Meet the man behind inclusive sport charity

John Willis
John Willis Image credit:

As a child John Willis was never thrown in at the deep end.

Born without fully formed arms or legs he was always the last to be picked for a sporting event at school, but today he is taking classes encouraging disabled youngsters to swim and take an interest sport.

He told CambridgeLive: “When I was a child, I was left on the bench. At Power2Inspire [the charity John founded in 2013] our mantra is no one left on the bench”.

John, from Comberton, Cambridgeshire, is keen to stress everyone benefits from sport regardless if they have a disability or not.

“You don’t have to be disabled to be left on the bench,” Willis explained.

"I think it’s really important to be inclusive and work out ways in which people with less ability can become the most important player on the team. It’s fantastic for confidence, resilience building, and learning how to help each other.”

The 59-year-old is keen to highlight how participating in a physical activity can be good for your mental health and an ideal way to socialise with new people.

He said: “My parents met playing hockey and growing up I’d watch them play. I’d be the cricket scorer at school, and a cox in rowing at Cambridge. But I was observing sports rather than being in it.

"I was told, ‘John can’t play golf with no hands, and certainly can’t play tennis.’ That was the attitude in the ’70s, it just wasn’t possible.”

John came up with the idea of the charity after realising there wasn’t any organisations for disabled and non-disabled people participating in sport.

He had a taste of backing good causes in 2013 when he competed in a triathlon which raised £2,000 for charity, this gave him the drive to launch Power2inspire.

In 2015 the charity hit the headlines when their ‘Road to Rio’ challenge saw teams of disabled and non-disabled youngsters competing in 34 Olympic sports.

John said: “I loved water polo for the camaraderie. I fell in love with hammer throwing because it’s so interesting- combining ballet, weightlifting and speed. I will always love swimming because it’s a sport I can do without my boots.”

He is now the CEO of the charity, it’s his full-time job, but it was thanks to a particular young man the organisation is still going today.

Mr Willis said: “I once went to a school in Tottenham Hale. I showed the children I could swim, then they all swam for a while, then I did a talk.

“Afterwards, a profoundly disabled boy came up to me and said that until that morning he’d never believed he could swim in the deep end of the pool. Because I did it, he was able to do it himself. He gave me this huge grin.

“More importantly, his head teacher realised the block that was stopping some children from swimming was mental, not physical. How many other things was this child being stopped from doing because people assumed he couldn’t, or he thought he couldn’t or was too frightened to do?”

He also recalls another child who motivated him to keep the organisation going.

“In one session a teacher told a child he couldn’t play, but I corrected her by telling them he can play a game called boccia, because it’s seated,” John said.

“He played other games we facilitated too and he loved it.

"Often primary school teachers only get a small amount of training on Physical Education (PE). They get overwhelmed, so that’s why we at Power2Inspire what we do.”

John Willis is a university trained lawyer, but he gave it up around seven years ago to run Power2Inspire.