‘Sally is such a nice girl... very sweet but with a bit of fire hidden away in her too’
Jonnie Peacock triumphed over disability to become a gold winning Paralympian athlete. He tells Gabrielle Fagan why competing in TV’s biggest dance competition is just as scary and whether he’s planning to pop the question to long-term Northern Irish girlfriend Sally any time soon.
Athlete Jonnie Peacock is best known as a double Paralympic, world and European T44 100m champion. He’s also the first person with a disability to take part in BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. He lost his leg after contracting meningitis at the age of five but, aged 19, Jonnie became a household name after winning gold in the 100-metre sprint at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. He was awarded an MBE in 2013 for his services to athletics and won a further gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Here, he talks about the physical challenges of ballroom dancing, finding love and inspiring others to get out of their comfort zone.
What’s it like taking part in Strictly?
“The first time I stepped on the dance floor, it was really worrying, nerve-wracking and stressful. I assumed I’d be falling all over the place, but I’m actually better than I expected.
“I’d always shied away from dancing; my limit was a few bad moves after drinks on a night out. I realised that (Strictly) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that I’d get the chance to learn so much about dancing, as well as have fun. (The competition) is all about pushing myself out of the comfortable box of athletics, where I’m confident of my abilities. I’m stepping into the unknown. It’s also a brilliant opportunity to change perceptions of what people think a disabled or amputee person can do.”
What’s your worst Strictly nightmare?
“I’ve had a few dreams where I step on the floor, my mind goes completely blank and I can’t remember the routine. It nearly happened with the quickstep, as I really struggled to remember the individual blocks of the routine from my training (the dances are broken down into sections to make it easier to learn). But thankfully, I pulled it off. Every dance is a challenge because there’s only a few days to prepare, whereas with sprinting, I’ve got years of training behind me. My real boost came after I wore trousers to perform the waltz, and Anton (Du Beke) said afterwards that he couldn’t tell which was my amputee leg. That was a really awesome comment to get, because he’s a professional with 15 years on the show. Wearing my running blade the following week was also great. I got such a positive response from people.”
Do you get on well with your dance partner Oti Mabuse?
“When we first started rehearsals, we had such a good laugh together and we immediately hit it off. We share the same sense of humour and have been laughing ever since. She’s a great person who pushes me hard, but really looks after me and creates clever choreography to help me to perform at my best. She’s given me so much confidence. My target was to get to the Halloween show. Having made it this far, I no longer feel like there’s any pressure, so I’m trying to relax and not overthink it. (Dancing) is so different to athletics, where you achieve a time and you know exactly where you’ve ranked. With Strictly, the scores are based on the judges’ opinion of you, so you have no clue where you’re going to end up on the leaderboard. The variation of the scores is unreal. I was surprised Aston (Merrygold) had to go — I really thought he would win.”
How do you look after your health and wellbeing?
“One of the best things I learned from one of my coaches is to listen to my body — because it always gives warning signs, such as tiredness or niggly ailments. I have a cold shower every morning which raises testosterone levels, boosts immunity and really pushes the reset button. For breakfast I have a smoothie packed with six vegetables, juice or coconut water, a super food like acai berries and a vitamin-enriched Maca powder. At night I soak for an hour in a bath filled with Epsom salts because the magnesium in it acts as a muscle relaxant and helps me to sleep better. I aim for around eight to 10 hours of sleep per night.”
You’re dating Northern Irish Paralympic sprinter, Sally Brown. Will you pop the question soon?
“I’m not a person to jump into something when I’m not ready and I don’t want to put any pressure on us. I’m very happy though; I’ve known her for about seven years and we’ve dated for nearly four. I took a shine to her because she’s such a nice girl — very sweet but with a bit of fire hidden away in her too.
“I take her opinions about things on board because she’s someone I respect. She’s been incredibly supportive and understanding about Strictly. We’re hardly spending any time together at the moment because I’m so busy on the show.”
How important has your family been in your success?
“They’ve been at the heart of it. Both my mum and dad have been so supportive — they’ve never questioned my decisions or doubted that I could do things. I don’t really have any memories of losing my leg (I don’t know whether that’s because the brain protects itself from traumatic events) but my parents do. It was far worse for them really. I was always sports mad and they did everything they could to give me the same opportunities as everyone else. I was bullied at secondary school as I was different, but they were always there for me. Relaxing with my family, my girlfriend and my dogs, Luna and Bella, when I get time off is great.”
What’s your athletics training regime?
“I do four to six hours a day (around 40 hours a week) which culminates in about 10 seconds worth of work when I compete. It’s high-intensity training in the gym and on the track. Sprinting is all about quick bursts of speed. I describe my job as ‘the best in the world’ because I get to do something that I love. Most people lose weight on Strictly because of the intense training, but I’ve actually put on weight! Although we train for eight hours a day, it’s not so fast-paced as my sports training — so I’m actually struggling to stay in shape.”
Paralympic GB athletes Ellie Simmonds and Jonnie Peacock surprised a local primary school in Sheffield, providing them with new sporting equipment as part of the Sainbury’s Active Kids campaign. To learn more about Active Kids, visit activekids.sainsburys.co.uk