Sometimes in life God or fate or whatever you believe in throws people into your life for a reason and you never know the impact they are going to have. People have asked how I have stayed so positive and like I said previously I think I have learned to think this way through persevering different challenges. People have also sent me thousands, and that’s no exaggeration, of messages, well wishes, good vibes or positive thoughts. But the one that got me the most was from my most recent boss and one of my true Gods guardian angels Breno Pontes.
Now I only met Breno in June 2015 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Yeah I know, random place to meet your angel right? In March of that year I was speaking to a fellow colleague Paul Porter the CEO of England Boxing and he asked if I wanted to travel to Azerbaijan all expenses to volunteer at the 1st European Games. 2 weeks to watch 256 bouts of international boxing and the boxing geek inside me wasn’t going to turn it down. A further carrot on the end of the Azerbaijani stick was that the competition manager for Rio 2016 would be out there and if you worked hard then maybe out of the thousands of people you might have a chance at going to Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
There were a small group of less than 20 British volunteers that went to Baku and they had all arrived two days before my arrival. I got there late at night and the first job the next day was to travel across the capital city at 4am to assist with weighing all 256 boxers on the scales. I didn’t know anyone but with like-minded people that had traveled across the world to volunteer I thought I would just be myself and get stuck in.
On the evening of my arrival the other volunteers were talking about Breno and how they might play it cool or just be themselves or that there was pressure to impress. In my head, I had a vision of Breno being this short 5’2 south American man with a Mexican style mustache in his 50’s. Maybe even a sombrero and a piece of hay coming from his mouth as he watches the boxing bouts drifting in and out of siestas ringside. It was going to be tough to impress the Super Mario brother lookalike but I didn’t know I would end up becoming Luigi.
As we completed the weigh ins of the boxers around 9am this 30 something American dude came up to me and in his dumb ass accent said “man I feel like a coca cola”. I was still in a delirious, excited, energised but sleepy state and grabbed him round the shoulder and said “come on lets get this man a coke” and proceeded to skip down the hallway with my arm round him looking for the nearest bottle. We soon found a secret stash and some fruit for our first bit of breakfast before immediately talking about football and trying to outdo each other with pointless football knowledge and facts.
As we ate and continued to talk I looked down at his accreditation pass for his name and low and behold there he was Breno Pontes- Olympic Games Observer! Ohhh shit. I’ve literally just jumped in two footed and there is no way back for him to think anything else of those first impressions of running down a corridor with my arm around him. Well it turns out Brazilians must love that as an introduction and at the end of the two week games he said he wanted me to work at Rio 2016 and would do his best to get me there.
Now talk can be cheap and everything else has to slot into place for things to work but eventually I left my job and flat in England and on June 18th 2016 I landed in Rio de Janeiro to work at the Olympic Games for the next three months. On top of that Breno and I were to become flatmates in our Olympic apartment for a month. We had the funniest times together with evenings of ridiculous story telling from both of us, whilst there was always a football at someone’s feet and a beer in the hand. He would try and tell me the rules of baseball and I would tell him the how to talk in an English accent. The night before the Olympic Games were going to begin, the day people wait for four years, the most stressful night of the calendar for sure, we drove to Burger King and were crying tears of laughter and choking on our flaming whoppers about something completely different from boxing or the Olympics. Whatever job you are doing in life or however stressful, you can always have fun and laugh.
I could go on about the stories forever about times like when we went to watch Bahia v Tupi away on a Tuesday evening, random girls sniffing my hair, South Park quotes at unnecessary times or when we went to buy Floyd Mayweather a cheeseburger and he made Breno pay for it. But the reason for my Breno post is the message that he sent me when I told everyone the news of my diagnosis.
On the last day of the Olympic Games my favourite Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramirez won his second consecutive Olympic Gold medal. It had also become obligatory standard procedure that when a boxer won their gold medals they would be receive their medals on the podium, do press conferences, autograph memorabilia boxing gloves in the changing rooms and then have a selfie with me before leaving the venue.
Now the Cubans are the ultimate best at Olympic boxing and would be at professional boxing too if their socialist country were to allow them to go professional. They are the Brazilians of football, the All Blacks of rugby, the Kenyans of long distance running. The Cubans don’t just win boxing gold medals for fun but they do it in a beautiful style.
I watched the Cuban team train and box for a month of the games trying to pick up what it was that made them so good. I have watched a lot of boxing over the years and I could not tell you what is different from them and any boxing training session that goes on. I was baffled, no sports science, no hitting each other with sledge hammers, no chasing chickens rocky style. I still to this day have no idea how one nation becomes so talented and original. I was even a little bit disappointed that I had not picked up one training method from them that I might be able to use and I could not speak to them as they did not speak English and my Spanish is very limited to duas Pina coladas por favour.
I waited for over an hour and got a selfie with Ramirez and his brand spanking new shiny Olympic Gold Medal to go with his gold teeth. The changing rooms were now empty as the Cuban team left the building and I stared at my proud selfie of me and the champ.
As the doors finally closed and the last boxer had left the building that was it, a monumental time in my life. Then I realised there was this Cuban baseball cap that had been left on the bench. I walked towards it and the door flung open again and it was the legendary Cuban boxing coach running in for his cap.
He walked in and said “my hat, I forgot it” What, he speaks English? He came over to me and shook my hand and said “thank you for everything”. Wow he speaks near enough perfect English the bastard. All this time I’ve been waiting at the side of rooms watching with intent for someone to talk to me thinking he only spoke Spanish and he speaks English the whole time. “No worries” I replied.
As he walked off he said “We are so thankful for your support, no one can ever achieve anything without having support around them”
Boom, there it was. One month I watched the Cubans for boxing advice but he just gave me the biggest life lesson in ten seconds and that was all I needed. I just could not believe he spoke English the whole time.
