Peter Wilson: Life on the farm is nice for Olympic gold medalist
Double trap shooter tells Robin Scott-Elliot why he is revelling in Dorset family life after his exhausting, golden Olympics
Thursday 20 December 2012
Peter Wilson will make a brief but familiar journey on Christmas morning. Armed with an iron bar, he will tour the water troughs around his parents' farm, check none are frozen, check the pigs and their piglets, check on the cows; pretty much what he has done every Christmas morning since childhood.
"Being on the farm is nice – it is a bit of normality," he suggests, sitting in at a table in the farm house, dogs wandering in and out of the room. Normality and familiarity will bring to an end a year that has been anything but for Wilson, indeed four years that have been far removed from both. Those in Olympic circles like to talk about journeys – it's something of a buzz word with the likes of Dave Brailsford and Sir Clive Woodward – and among the myriad stories that emerged from London 2012, the journey Wilson completed at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich on a Friday afternoon in August is one of the more fanciful.
It's a winding tale of a farmer's son from Dorset, an Arab prince, long days in Arabia, desperation, failure, falcons and a golden finale. Wilson closes his eyes when he talks about the moment he won double trap shotgun gold, closes his eyes and lifts his hands as though he were firing the shot again.
"It was a unique feeling," he says. "I put my gun to my shoulder, pull it down to what we call a mark, where the clay will fly through. You get quarter of a second to react, I pulled the trigger, I saw the smoke. That was it. I knew I had won the Olympics."
He opens his eyes wide and grins. Wilson is a talker, an enthusiast, the type who flings himself headfirst into life. He recently filmed Olympic Superstars, to be shown next weekend, competing against Mo Farah, Anthony Joshua, the Brownlee brothers and other fellow London 2012ers. He was, he says, a disaster apart from one moment – beating Alistair Brownlee in the 100m, a triumph he likes to remind the Olympic triathlon champion of whenever possible.
"I sent him a text this morning," says Wilson and grins again. The previous night Wilson had been a front-row guest at Sports Personality of the Year. Rebecca Adlington tried to sit next to him – the two became friends during the Olympics – but was moved by a BBC staffer. Such is the all-pervading desire of the corporation to worship 2012, the heroine of Beijing is no longer considered front-row material.
"She got two golds in Beijing and two bronze in London and has been pushed aside," says Wilson. "That's tough." It was in Beijing, while Adlington was seizing her moment, that Wilson's journey to London gold began.
Aged 21 and a shooter of promise, he was sent to the Chinese capital as part of the British Olympic Association's Ambition 2012 programme, designed to give young athletes a taste of the biggest sporting show on earth. It was an experience that was to help him when he arrived in the athletes' village four years later but at the time he had more immediate issues to deal with. For the second successive Games, Britain failed to win a shooting medal. One afternoon as Wilson sat in the stands at the shooting venue, the sport's performance director told him there would be no funding to see him to London.
"It's devastating," recalls Wilson. "You don't know what to do. I left university after a year – told my mum and dad I wanted to win Olympic gold. Dad wasn't happy. I said 'trust me' and they did – a year and a half later that was shattered. I thought 'no, this is not how my Olympic dream ends'."
Later that afternoon, Wilson looked across the athletes' lounge and saw Ahmed Al Maktoum, gold winner in Athens and considered the greatest double trap shooter the sport has seen. An idea took root, now he needed the conviction to carry it out. Anxiety gripped him and he stood by a drinks dispenser, taking and replacing, taking and replacing a bottle of water.
"I must have got it out 15 times and put it back. I thought 'Just grow a set Wilson, go and do it – you'll regret it forever if you don't'. So I slammed the bottle back in and walked over."
Wilson asked Maktoum to help him win Olympic gold. It began an extraordinary relationship. Maktoum is not only an Olympic shooter he is also a member of the Dubai ruling family. He agreed to coach Wilson for nothing. Back home Wilson worked in a pub, a little further down the Piddle Valley from the family farm, and twice a year he flew to Dubai to train, hour after hour in broiling heat, observed by the hawkish Maktoum, sitting on a carpet behind Wilson, one of his falcons perched on an arm, eating dates or drinking coffee.
"In breaks from shooting he would train his falcons," says Wilson. "We trained a lot and it is bloody hot, up to 1,500 cartridges a day and every four weeks you get one day off. It's intense. His philosophy is you train like you have never trained before, push yourself to a position where it is so ingrained in your mind that even under the immense pressure of the Olympics you can do it without thinking.
"You shoot so much in heat that the sweat gives you a rash, then that cuts. He said 'no complaining', I don't have time to argue with you, I am a prince. I complained once, my shoulder was cut and bruised. He pulled his shirt off and his arm and shoulder was black – bruised black. He said, 'That's pain, but that's an Olympic gold medal.' Without him I would not have won gold."
Maktoum broke down Wilson's technique and rebuilt it. In March, Wilson broke the world record, hitting 198 targets out of 200. London was on the horizon. "That score was like climbing Everest naked – people said it can't be done. People were saying you are the greatest. I was thinking this is easy. And that's a dreadful thing to think – the minute you start thinking that you're lost. I came seventh in [the test event in] London, then 12th in the last World Cup event. Ahmed told me to come out to Dubai and we re-trained my mind. Basically he told me 'you're shit'. He said you are no one, a nobody."
It worked. Wilson refocused and he credits Maktoum's regime for getting him through his moment of crisis in the Olympic final, the moment when he glanced up at the scoreboard for the first time. "I realised I was four targets ahead. I thought I could win the Olympics. My technique left me, everything went, bang, bang, miss, miss."
Wilson fell back on the hours of training, technique and routine, and in particular the layer upon layer of mental strength Maktoum helped lay down. The rhythm returned and minutes later he did win the Olympics. "Ahmed said to me 'I saw you look at the board. You thought you had won. We will have to work harder for Rio.' I thought oh god, here we go again."
Or not. His future is unclear. He has yet to commit to Rio, wanting to wait a few months to ensure it's a coolly made, rational decision. He spoke to Adlington, who is in a similar position, and others about it last Sunday at the Sports Personality after party.
"London aged me about 10 years. It's that mental stress and strain, it kills you. Katherine Grainger said she is still undecided because she is so happy in this moment, she wants it to last. I want exactly that, to enjoy this moment. I'm clinging on to it. I would love to go to Rio, but I have got to want it so badly that I can go through everything once again, and it's so long. Four years is such a long time."
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