I was settling down on the first day of an Easter 2015 holiday in Ireland when I got a phonecall I’ll never forget.
“Mr. Parker, I believe you recently entered a competition to play with Ian Wright at Wembley…?”
“Yes, that’s right…”
“Well I’m pleased to tell you that you’re our lucky winner”.
Holy. Mary. Mother. Of. God.
Having grown up harbouring doomed ambitions of a career as a professional footballer, the opportunity to play at the home of football is something I’d spent plenty of time dreaming about, but had long since conceded would never happen.
And now, here it was. My figurative lottery win. Every boy’s dream. Yet, along with my natural feelings of excitement were ones of apprehension. Dread, even.
Yes, my dream had come true. But it had done so at a time when I was in about the worst shape I’d ever been.
The late fitness test
My week of feasting on Guinness, Tayto and the odd Easter egg was abandoned. Instead I threw myself wholeheartedly into a crash fitness course in the short time I had before setting foot on the hallowed turf.
The days that followed saw me make a few trudges up and down the Slievenamon mountain in Co.Tipperary, as well as a few blasts around picturesque Irish country lanes on a mountain bike.
At the summit of Slievenamon as part of my training for Wembley
My return home to Birmingham saw me continue in the same vein, with a few desperate trips to the local park for a kickabout to try and kid myself I was in any way ready for a 90 minute game of football.
Needless to say, I wasn’t. 20 days isn’t enough time to undo 20-odd years of excess. That the video below shows my most meaningful contribution to the game says everything.
In most ways, my Wembley experience was wonderful. The walk down the tunnel, lining up for the national anthem, and climbing the steps to the Royal Box to collect the trophy are moments that will live long in the memory.
But the day will always be tinged with the disappointment that I wasn’t physically able to grasp the opportunity with both hands. And I have only myself to blame.
Team Wrighty – Wembley winners
Righting the wrongs
The one positive was that the day served as a wake-up call as to how unfit I truly was, and I’d soon joined my local leisure centre to continue my pursuit of fitness.
The problem was that, while I was doing a manful job of plodding along to the gym two or three times a week, I was taking no enjoyment from the experience whatsoever. It made me feel hot and heavy, and frankly I was always glad of a good excuse not to bother going.
An exception to this feeling of indifference was the fact that I quite enjoyed swimming… and now, finally, we get to the crux of why my first post on my swimming blog has revolved around a football match I played last year.
The truth hurts
My gym is located in the same 1920s building as the Erdington swimming pool, and my occasional weekend wallows in the water were much valued, if few and far between. The problem lay in the fact that the pool is only open for public swimming at 7am each morning, and I found myself point blank refusing to haul myself from the comfort of my bed in order to exercise.
Despite gentle encouragement from my fiancee, Anna, I was not to be dissuaded from this view. Until she dropped a truthbomb one day.
“You could use the hour you spend lying in bed and looking at Facebook on your phone to go swimming”.
Bugger. She was dead right. So, the next morning, I set my alarm for 6.45 as usual, but instead of hitting snooze four or five times, I dragged myself up and out of the house.
And shock horror, I really bloody enjoyed it. So I went the next day. And the day after that. And six weeks later, my daily morning swims are just about my favourite thing.
All the gear, no idea
I’m feeling stronger and fitter than I have in a long time after just a few weeks, and I’m feeling certain that swimming may be the route to redemption to rid myself of those Wembley regrets.
A new target
The obvious way to resolve this story is to get in shape, step out again at Wembley and score the winning goal for that classic Hollywood ending. In reality, that’s not going to happen. Opportunities like that rarely come along once, let alone twice.
However, I won’t get closure until I do myself justice in an equivalent setting. And luckily, my new chosen sport offers me an easy enough route to do just that.
Full disclosure time: While I’m a relative newcomer to regular swimming, I actually used to make a significant portion of my living from the sport. Between 2010-2013, I proudly worked for the PR agency of the world’s leading swimwear brand, Speedo, working as part of a team delivering its communications to more than 170 countries across the world.
That period, of course, took in the London 2012 Olympics, and it was there that I enjoyed one of the most rewarding periods of my professional life by helping to deliver Speedo’s projects surrounding the event – with the opportunity to witness the likes of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte turning in medal-winning performances the ultimate highlight.
It’s for this reason that, for me, the London Aquatics Centre is swimming’s equivalent of Wembley.
And, as luck would have it, it’s since taken on a post-Olympic life as a standard public swimming pool.
If I wanted to, I could just make a booking right now and swim in the Olympic pool for the princely sum of just £4.95. But I’m not doing that yet, and it has everything to do with how I feel about Wembley.
To swim in that pool, to follow in the footsteps of the greats, feels like a huge deal to me. That’s why I have no intention of taking the plunge into it until I feel ready to do it justice.
How long this will be, I don’t know. I’m not even sure how I’ll define ‘ready’. But I’m sure I’ll know when the time comes.
This blog, therefore, exists to chart my progress as I set out to reach this target, and hopefully my experiences along the way will prove to be interesting, entertaining, and perhaps even inspiring.
I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.
You know I am. I really am.