Don’t judge a book by its cover

Yesterday I visited HMP Nottingham to join a talented group of staff from the 3Pillars Project, a sports based mentoring charity empowering young men in the criminal justice system to create positive change and transform their lives. If I’m honest, I was daunted and a bit apprehensive as to what I had to offer or share with the guys. Why would they be interested in me and my life? What could I possibly say or do that would resonate or relate to them? Would they want to listen to a disabled canoeist chatting about sport? I don’t have anything that can help these guys? Maybe a bit of imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence? or was I simply judging myself and them by the ‘cover’ we metaphorically wear?

We arrived and went through security, winding our way through the prison towards the sports hall, still the nagging doubts in the back of my mind as we passed through endless locked gates. The gym set up was great and I saw loads of guys working out and wondered which ones I would be working with, still quite self-conscious of being in my wheelchair and a woman in a prison of 900 men.

Arriving at the classroom the 3Pillars Project team were clearly at ease and I saw fist bumps and greetings as the guys arrived. My natural urge was to chat to people so I introduced myself to the closest guy, commenting on how great the gym set up was and how ‘stacked’ he looked. A fist bump and a smile later he shared that he likes working out and he has a prison job in the gym so also gets to use it more often. We had common ground immediately comparing training notes. When others joined us, sweating and looking equally stacked, we found ourselves easily chatting about nutrition, lifting strategies and even recipes you can make in a kettle! They made me a coffee and we discussed the merits of protein content in tinned mackerel and tuna.

Sharing my ‘story’ and experiences with the guys was just brilliant, they seemed engaged and listened intently, thankfully laughing at the right bits and even agreeing my biceps weren’t too bad! It felt ‘normal’, just people chatting and listening to each other. I was only reminded we were in prison when we had to unlock 2 gates to get to the Astro turf. A physical, competitive and fun session of rugby followed, led by Josh from Nottingham Rugby. It was amazing to see how sport and physical activity is a real release and positivity in what could be challenging days. Sport has this amazing power to allow me to feel able, rather than disabled, and achieve things I never thought possible and the 3 Pillars Project use this power to help inmates see the positive choices that could lie ahead.

Leaving the group was harder than I could have imagined, not only was I leaving before the ‘homemade’ kettle cake had been served, much to the disappointment of its ‘chef’, but it felt sad to have only had the brief interaction and moment of sharing the power of sport to unite people, to ground us, to give us skills and hope of what we could achieve. I felt completely different to the person who had arrived, but I also felt a bit sad, or guilty possibly? that I was able to leave.

I guess none of us can change our past, or what’s happened to us, or maybe what we have done, but we can always take time to be kind to each other, to find common ground, to share experiences and most importantly to learn from each other in the hope of changing our futures, and sport offers an incredible vehicle to do this. I’m so proud and honoured to have had my life changed by sport and grateful to the guys at HMP Nottingham who showed me I am more than what has happened to me and more than what I may appear to myself. Whatever ‘cover’ you may wear, or you think others wear, be sure to always look underneath.

Thank you to the 3Pillars Project for asking me in to share the incredible work you do; I can’t wait to come back. Off now to try to make a curry in a kettle, thanks for the recipe boys!