Jonnie Peacock on Strictly Come Dancing representation: ‘It’s important to break people’s perceptions’

BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing has been “fantastic” for disability representation, says Jonnie Peacock MBE – the show’s first amputee contestant.

The sprinter and paralympian, who was partnered with professional dancer Oti Mabuse in 2017, helped pave the way for celebrities with disabilities, including presenters Rose Ayling-Ellis and JJ Chalmers.

The new 2023 series sees cyclist and swimmer Jody Cundy – who, like Peacock, had his right leg amputated just below the knee – compete with Jowita Przystał, who lifted the glitterball trophy last year with Hamza Yassin.

“For me, going on Strictly was important to attempt to break people’s perceptions and make them realise the reason that I would be a bad dancer would absolutely not be my leg,” says the 30-year-old. “My leg is actually one of my strong suits!

“Rhythm,” he laughs, “That was more the problem.”

Peacock – who became a household name after smashing the world record and claiming gold in the 100m T44 final at London 2012 Paralympic Games – said by appearing on the popular dancing show, he was “trying to get people to understand that we look at someone and we instantly judge what they’re able to do, and put them in a box”.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 16% of the world’s population is disabled. “But when you look at your TV – especially 20 years ago – it [looked like] 0.1%, and the same with race and gender,” notes Peacock. “Now people are starting to realise that we want our world to be reality, and we want our [TV] world to encompass what it actually looks like.

“It’s not just Strictly, pretty much all of the reality TV shows have disabled contestants in [now]. It’s so important. It’s a way to show that we are an individual, and that we have something to give.”

Peacock was recently made an ASICS ambassador (“It’s really cool to be working with a brand who actually care about a lot of the things I care about – that it’s so much more than sport,” he says). And after a difficult summer on the track, he’s looking ahead to the indoor winter para season and the Paris Paralympics next summer.

“I felt the worst I’ve felt in years, as soon as I got past 50 or 60 metres [during Paris Para Athletics World Championships in July],” says the sprinter, who later discovered he had hamstring tendinopathy.

“I’d kind of lost the love of the event. Even though I love training, I didn’t enjoy competing too much. Even though I love doing it, it was bringing me a lot of misery.”

As well as injury niggles, he’s been having issues with the alignment of his prosthetic blade. For para athletes, this technical side of the sport adds additional complication. “I used to love that, but there was a couple of years where I just felt off balance and didn’t realise why,” he says.

“We had to play with so many different settings… that was the moment where I was constantly [thinking], ‘I wish I had a foot there where it should be, I wish I didn’t have to worry about setting this up and could just go for it’.”

Peacock was five when he almost died from meningitis and his right leg had to be amputated – a time he has few memories of (“I have one flashback in the back of the car being rushed to hospital, with my Power Rangers duvet wrapped around me”).

Growing up, he had several bone revision surgeries – “because once you’ve had an amputation, the bone will carry on growing,” explains Peacock. Now though, he’s showing no signs of slowing down, even though sprinter careers are notoriously short.

For the next Paralympics, “It’s gold or nothing – Felix [Streng of Germany] has got it now [after Tokyo 2020], but my plan is to hopefully make him the shortest Paraylmpian champion ever.”

After being so dominant in the 100m for so long (he’s a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, two-time world champion, and two-time European Championship gold medalist), what keeps him motivated to win?

“It’s probably greed,” he laughs, “It’s just never enough, you just want more, it’s an addictive feeling. It’s like you’re just constantly chasing to try be a better athlete – a better version of you.”

And with age has come a better understanding of how his own happiness and mental health is tied to his physical health.

“I don’t exercise for a period of time, I can get a little bit almost, not depressed, but edging on that, just not happy, very lethargic,” he reveals.

Youth comes with a blissful naivety about health, he says. Before, “I never really realised that every time I exercised, I felt better afterwards. Now [my body] is more sensitive. I don’t feel fantastic 24/7, creaks and aches start to appear, grogginess, fatigue…”

These days, when he’s not feeling his best, he’ll start a day with a 15-minute indoor bike session at home, where he lives with para athlete girlfriend Sally Brown.

“I hate it, I literally hate it!” he laughs. “I want to sit on the sofa and watch TV [instead]. I feel atrocious for 10 minutes afterwards, but then I bounce up so high for the rest of the day, I’m so happy.

“The closest thing that affects my mental health is my [physical] health. If I eat like crap, if I sleep like crap, if I don’t exercise, I will be in a bad mental health space. If I exercise, even just a little bit, if I eat well, if I sleep well, I don’t feel like that. It’s understanding there’s a cause and effect relationship to a lot of things.”

He swears by the feel-good endorphins of a freezing cold shower everyday. “My friend told me about Wim Hof [the Dutch endurance athlete known as The Iceman] six or seven years ago. I hate hot showers now, to the point where I was in a hotel once and had to get the engineer to come up because the shower didn’t go cold [enough].”

Peacock says he tries to remember that “life is a game” and “a gift”.

He continues: “We waste it because we take it too seriously. And we’ve been forced to take it too seriously by the outside world – we’ve been given pressures, we’ve been given expectation, and you end up allowing the stress to enclose you and take you away from that childhood mentality of just going out and having fun.

“When you’re dead, you’re not going to be sitting there going, ‘Oh, I wish I’d kept my boss a bit happier’.”

Jonnie Peacock is sponsored by ASICS. To find out more visit asics.com.

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