“If there’s no song and dance made, people are accepted.”
Meet Bob Purcell, the athletics coach who keeps everyone on track.
For the past ten years, Bob has managed the Blackbridge Athletics Track in Gloucester. A sprinter at school, he studied Strength and Conditioning but moved away from sport as he grew up. He became a nurse and then a director for a health authority before being commissioned as a Major in the reserve Army Medical Services. His daughters loved sprinting and Bob ran to join them! Since then, he hasn’t looked back. Bob has now been a level 3 coach for 25 years but only recently got into para-athletics.
Bob took on the track as a retirement project at a time when it was only used in the summer months because it had no floodlights. In partnership with the City Council and with a grant from Sports England, he improved lighting conditions, filled in the potholes, cut back bushes and re-laid the track. His ambition to make the track inclusive to all has resulted in a nationally renowned training school, a team of helpers, and a selection of equipment to assist athletes with specific requirements.
He has supported an impressive squad of athletes to train at the track, including those with a physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment. As well as a world champion, ex-service men strut their stuff on the track alongside other serious athletes. Bob said: "If there’s no song and dance made, people are accepted.”
The spring months are usually the time when the track is at its busiest. Around twelve different schools use it and, with individuals paying £2.00 to access the track, it’s never quiet. This all changed with lockdown.
“Coaches kept in touch with the athletes we work with,” Bob explained. “And we loaned our equipment to keep people active at this time, especially for those that were shielding.”
This meant that people with specific requirements could use such equipment as racerunners, a frame with wheels attached.
“They’re like a tricycle with no pedals or gears,” said Bob. “The athletes’ feet are on the floor and they run within the wheeled frame.”
He also told me about the adapted frames they use for para-athletic seated throwing events. For people who need support to stand, balance or weight bear, these are essential to success.
However, the track is not just for athletes with specific requirements. It is an all-age training space, with children taught the skills that enable them to explore what they are good at and which events they would like to focus on in the future.
“We don’t discriminate,” Bob said. “Our only criteria is that you want to be involved.”
With things slowly returning to something like normal after the pandemic, involving everyone has become more difficult. Fortunately, the space is big enough for 50 people to be on the track at once, even if they can’t all be doing the same activity. Coaches took advantage of the schools being closed to work with young athletes during the day.
“Another advantage is that we are all volunteers,” Bob said. “It made it much easier to get up and running. Having said that, it means that we aren’t eligible for any government support.”
Although he is concerned about their long-term funding, Bob is proud that they were one of the first UK tracks to reopen.
Bob’s determination to reopen as soon as possible is a sign of his hard work, which was recognised by CP Teens UK when they presented him with the Hero of Disability Sport award. It is presented in memory of Racerunning coach Andrew Longden to those who show love, passion, commitment, and dedication to making a difference to the lives of disabled people in sport. Bob loves to watch athletes succeed and follows them in competitions around the country. Yet this deserving winner kept quiet about his achievement during our conversation! When I congratulated him, I pointed out that he hadn’t mentioned his award. Bob’s reply:
“Did I not? Goodness that is unusual - an unaccountable act of modesty which I promise won't be repeated!"