Wilson: boccia saved my life
“No matter what difficulties you face, your life is not over, you always have a purpose to achieve something.”
The inspirational words of a man who has been forced to draw on inconceivable sheer determination, not only in sport, but throughout a challenging life to accomplish some incredible milestones.
At the age of just 22, Steve Wilson, a keen sportsman, suffered an unusual occurrence while playing football, a moment that would change his life for ever.
“I just felt my running slowing up and I told the coach to take me off,” said Wilson on the bizarre incident. “After that I couldn't play football or cricket any more. I couldn't run or jump like I used to. Whatever was wrong with me just took a toll on my body. Strangely, I didn't have a whole lot of pain; it was more of a case of my legs getting weaker.”
It was not until after seven years of uncertainty that Wilson finally discovered what was happening to his body when a trip to a specialist doctor in the United States unveiled that his progressively worsening symptoms were because of muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.
“For seven years no one knew what was wrong with me; it had a massive effect on my life, personally,” Wilson added.
“I used to have a business with my brother, I used to drive the vans, but after a while I could no longer get up and get out to work.”
However, where he could have been forgiven for losing hope and spiralling into a dark place mentally, Wilson instead decided to battle back and refused to let the disease take hold and dictate his life as it could have.
“I could go to bed tonight and the disease could take control of my whole body, but I don't worry about that,” he said. “I try and live my life and do what I have to do.
“While in the States, they told me I'd be in a wheelchair within five years. It took 32 years for me to actually end up in one. The doctors couldn't believe how long I fought against being in a wheelchair and the fact I was managing to cope without one.
“I always persevered, if I wanted to do something I always did. However, after so long the disease took control and I became disabled from the waist down as well as into my shoulders.
“That made the challenge harder but I still didn't give up. It was just a case of learning new ways of doing small things that I used to.
“I refused to let the disease take control of my life, I always tried and lived just as I always had, or at least the best I could.”
That vigour for life enabled Wilson to seize an opportunity seven years ago that would gift him an amazing new lease of life at the age of 64.
While visiting the Wind-Reach Recreational Village in Warwick, Wilson was introduced and encouraged to partake in the Paralympic sport of boccia, a precision ball sport related to bowls and pétanque, where competitors throw leather balls as close as they can to a white target ball, or jack.
“I saw people having a lesson and thought you know what, I like that, I'm going to play,” added Wilson.
“It all started from there. I always loved sport and so here I was able to play a new sport again and feel good doing it.”
Little did he know the enormous impact the sport would have on his life and the opportunities it would gift him on a whirlwind journey.
His natural aptitude was quickly recognised with an invitation to join the national team following.
From there, Wilson has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport, battling it out against the world's best players alongside team-mates Yushae DeSilva-Andrade and Omar Hayward.
The trio have represented Bermuda across the world including at the BISFed World Boccia Championship in Liverpool, England, and in Beijing, China. However, for Wilson, his crowning moment in sport came just last month when at the age of 70, and seven years after taking up the sport for the first time, he upset the odds to clinch gold at the Buenos Aires Regional Open in Argentina, overcoming the sport's top players from North, Central and South America.
“What sport can you think of that a 70-year-old man can come along and win a gold medal? It's incredible, I feel great about that,” said Wilson, who is coached by Troy Farnsworth and John Davis.
“I had some terrible results in Liverpool at the World Boccia Championships. and people were wondering what was wrong with me.
“However, at the tournament in Argentina, something was different. I was calmer, I was able to set the pace in every game I played, the other guys were always chasing me, it felt like no one could beat me.
“It's funny because before I went there I kept telling my coach, I'm going and coming back with a medal, that's exactly what I did.
“I've broken records. I'm the oldest player in the sport and winning the gold at 70 means I've also got that record; I can't see anyone beating that anytime soon.”
Despite his age, Wilson has no intention of winding down just yet, instead setting his sights on representing Bermuda at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and in the process of doing so, continue being an inspiration to his community.
“It would be a dream come true to make the 2020 Olympic Games,” said Wilson, who still plays boccia five times a week. “That would be everything to me to be at the Olympic Games; it would something for my family to remember.
“I hope to inspire people, especially young disabled people, to show them what opportunities are out there for them.
“This is my life; I believe in giving back.
“I talk to a lot of people who become disabled, people who lose a leg, they are mad and angry at the world, but I tell them that it comes down to attitude.
“I'd love to have loads more people playing the sport in my lifetime; I'd love the sport to keep going in Bermuda. It's a tiny island but I've shown that we can take on the world.”
The crucial benefits resulting from the relationship between physical activity and mental wellbeing are often well documented and Wilson is well aware that he is the perfect embodiment of that argument, both and on off the boccia rink.
“Boccia changed my whole life, it saved me, I don't want to ever stop playing,” he said.
“Because of my disease I never thought I'd have the chance to go and see the world. I've travelled to places that I've seen and thought of but never imagined going, and that's all thanks to boccia.
“As long as I'm healthy, I'll keep on throwing those balls. I just love the sport because it has given me so much.”