Paralympics champion Jiří Ježek - Part 1

Jiří Ježek, photo: Czech Paralympic Committee

In today’s One on One my guest is 38-year-old Czech para-cyclist Jiří Ježek, a gold and silver medal holder from the London Paralympics. London was Jiří’s fourth appearance at the Games and his medal finishes there saw him become the most successful para-cyclist in history.

Jiří Ježek, photo: Czech Paralympic Committee
In the first of this two-part interview, Jiří Ježek (who became disabled as a boy, losing his lower right leg beneath the knee in a traffic accident) talks about the 2012 team, nerves before a big race and what set the London Games apart.

“It was the best experience I’ve had in my cycling career: the Paralympic Games in London were an amazing experience for the athletes and fans, media interest was very high and it was comparable to the regular Olympic Games.”

You are in the position of being able to rate three previous games, having taken part in four in total: was it clear this was the direction the Paralympic Games were heading in from the previous ones?

“Yes, I think so. That said, every hosting nation brings something different to the feeling of the Games. Sydney was perfect because Australians are very sporty and very supportive of disabled athletes. It was also a very ‘green’ Games because they are ecologically aware. Athens was more about the historical aspect; and Beijing was great because China is on the rise economically and there is a lot of public interest. The Asian history was very interesting for western athletes. London, in terms of sport and the fun side, the spectator side... it was beautiful. All the media, the British spectators showed us we were taken as athletes – not disabled athletes. That was the best of any Games.”

In your video blog at the time you told viewers it was the first time you would be attending the opening ceremony...

Jiří Ježek
“Yeah, in the previous Paralympics I competed the next day so I wasn’t able to take part. Here I had a few more days. I was able to go and enjoy the atmosphere and it was incredible. You know, in cycling we race on the velodrome and that’s a much smaller venue than the main stadium. So you could really feel all the energy of 80,000 people. You might get that many along the route of a road race I guess but you wouldn’t feel it the same way: here it was like a huge boiling pot!”

How did you enjoy the image of the Czech team this year, based on a painting by Kupka and a humorous reference to the weather in Britain, Czech rubber boots?

“The design of the clothes, including the rubber boots, by Studio E.daniely was great. For me it was the best-ever official clothes and it was also the first time that the Czech Olympic and Paralympic team had the same designs. This was good because it is another aspect of equality. It was an honour for us to wear the same colours. I wore the rubber boots around three times during the games and some people took notice and smiled or laughed.”

The boots were an expression of Czech humour... their take on English weather...

“Yes and although English humour is different, I think it was appreciated.”

At Beijing you took part in all four cycling events; was this true of London as well?

“I’m old school so I wanted to compete in all the disciplines. So if I am able I compete and have enough power, it’s an honour for me to do as many races as possible. It can be a disadvantage: some competitors save their energy and focus only on one race but I took it as an opportunity to please my fans and maybe get more medals.”

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas, Jiří Ježek, photo: CTK
A race is just the tip of the iceberg of course, following months of difficult training and a good deal of sacrifice. In that light, do you feel a lot of pressure ahead of a big event?

“Of course. Even if you are experienced, you still get nervous. It’s the Paralympics, you’ve got your fan base there – and because this year it wasn’t far from Prague there were quite a few of my fans, around 50, there. So there was pressure. Of course, I have 18 years experience now so that can help but you also put high demands on yourself: you want to do well.”

If you choose between the track on the velodrome and the road time trial, do you prefer one over the other?

“Not really. Both hold something special: the velodrome is fairer and if you train and are healthy and in shape, the result is more predictable. On the other hand, the time trial is referred to as the ‘race of truth’. You are racing not against others but against yourself: there is no team dynamic, no team tactics, no influence from the outside. It is just you and the road. Because I trained hard on the road yearlong I was confident of a good result.”

You won silver in the 4-kilometre pursuit and gold in the time trial in London; if I am not mistaken that brings your overall medal tally to 11. There has never been a more successful para-cyclist. Now that a few weeks have passed, has it sunk in?

Have you come to a full realisation of what you achieved?

“It’s an amazing feeling to win gold in my fourth games at the age of 38. To be honest, I didn’t expect it. I was competing for ‘any’ medal. To become the most successful para-cyclist in the Games history is very special. It isn’t just about me: it’s about all the people who took part, who helped me on the way, and the fans. It was important to achieve something special. It is something I never dreamed of: there I was a time when I just hoped to compete, then I took part in Athens and got gold, in 2004 I turned professional and now I hit the pinnacle. It’s a great feeling.”

In Part 2, tune in to learn how Jiří Ježek got into cycling at the age of 20, how he sees advances in prosthetics and how he tries to help Czech kids today overcome disabilities.