Ade Adepitan, Cyborg Cat and the Night Spider
Published on: 25 August 2019 Author: Ade Adepitan
On my first day of school, my mum dressed in me a pink, chequered suit, with a bow tie and a MASSIVE afro with a side parting she’d combed into my hair. I didn’t realise it back then, but that day was probably the most important day of my life.
I was already used to being a bit different, but this was next level. And my mum had done it deliberately!
My book, Cyborg Cat and the Parsons Road Gang, is about that feeling of being an outsider, and worrying about what people think of you. People judge other people for all sorts of reasons and make assumptions without getting to know the person inside, not just the package on the outside.
We moved to the UK from Nigeria, West Africa when I was three. When I was a baby, I contracted a disease from contaminated water. Polio affects the spinal cord, and for me that meant that I had a weak left arm and a weak left leg. My leg was so badly affected that I needed to wear a calliper to be able to walk. The calliper used long metal rods to support my leg, and the rods fitted into a clunky hospital boot. I walked like a robot with a piece of gum stuck on the bottom of its left boot.
My parents knew it would be a tough life for me being disabled in Nigeria, so they took the big decision to make life better by moving our family to East London. But then on my first day of school not only did I walk like a robot, I also looked like a pink clown!
But since then I've learned it's OK to be different. In fact, it's cool to be different. (Although the pink suit wasn't even cool in the 1980s, so I wouldn't recommend it now.)
If I hadn't got polio as a child, I wouldn't have had to use a wheelchair. If I didn't use a wheelchair, I'd never have represented my country at the highest level in sport or had any of the amazing experiences that have opened up to me.
One day, when I was about 11, I was being raced through the streets by my mates in a Tesco shopping trolley (yes – even despite the disastrous pink suit I managed to make friends after all!). We were borrowing the shopping trolley because walking with callipers meant I struggled to keep up with them. At the time I thought wheelchairs were so uncool and I was embarrassed about the idea of using one – I wanted to walk just like everyone else, I wanted to play football just like everyone else. But this particular day, my life changed when a couple of physiotherapists saw me in that shopping trolley and suggested I give wheelchair basketball a go.
They took me to the Junior Wheelchair Basketball Championships that weekend, and the GB men's team were training at the same venue.
Watching those guys work their magic on the court totally blew my mind: their sport was like BMX, ice hockey and NBA basketball, with the adrenaline rush of downhill skiing, all rolled into one. Getting knocked out of their chairs whilst chasing down a loose ball or going for a cool move was seen as a badge of honour! I'd never met people like this before. Suddenly I didn't see the wheelchairs any more. I just saw elite athletes at the top of their game. This was the moment when I fell in love with wheelchair basketball. I wanted to be just like those guys – different. From that point on, I stopped trying so hard to fit in and I decided to just be myself. If that meant I stood out then I was cool with that. I got my head down and started training hard, learning everything I could about my new sport.
Embracing my difference meant I could compete on a level playing field with other athletes like me. I still loved football, but instead of trying to be like everyone else and having to overcome my limitations, I could celebrate my unique talents. The day I played my first wheelchair basketball game, I was playing proudly in a bright pink-and-yellow sports wheelchair.
We all have the ability to achieve incredible things, but to do this you have to find your passion and challenge yourself every day. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, and don't let other people's opinions hold you back: find your inner superhero and you'll become unstoppable.
If I could go back in time and give advice to a younger me, I would say whatever your dreams are ... dream bigger!