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SSAT meets… Chris Holmes, Lord Holmes of Richmond

nc16-blog-header-929chris-holmes-250Lord Holmes’ pointers for success against the odds…

Chris Holmes, Britain’s most successful paralympic swimmer, has a tally of 9 golds, 5 silvers and 1 bronze, having lost his sight suddenly and unexpectedly at age 14. Extraordinary courage and determination took him back into the pool, and just four years later to straight As for his A-levels and a place at Cambridge. At the end of his first year at Cambridge he won a record-breaking six gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympics.

After retiring from competitive swimming he qualified and worked as a commercial lawyer, specialising in employment and pensions. He was also a non-executive director at the Disability Rights Commission and UK Sport. A lifelong campaigner for equality and inclusion, he became The Lord Holmes of Richmond in 2013, and was a member of both the digital skills and social mobility select committees. He sits on the Future Talent steering group, which focuses on the future of work and how best to develop opportunities and skills for people and organisations in a changing world.

At the SSAT National Conference 2016, he says, “I’ll talk about my personal journey in the 2012 London Paralympic Games story – how I addressed the situation having lost my sight overnight at age 14. And I’ll tie it into the challenges faced by the school leaders and teachers in the conference room.

Relationship building

“Against all the odds and past history, we achieved 100% ticket sales for those paralympics, through relationship building I believe, and through constructive narratives. I’ll talk about how we dealt with the practical realities.”

His approach to the 2012 paralympics was “to think about resourcefulness as well as resources. Our budget for the entire opening ceremony night was no more than what was spent just on the fireworks in the Beijing paralympics four years before. So we put our efforts into building a narrative, of Britishness.

“We thought, who is the most famous disabled person in the world? Stephen Hawking. So we got him to open the ceremony, which he did for free. It was an amazing start to the games, it talked about possibilities beyond the universe, not just ourselves.

“Put yourself in their shoes”

“Knowing that all the previous paralympic games had never sold more than 40% of their tickets, we needed a ‘massive moment’ to attract attention. So we got all 20 paralympic sports showcased in Trafalgar Square before the event. We had no budget for this, so we went round our partners, and they came up trumps: BT, Deloitte, Channel 4 News… We built up an understanding with them of what they could contribute, making it easy for them to say yes. How did we do that? We put ourselves in their shoes, put the case from their point of view. Then they were all keen to do it, and to give their time.

“Coca-Cola for example had been a sponsor of the Olympic Games since, I think, 1928, but never of the paralympic games. Why not? I thought, what are their objectives, what are they trying to achieve? And then about how to fit what we were doing into their world. Not the usual, ‘you’ve got to do this, it’s brilliant.’ That’s actually cringeworthy.

“They had a specific brand, Powerade, which they wanted to boost in this country, and we helped them to see this would work in a way that was low-risk but with a massive upside. Nobody had taken the time before to see this through their eyes. And it worked.”

None of this would have been possible without the support Chris Holmes received after losing his sight at 14. His presentation to the National Conference will include “the critical role my teachers played in my history; their support enabled me to go to a mainstream comprehensive, when there was a lot of pressure for me to go into specialist education. Those teachers played an absolutely vital part.”


Find out more and participate in the SSAT National Conference 2016. Schools within the SSAT network are awarded one complimentary place for both days of the conference.

Read SSAT meets… Dominic Peckham.

Read SSAT meets… Marcus Orlovsky.

Read SSAT meets… Andy Hargreaves.

Read SSAT meets… Baroness Sue Campbell.

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