As Richard Whitehead rounded the bend in the London 2012 centrepiece arena yesterday, struggling to control the G-force on the prosthetic legs attached to his thighs, he was not just bringing up the rear in the T42 Paralympic 200m final, he was 20 metres behind the leader. Somehow, the 36-year-old amputee from Nottinghamshire managed to generate the speed and momentum to produce a home-straight finish that Usain Bolt would have struggled to match.
It took him some eight metres clear of the field. He could afford to indulge in some Lightning Bolt antics, flexing his arms in a Popeye pose, before crossing the line in 24.38sec, breaking his own world record.
It was a second golden moment for Britain on the track, following Hannah Cockcroft's T34 100m victory the night before, and as stunning an athletic achievement as could possibly be imagined. Think of Bolt running a marathon in world-record time – 2hr 03min 38sec – and you have some perspective on what the British Blade Runner accomplished in front of a delirious 80,000 sell-out crowd.
Whitehead is a marathon man. In 2009 he became the first amputee to break three hours for the 26.2 mile distance. In 2010 he ran 2hr 42min 52sec in Chicago. He only turned to sprinting when the International Paralympic Committee announced that there would be no marathon in the T42 category at London 2012.
Given that his amputation was above the knee, not below, like Oscar Pistorius, Whitehead starts his sprint races like a marathon runner, standing upright in his blocks. He even slipped when the gun fired, yet still managed to retrieve what must have looked to most in the stadium like a hopelessly lost cause.
Asked what had pulled him from the back of the field, Whitehead replied: "My friend Simon Mellows, who died in 2005 and inspired me to run so many great marathons. He was the person who was bringing me round that bend and through the straight.
"That's why I looked up to the sky when I crossed the line. I just thanked him for being at the start of my journey. This was for him."
Whitehead and Mellows batted together for Woodborough Cricket Club in the South Notts League. "We also played for Nottinghamshire Disabled Cricket Club and for the England development team," Whitehead said. "He was an amazing guy. He was 6ft 7in and he could hit the ball a mile. We used to be little and large when we batted.
"His widow is here today with her two kids and I know they will be welling up now. They know how important a contribution Simon has made to me. He's somebody I'll always remember and always take to the start line, whether it's a marathon or a 200m."
Whitehead's remarkable sporting CV also includes an appearance for the Great Britain ice sledge hockey team at the Winter Paralympics in Turin in 2006. He is coached at sprinting by Keith Antoine, who guided Olympic 400m bronze medallist Katharine Merry, and at the marathon by Liz Yelling, the 2006 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist and a Bedford and County clubmate of Paula Radcliffe.
The transition to track sprinter has not been without its problems. "In the London and New York Marathons there are not many bends as sharp as the one on the track out there," Whitehead said. "I have so many levers.
"There is so much G-force going through my hips I feel like Jenson Button going around the corners. It is tough. It's been a challenge.
"I've come such a long way. In 2004 I was running on my knees in the dark, getting towards my first marathon. And now I'm here as a world-record holder and Paralympic gold-medal winner."
And the future? That, appropriately enough, will be both a marathon and a sprint. "I've got the 100m here next Friday and Saturday," Whitehead said. "That's a massive challenge for me, because I've got to support loads of cadence through that first 10 metres.
"I will revisit the marathon. My world record is 2 hours 42 minutes and I want to do 2:35. I've spoken to Liz Yelling regarding that.
"I've got lots of other challenges on the horizon – some exciting stuff that's going to really spread the word and the power of this sport.
"If you look at the people in this stadium, I bet you 80 per cent have never seen Paralympic sport before and hopefully because of today they'll now continue.
"I want to see this at stadiums across England – maybe even a series that will inspire the next generation of athletes around the country: at Gateshead, Birmingham, Crystal Palace. Hopefully UK Athletics will embrace that." On the evidence of another rip-roaring sell-out session at the London Paralympics, the Great British public most likely would.Reuse content