Home Sports Canoeist Rob Oliver in tears after fairytale ending to Paralympic career by claiming...

Canoeist Rob Oliver in tears after fairytale ending to Paralympic career by claiming bronze in Tokyo

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Canoeist Rob Oliver in tears after fairytale ending to Paralympic career by claiming bronze in his final race… 13 years after scoring a goal that led to him losing his leg after 17 operations

  • Oliver broke his leg in two places when an opponent tried to block his shot
  • He had 17 operations before he was advised to have his leg amputated
  • The 33-year-old almost didn’t make Tokyo after contracting Covid
  • Canoeist claimed bronze in his final race – the Paralympic sprint final


The reason why Rob Oliver was sitting in a canoe at the start of a Paralympic sprint final will astonish the thousands of people who step on to a Sunday League football pitch this weekend.

Oliver was a trainee aerospace engineer, playing recreational football at right back for Solihull Red Diamonds in the West Midlands, when he went up for a corner, scored as the ball fell to him and had his leg broken in two places when an opponent tried to block the shot.

‘It was a clean break,’ he said on Friday. ‘I didn’t expect nine months later I wouldn’t have a leg any more.’

Canoeist Rob Oliver claimed bronze in his final race - the Paralympic sprint final

Canoeist Rob Oliver claimed bronze in his final race – the Paralympic sprint final

There were 17 operations, the failure to diagnose a blood supply condition and eventually the leg was removed. ‘The first few months in hospital were tough,’ said Oliver.

‘I was talking to the wall, I’d been there so long. I didn’t want to admit I’d never play football again.’

The hospital later admitted negligence in his case. Canoeing was Oliver’s way back, though that road has by no means been linear because there are no guarantees of glory in Paralympic sport.

Oliver was the only member of the six-strong GB canoe sprint team not to take a medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and that left him utterly desolate.

‘Over and over again, I was known as the only guy who didn’t win a medal,’ he reflected. ‘You’re the only person at the training ground that doesn’t have a billboard. Every time it would be, “We’re going here… but sorry it’s only the medallists”. That first year was really tough.’

The 33-year-old was in tears after fairytale ending to his Paralympic career on Friday

The 33-year-old was in tears after fairytale ending to his Paralympic career on Friday

The most recent obstacle came five weeks before these Paralympics when he contracted Covid. He missed the sprint team’s training camp and had severe doubts he would make it here at all. But that had an unexpected psychological effect when he arrived.

‘It almost took the pressure off,’ he said. ‘I thought, “What else can go wrong?” Just being here and embracing these Games felt enough for me and having that mindset helped.

‘Five years ago before my final I head-butted a wall because mentally I wasn’t tough enough. I couldn’t handle the pressure of it.’

That certainly was not the case here on Friday. Oliver was up against a strong field including Ukrainian Serhii Yemelianov, who had looked strong in the qualifying run. Oliver, racing in the far left of the field, grimaced with the physical effort.

Australian Dylan Littlehales, impressive in qualification, looked to be edging him out in the last 20 metres. But Oliver’s power in the closing stages was unrelenting. The last few thrusts of the oar took him over for bronze. There were greater glories for the British team than this on Friday morning. Emma Wiggs powered to gold by four clear seconds in a new kayak category. Jeanette Chippington’s bronze in that race means she has now medalled in seven Paralympics, at the age of 51.

The canoeist almost didn’t make Tokyo after contracting Covid five weeks ago

The canoeist almost didn’t make Tokyo after contracting Covid five weeks ago

But Oliver’s bronze was the one that caused members of the British team to hug each other in the rain which drenched this quayside. Spotting him as he was being interviewed, Wiggs wheeled her chair back to the mixed zone to embrace him.

‘I didn’t know where I’d finished,’ he said. ‘I knew it was going to be a tight race. All of my heats and semi-final I’ve had a stomach strain. Thankfully it held together.’ Those decisive last few thrusts of the oar will be the last in the sport for Oliver, who has had two children, Elliot and Maisey, in the past four years with his wife, Zoe.

‘It’s the sacrifices of everyone else that has made me make that decision,’ the 33-year-old reflected. ‘My kids are two and four. Our season isn’t good for the school holidays and I want to be able to go away with them.’

The aerospace firm he worked with before his Paralympic journey started have kept his job open all these years.

‘Thirteen years later I can’t believe it,’ he said. ‘I never thought I would be in a boat, let alone win a Paralympic medal. It’s crazy.’

IAN HERBERT’S TOKYO DIARY

Swimmer Tully Kearney has revealed she ‘took out about four people’ when her wheelchair got stuck in reverse in the Olympic Village food hall and briefly seemed likely to smash through a plate glass window. The 24-year-old told Channel 4: ‘I bought a new power attachment. It was working fine, I went to the food hall and was about to get food when all of a sudden it started reversing at about 20mph and wouldn’t let me brake.’

Taekwondo silver medallist Beth Munro said she was astonished to make the final after only taking up the sport two years ago. After beating Yujie Li of China, Munro said: ‘Prior to 2019, I had never punched or kicked anyone in my life!’

Betty Moutoumalaya, a former drummer from the Paris suburbs, will ‘sign-sing’ the French national anthem La Marseillaise as part of a Paris 2024 section in tomorrow’s closing ceremony. 

GB wheelchair basketball player-coach Gaz Choudhry said his team would use their experience of playing in Spanish leagues in their bronze medal match against Spain. He added that the semi-final defeat by Japan was ‘devastating’.

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