As the story unfolded with Cancer I was told in Rio on a Friday that I had a tumour, I flew home the next day, and was diagnosed on the Monday. I told close friends and family but then revealed my news on my Facebook on the Wednesday. I debated what sort of time to put up the post as I wanted good Facebook traffic and optimum likes of course but my friend Karl said put it up whenever. I posted the status and left my phone upstairs for the evening.
I wasn’t ever in any doubt about telling people because I guess I’m ‘that sort of person’ anyway and as my friend Neil put it “you’ll write a status about a Saturday night out on the town, so you might as well do one about cancer”. But it also wasn’t a cry for help from me or an opportunity to inspire. It was just my news.
When I returned I had 350 comments, hundreds of texts, missed calls, inboxes and the support I received was totally unexpected and I thank every single one of those messages that came through. But the one that really hit home with what I was about to embark on was from Breno.
Having support around me for this has made it so much easier but it is something a lot of people struggle to ask for. Asking for support is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength. There is also a big difference between asking for help and asking for support, asking for help suggests your helpless but whatever struggle you’re going through you have to remember that it’s only you who can change it. When a football team has a dip in form or they have a big match coming up they don’t try to face the challenge on their own. No, the manager asks the fans to sing louder, to wear more of the clubs colours, to get behind the team and support the players. You support a team, you don’t help a team. As far as I know no one has ever said I’m a Tottenham Hotspur helper!
Asking for support or not even asking for it but showing that you would welcome support and compassion with a situation will go a long way, whether that’s going for a job interview, running a marathon, beating Cancer or even just saying you’re feeling low. But as Breno pointed out to me, it’s important to know you’re role in this team.
Reflecting on my own challenges, I have done the London Marathon twice and the first time I didn’t want any support. My first London marathon experience I got the train to London on the morning, ran the marathon in a personally disappointing time of 5 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds, saw no friends and family, got the train home and that was it. It was the biggest anti-climax of what was supposed to be a good experience since losing my virginity, but it ended up being lonely and in tears. Just like losing my virginity, apart from the fact it lasted for 5 hours 24 minutes and 22 seconds longer than that night. The second time I ran the London Marathon I welcomed support, I got the train to the start line with 3 best friends, I ran the first ten miles with my best mate Mark, I saw my Mum and auntie at mile 19, lots of other friends on route and had a celebration afterwards. It was one of the best days of my life!
The same goes for when I completed the 3 peaks challenge the first time. It was hell on my own. The second time I did it with 7 of my best mates and its one of the best things I ever did.
As a teenager I thought whats the point of doing things for other people, especially if they won’t do anything to return the favor. But over the years I found that doing good makes you feel good. Some of my best supporters during this experience have said I have supported them at some point during their life.
One of the biggest lessons I will take from this journey and the people that have been involved within it will be the ability to show compassion to others with no expectation of anything in return. If you have never tried it, then put it on your list for 2017 and see how good it makes you feel.
I have spent this whole journey up until now questioning why people have shown this level of generosity as I can never repay you lot. The amount of money people have donated, the hours people traveled to see me, the head shaves, the mustaches, the gifts, the messages, I can never repay these people just like I could never repay my friend Breno for giving me the opportunity at the Olympic Games or the advice that he gave me
“Sorry I took a while to reply. I’ve been trying to think of the right things to say. But I have concluded there is no real “right”. There is what I think is what I must share with you, and that’s all. I don’t mind if someone else has or hasn’t told you what I’m about to say, cause I’ll say it anyway. And it starts with this: you have never faced what you’re about to face now. Af, this shit will consume you. It will implore you to call quits! Now, I have never had cancer, so I have no real clue of how it really feels, so what I’m writing to you comes from what I’d like to hear from a friend. I’d like someone to paint me a bad picture. Build me up strong right now. Cause it’s not gonna be a fun ride. You’ve got a bunch of friends and family, and most of them will stick by your side, and that’s really important. But you know what? Don’t always expect it. People are different and they deal with problems differently. Don’t judge the ones who will not be as strong and supportive as you’ve imagined. As you have put it, this is definitely a team work. But you’re Messi in this game. You’re the one who has to step up everyday. Over, and over, and over. This is your game. You are the one who’s gonna have to make this happen. Got it? Af, I’ve tried to sorta look into the character I’ve met in you, and I have no doubt in my mind that you are strong enough for this. But you have to understand that this is a title bout, my friend. This is about strength, power, will, stamina, and love. Titles are only for the deserving ones, and no one deserves it if they don’t prepare themselves. You have laid the groundwork for this fight along your life. Being a genuinely good person, being happy, being strong and dedicated. And now the real true “bout of your life” has arrived. Unexpectedly, the title bout has been presented to you. Now you can’t run from it, brother. You have to fucking fight! The first round was mentally tough already, but you survived it well. You landed some good punches on you adversary. Now he’s coming back strong. Cause this other guy is a fighter too… he’s sneaky! And you’ll get hit hard, man. You definitely will. And if you put your guard down for a single second, he will hurt you, Af. Keep the guard up, and keep on pushing the adversary to the ropes. Your corner is behind you, we are behind you! Keep pounding, no matter how tired and hurt you are. This fight should go the distance too… 12 rounds of agony. 12 rounds of thinking about why are you the one inside the ring. Wondering why does it have to be this way. But Af, my friend, every great fighter has been through this. But only the ones who chose to question less and fight more, fight relentless, fight nonstop, are the ones who got to the end of their battles and had their arms raised. You have been a flashy, exciting and entertaining fighter through your lifetime. Now it is time to be a champion. Be ready for adversity, and become the champion. Af, do me a favor and continue to inspire us. Love, Breno”
I am Lionel Messi………