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Sitting Down with Paralympian Darren Harris

Last week we hosted our annual Charity Football Tournament in support of our chosen Charity of the Year, The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust.

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It was a great moment of sport (well done Team PLP!) and it was also an occasion to know more about an organisation who are making a difference for kids affected by retinoblastoma. Around one child each week in the UK is diagnosed with this rare eye condition which affects children under the age of six.

We had the honour to meet Darren Harris, a well-known British Paralympian, who also is The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust’s patron. He has been working with the organisation for a few years now, wanting to help the Charity achieving the ambitious objectives of helping families and individuals affected by retinoblastoma, which he was diagnosed with when he was 15 months old.

I was born with normal vision,” he told us “but then diagnosed with retinoblastoma when I was just over one years old. I had cancer in both my eyes. My left eye was removed, my right one was treated with radiotherapy. The treatment back in the 70s was not as it is today. It destroyed the cancerogenic cells but also targeted healthy tissues, and my vision drastically reduced.”

We took some time to talk through his experience, get to know more about the incredible achievements of his sports career, and what the work done by CHECT means to him and other people who share the same past.

Organisations like CHECT are here to make a difference and a lot of work has been done. I am a father now of a two and a half year old little boy, who was diagnosed with retinoblastoma too. We knew he had a 50% chance to be affected by this form of cancer, so his diagnosis was very early, within the first five weeks. He had a completely different outcome, as he has perfectly normal vision on both eyes now.”

“Also, he was treated with laser rather than the much more invasive radiotherapy I was treated with. It’s incredible how much progress has been made.Technology and early screening have given kids like mine an increased chance of having their sight save. We are also in the process of having a second child and we are going through a procedure called PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), which is a form of IVF that helps to identify genetic defects within embryos, and isolate and eliminate RB cells. This means that our next child will not have retinoblastoma at all. This is the result of years of research, supported by organisations like CHECT and many people who contributed to it with ongoing donations.”

Darren’s history speaks to the language of sport, football in particular. He has been a paralympian for several years now, and his relentless passion keeps bringing him around the world with a dream in his heart.

That’s true. I literally just got back from Argentina. We were out there for a tournament with England, trying to create an environment for our team, as close as possible to the European Championships. I am then going to be in Rome, later this year, for the big Euro Championships which is a qualifying event for the Paralympics next year in Tokyo. We need to get to the final, after we missed the appointment in 2015, losing in the semis on penalties. We are looking to do better now.”

“Football is still the biggest part of my life. I made my debut in 1996 and it feels like I have been playing forever. I am revolutionising the game, I feel, because I am 46 now and I am still playing. The second oldest person in my team is 12 years younger than me. Many people say I am long due retiring, but hey, I just love it and I think the way I respect and treat my body keeps me going. I still have a few goals to achieve in the game, some dreams to chase, and most importantly, I still love playing.”

Football, then… judo! From the achievement on the pitch, Darren made the move to the martial art with the dream of going back to the Paralympics. And guess what? He made it.

I became Captain of the football team in 2002 and then took what I call my sabbatical when I went to judo. I was a black belt in judo anyway, so I had practiced it for a while, I have always been a keen learner. When in 2004 the Association for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales wouldn’t sanction a Great Britain blind football team, we were already qualified for the Paralympics in Athens but there was no team to play for. I was working for a tech company back then, and I really wanted to go to Beijing four years later, so I started training harder and harder to compete in judo instead. I dropped my full-time job, against all odds and with people wondering whether I was crazy. I had a great Russian judo coach and he was the one who gave me confidence, motivating me on a daily basis. You know, sometimes people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. I tried to get better every single day. It was tough. I went out to Japan, I competed with better players and challenged myself. I went there as a novice, but I kept up with it.”

Not only is Darren Harris one of the diamonds of the British Paralympics movement, but his history fighting retinoblastoma besides The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust truly places him in the profile of “warrior” - in life, as well as in sports. We are proud to be partnering with CHECT for 2019, and look forward to taking part in more fundraising events to contribute to the noble cause they are working towards.

Click here to learn more about The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust.