From O-Levels to a Road2Rio

John Willis, Founder and CEO of Power2Inspire, explains why he challenged himself to participate in all 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports

I was born without fully formed arms and legs; a major hurdle to academic success in the 1960s!  

I started my education in a local nursery school, in Dulwich, South East London. Apparently, school inspectors decided I could not remain there. My parents objected, so did the teachers, other parents and the headteacher, all to no avail.  

I was removed and sent to a special state school for disabled children. All I learnt there was “How to be disabled.”  My father was so appalled when the Head reprimanded him for suggesting I take O-levels, I was moved to Dulwich Prep to have an equal education.

I loved it and thrived. I was included in playground games, the usual pranks and a highlight for me, the house football team.

My father’s job took us to Bristol and me to Colston’s Prep and Kingswood School, Bath. My experiences became more mixed as teenage behaviours (mine and my peers) muddied the waters. I did enjoy being the 1st XI cricket scorer and hanging out with the ‘big’ boys; learning to swim and competing in the house swimming competition. My history lessons with Mr Stein were also a highlight and being allowed to take O-levels and then A-levels. My results weren’t spectacular – my seventh term dream was dealt a blow when my history teachers advised I take English for Oxbridge. 

But passion wins out. I love history and was prepared to work. With excellent tuition I was accepted by Trinity Hall, Cambridge, with a grudging ‘satisfactory’ from my examiners.

I read law, became a solicitor, running numerous cases that were heard in the High Court and even the Court of Appeal, but the grass was greener outside the profession. I left to run a charity that redeveloped the village of Papworth Everard (near Cambridge), and then assisted a mental health trust to leave the NHS and become a social enterprise.  

While chairing another social enterprise in Essex I set up Power2inspire, a charity dedicated to inclusion through sport.  Our mission is to encourage everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation or ability, to play sport together. 

Following an able-bodied triathlon, in which I swam the open water 1500m, and another challenge to swim 1,000m 50 times in 100 days, which included swimming at many independent schools, I undertook my hardest challenge to date in the run up to Rio 2016: JohnsRoad2Rio required participation in all 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports.

You can see how I got on by watching the video ‘JohnsRoad2Rio’ on YouTube.  I am particularly proud that the gadgets designed by my friends at CBAS (using a grant from the John Stewart Memorial Fund) are all available to download for free on the Instructables website. The scariest sports? Riding or diving. With riding there is nothing to hold on with, you have to use core muscles to balance on the horse, and diving head first without hands to break the water requires telling the brain to switch off!

Why did I do this? To raise awareness that disabled people can do every sport imaginable, to raise funds for the charity and to advertise our work.  

Our Power House Games bring fun to your school as we teach pupils inclusive sports such as boccia, new-age kurling and VI football. They learn teamwork, communication (a must if blindfolded), and about the wider world. We host games for all ages, including teaching older students to run the sports day for their younger peers.

If you would like us to visit or for me to give an assembly talk, please do get in touch. 

For more on Power2Inspire, visit their website: power2inspire.org.uk

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