The Sparks Series – Simon Wheatcroft

We sent Julie Drury along to the latest talk in the Sparks Series organised by Chesterfield College – this is what she had to say.

On Tuesday 14th November, I had the pleasure of attending the second in Chesterfield College’s ‘The Sparks Series’; talks designed to excite and inspire you with a strong influence on the power of education.

The Speaker was an incredible man called Simon Wheatcroft, accompanied by his Guide Dog Ascot. Simon started to lose his sight in his late teens, due to a degenerative condition, and this change of circumstances started a journey of adapting technology to achieve the impossible. Despite his visual impairment, Simon has gone on to achieve success through determination, true grit and resilience. His story highlights strength in situations where most people would have given up or never even started.

Simon told us about his wife, how they got married in Las Vegas, and how he quit his job to return to Uni to study for a Master’s Degree. This decision meant that he had free time to consider how to push boundaries as a blind man and he decided he wanted to start running.

To begin with, Simon ran alone with just an app, ‘Runkeeper’ to assist him. He began by running from one end of a football pitch to the other, it was relatively straightforward apart from obstacles such as dogs and their owners! In time he moved up to running on a closed road near to an airport where he ran along the yellow lines on the edge of the road. He couldn’t see them, but could feel them under his feet, the ground felt different. Over time Simon built confidence and ability, running independently, with just his smartphone. However, to progress and run further and safely he needed to look for guide runners. You will have seen Guides when watching tv coverage of Paralympic Games or marathons; they would be his eyes either by running alongside him or cycling along with him. It was through the use of Social Media that help was found, with 20 people getting in touch with offers of help.

With assistance, Simon trained hard and went on to run half and full marathons, 50 miles, 80+ miles all from simple beginnings. Not everything went to plan; he had disappointments, races were cancelled, he sustained injuries as most athletes do, but he kept going. He has remained resilient, taking the time needed to heal or plan before returning to training.

He ran in the New York marathon, but he didn’t just do that he ran from Boston to New York first!! He received massive support along the way with people cheering him on and others who joined him running from one point to the next. He has also run across deserts in Namibia. Not just one marathon, he ran for 7 days, sleeping and surviving in the desert each night! Being in the middle of a desert played havoc with sensory deprivation. There were no smells, no noise, no applause as he ran each day in temperatures of 45 degrees. The positives were that the technology worked, he trusted his guide runner and there was applause when he crossed the finishing line!

All these sporting achievements are enormous, yet even more extraordinary because of Simon’s visual impairment. His achievements have been marred with situations that were simply impossible to work around. For example, running amongst rocks and obstacles where safety issues were high and sustaining injuries that took time to heal. Simon did share with us an interest in competing in triathlons if technology could be developed to support open plan navigation. Time will tell…

As well as talking about his sporting achievements Simon did talk about day to day living as a man with a visual impairment; travel, cooking, his children and computer gaming were all discussed following questions from the audience. Simon has a big interest in technology, his Master’s Degree is in Computer Science. He has at different times partnered with technology brands such as Apple and Samsung in developing applications. He has also been a featured athlete in an ASICS campaign.

One question that made me smile was when asked if he had to choose between relying on technology or his guide dog what would he choose? His answer was “Technology is to assist rather replace his dog”. A great answer.

Simon’s shares his story within the UK and internationally as an Inspirational Speaker. You can follow him on social media, his Twitter is @andadapt and his website is www.andadapt.com

I will be attending the final talk in The Sparks Series on 12th December at Chesterfield College. A lady called Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer aims to excite future generations about the importance of engineering. For further details take a look at www.chesterfield.ac.uk/the-sparks-series or telephone 01246 500500 ext. 1743.

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