The Way I Was: My hero was Desperate Dan: Geoff Capes tells Nicholas Roe how he first competed barefoot, because he had no plimsolls

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BASICALLY it's a picture of three young lads on the sands at Skegness, which was our local holiday resort. I was about seven, and I'm the one with the cricket ball. The one in the middle is a lifetime friend of mine called Derek Wilson, who comes from the same village of Holbeach. The other guy is the son of a local hotel owner: he's obviously well-off because his trousers are nicely creased.

We went there every year for as long as I can remember - local people like us tended not to go too far away from home. We lived about 40 miles away, and it was one of those journeys you could do in a day but mostly you just went for two weeks in summer.

I used to fish off the pier, caught shrimps, went cockling, went back to the caravan and boiled them up.

We were poor, but it wasn't an unhappy childhood. I was one of nine children and my father was what they call a ganger, who employed other people to work on farms, which was seasonal. In those days a farmhand's wages were probably about pounds 6 to pounds 7 a week, so with a large family it was very hard.

We supplemented the diet by going out and literally catching game: we caught rabbits and hares on the weekend, and we went fishing on the mud flats. Not just us, a lot of families used to.

Don't forget I'm talking about 1954, 1955. We only had gas as lighting in our house, and the cold water tap was outside. It was a Friday night bath in front of the fire. I remember going to the All England Schools in 1964 and I was the only shot-putter throwing on concrete barefoot, because I couldn't even afford plimsolls, let alone training shoes.

I was very, very skinny, a bag of bones, but I was never bullied, it was the opposite. Because I was thin doesn't mean I wasn't strong. Somehow I had the ability and strength of two or three, and I was always getting into fights because people wanted to prove themselves. And then five or six guys would gang up on you and you'd still sort them out.

I was brought up defending my honour by being the roughest and strongest, but by 14 I had already decided to channel this strength and aggressiveness into athletics. If I hadn't been channelled, I think I would have gone the other way, because of the nature of the area. There was nothing to do. Don't forget this was the Fens of Lincolnshire, which is basically cut off from the rest of the country even today.

I had heroes. The old Desperate Dan comics, Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track, Wilson the Wonder Athlete, Morgan the Mighty . . . the comic strips became my bible. I used to get them every week to see what sort of training they did, and I tried to emulate them: I was throwing stones around because I didn't have a shot, and I was always trying to run faster.

I half-believed in what they did, and I looked up to them. I think a lot of people do. They'd like it to be true. It's a good, clean, healthy sort of dream, if you like. I felt as though they were part and parcel of me, that maybe I could actually surpass their achievements.

Today I have two children, Lewis and Emma. Lewis was educated at Millfield and is doing a BA at Colorado State University, and Emma is a qualified beauty therapist and an international in her own right. Funnily enough, though, I still go to Skeggy, and I still live about 40 miles from there, although I've moved villages.

I've not moved away very far, although I was in the police force in Cambridgeshire for 12 1/2 years and my sport carried me around the world. But there was always this yearning to come back, so I settled down here in 1980.

I walk through my old village with my chin up because I came from this place. I'm always talking to the kids, saying, 'Listen, boy, if I've made it, you can make it.' It's important to be part of my own background, my early beginnings.

Geoff Capes is currently organising the hunt for Britain's strongest man, sponsored by the 'Daily Star' newspaper.

(Photograph omitted)

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