, the venue for the Olympic 2012 sailing events.

“There are three or four in the UK who head the current world championship rankings – including Mark Andrews and Andrew Mills. It’s nice to see younger names coming through but it’s going to be very difficult to qualify and very tough on the guys who don’t qualify – any one of them could take a medal,” says Ben.

So we won’t be seeing three Britons filling the podium, as happened in February at the Miami Regatta, or three Union flags raised while the national anthem rings out over British waters. In the next few months heart-rending, life-changing decisions will have to be made and you don’t envy the selectors the task.

No longer the young whipper-snapper, Ben, at 34, is the old man of the Olympic sailing squad. He had been concentrating on America’s Cup sailing, but the withdrawal of his team, whilst a disappointment, has also meant Ben can switch his focus to individual matters. That means more time on the water, more time in the gym and surprisingly, much, much more to eat. Naturally lighter, he has had to put on 10 kilos to make the right weight for sailing in the Finn, but he’s been here before, and been successful in peaking at the right time in the right place, as his record shows.

Though sailing is highly skilful, and the equipment has to be world-class, physical fitness is a key factor in success and hard training part of the preparation, he emphasises. But with all that work in prospect you can’t help wondering if he still finds sailing fun, the way he did 15 years ago.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I love the sport, obviously, but I also love just being able to go out sailing with family and friends, going on sailing holidays and cruising boats,” he says. He also gets a thrill from sailing alone – something he’s been able to do since he was eight or nine, when he used to go out a little dinghy in Restronguet in Cornwall.

“It was a real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ experience. I loved being in control,” he says. And whilst he’s an advocate for safety he adds that it’s important for youngsters not to be too scared of doing exciting things.

“Back then, I wasn’t even wearing a life jacket. I had an old duffle coat and wellies on. There’s no way any parent these days would let you do that, but we are talking 25 years ago!” he says.

He’s credits his amateur sailor parents, Roddy and Susan, for imbuing him with his love of the sea and says he’s grateful for the huge amount of support they’ve given him in every way imaginable throughout his career. Roddy skippered at the first Whitbread Round the World Race in the Seventies.

Ben took his first Laser world championship title at the age of 16 and hasn’t looked back since. Though he says he’s lucky to have the backing of his sponsors, in the current financial climate he takes nothing for granted and names a hatful of them for good measure.

Other key players in his life have been his coach David Howlett as well as Jim Saltsonstall and John Derbyshire. He goes on to praise the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and UK Sport for the way competitive sailing has been developed in Britain, showing he’s not only a man who commands respect, but who gives it too. His heroes include legendary Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrøm, F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and tennis player Pete Sampras and when the 2012 Olympics come around, he hopes he’ll be in a position to watch some of the athletics.

“I was lucky, in Atlanta, I was able to see some of the other sports. I think any Olympic sport at that level is worth watching,” he says, adding that the British cycling and swimming squads have excellent medal prospects.

“It’s really exciting. Every day you meet someone new talking about the games coming up next year. Training towards it as a potential competitor has obviously been very different this time around. It’s very different being able to race in your home waters but there’s the added pressure of hoping you’ll be there with your friends and family among the spectators. More than ever before it’s a challenge!”

There will be life after the Olympics and, he hopes, a future with a family of his own once he’s stopped living out of a suitcase, but till then his focus is the 2012 Olympics, his gold medal tally and the task of joining the legends of competitive sailing.

You can keep up-to-date with Ben Ainslie’s progress by visiting his website www.benainslie.com

Ben Ainslie – facts and stats:

Born: February 5, 1977.

Olympic successes:

1996 Atlanta, Silver (Laser class)

2000 Sydney, Gold (Finn Class)

2004 Athens, Gold (Finn Class)

2008 Beijing, Gold (Finn Class)

2012 London, Gold (Finn Class)

Other awards:

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

Three-times ISAF World Sailor of the Year (1999, 2002 & 2008)

Five-times British Yachtsman of the Year (1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008)

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