Geological Sciences 1997
Paralympic gold-medalist and motivational speaker.
Since graduating, Giles has competed at the highest levels in swimming competitions. He has won many medals, including Gold at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
On his life and swimming career
I first started swimming when I was seven and even then I had dreams of going to the Olympics. In fact, I told my Mum and Dad that I was going to win a Gold medal. But at the age of thirteen I was diagnosed with a bone tumour in my right arm. Subsequent chemotherapy and operations meant that I lost the use of my right shoulder, though my elbow and hand work fine. With Olympic dreams shattered I carried on swimming to maintain the social network I had at the swimming club. I carried on competing too, though would get thrashed as I’d be swimming with one arm and everyone else would be swimming with two!
The idea of switching my goal and aiming to compete at the Paralympics was not one was enamoured with, principally because it meant acknowledging that I had a disability. Only after a chance meeting with an eminent swimming coach who, as a response to me saying that I wasn’t interested in disability sport, said to me “Before you were ill you could do ten-thousand things, and now you can do nine-thousand, which means that you’ve got a choice.
You can concentrate on the one-thousand things that you can’t do anymore, or you can concentrate on the nine-thousand things that you can still do.” It was the spark that got me thinking. I decided that I wanted to go to the Paralympics because I wanted to be the best I could be. The rest is history.
Winning the bronze in Athens 2004 was one of the proudest moments of my career. Of course I wanted to win the gold as I had done at the previous two Paralympics. But on the day I won the bronze I was the best I could be, it just so happened that on that day two other guys were better. But that race gave me a real chance to look back over my career, realise what I had achieved and recognise, in full, those around me that had formed my team to get me there.
On being a motivational speaker
I went into this line of work because I wanted a career where I was able to pass on the same inspiration to others that I had received. I started speaking in schools and then moved on to speaking for corporate organisations and was amazed at how many people didn’t value their contribution. I use the story of my career to convey new ways for people to think about how they approach and evaluate both their working and non-working lives.
Competing in sport has never been ‘all about winning’ and certainly never been about ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. Sport, to my mind, is about enjoying yourself. If you enjoy it then you will have the strongest foundation on which to build goals, motivate yourself and ultimately succeed. I can’t think of anything else that will motivate you to get you out of bed at 4:45am in winter to go swimming than that!
On life at Leeds
My time at Leeds taught me to really think about what I really wanted to do. When I graduated, like many students, I didn’t know. But I did know that there was no set way of doing it. A year later I got my first sponsorship deal with Legal & General, unheard of at the time for a swimmer with a disability.
Presentation and communication skills are by far the most important thing that I have taken with me from University. I was told at the time when I was doing the course but didn’t realise to what measure they were right.
My various field trips will always stick in my mind. They were wild, but according to the lecturers we were a pretty tame year (always disappointing to hear). Overall it was the sheer diversity of people that I met that will remain with me. I grew up in a pretty homogenous part of the country where most people are of the same race, class, affluence etc. It was a very exciting time.
Most of my friends today went to Leeds, and most of those are people I met on the very first day at Boddington. We were very lucky; the admissions tutors got it just right. Everyone was into music and no one in the block was really that interested in doing sport and that suited me fine – it meant I got to leave the swimming pool behind.
Leeds is such a vibrant university with so much going on and so many people doing incredible things week-in week-out. I have never swum to gain the adulation of others and still feel a bit uncomfortable when I get it, so it’s not something I tend to give. But I love watching people win things, from Gold medals to game-shows, and to see people achieving their goals and seeing what it means to them. If by some connection you can be part of their elation, that’s great.
On Leeds staff
Joe Cann was head of Earth Sciences when I first started. In one of the first lectures I ever had he talked about going to the bottom of the ocean in ALVIN, a deep-sea submersible, to observe Hydrothermal Vents (Black Smokers) on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In 1994 it was cutting-edge stuff and amazing to the early thoughts they were having as to the importance to life on Earth of these vents. He also got me out of a jam when I failed some exams in the first year and the re-takes clashed with the European Championships in France in the summer of 1995. A no-show at Europeans could have potentially ruined my chances of going to the Paralympics in Atlanta the following year.
Mike Leader, who took over as head of dept after Joe Cann, understood that going away on a mapping trip to the back end of beyond for six weeks was perhaps not the best way to prepare for the Atlanta 96 Paralympics. He designed a field trip for me close to Leeds so that I could ‘commute to the field’, allowing me to train and prepare properly. Also, Andy McCaig & Bruce Yardley were both fantastic teachers. I still have a couple of Bruce’s books on my bookshelf.
Thoughts on the new swimming pool
Having a swimming pool at the university would have been superb, especially it was 50m long (Olympic size). It’s crucial for swimmers at the top level to be able to swim in the same size pool that they are going to compete in. Why? Well, you wouldn’t ask Michael Schumacher to prepare for a Grand Prix on a moped. While I was in Leeds I swam for the City of Leeds Swim Club.
On the future
Building my business is a series of ongoing goals and a steep learning curve. I aim to speak more, often around the world after speaking in New York & and Los Angeles later this year.
I’m always interested in raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust, a superb charity that installs specialist wards into hospitals to specifically answer the needs of teenage cancer patients in what is a challenging time of life.
I’d also like to be a better surfer!