Interview: Blind Faith

Libby Clegg & Mikail Huggins

The 22-year-old paralympic T12 silver medalist on exhilaration, freedom and putting complete faith in her guide.

I was nine years old when my sight problems were finally diagnosed. I have a very rare condition called Stargardt disease. Basically, it means I have no central vision and only peripheral sight in my left eye, so I can only see things at my side. I’m registered blind. The condition is getting worse as I get older. It’s genetic and although my parents are both fully sighted, I inherited it along with my two younger brothers. 

Soon after I was diagnosed, I got into running. I’d always loved school sports day, so mum took me to my local athletics club to take my mind off my eye condition. From there I got more involved in clubs for disabled and blind athletes. Luckily I got talent-spotted at 14.

After I had fallen over at the track a few times, I was persuaded to start using a guide when I was 16. I wasn’t keen initially as I’m very independent, but Lincoln Asquith, a coach there, offered to run with me. It didn’t feel awkward at all and we were the perfect match in terms of stride length and speed. We each held the end of a looped piece of rubber tubing to tether us to each other. Having someone to run with meant I could go faster because, without a guide, I had to follow the lane markings myself. I won lots of medals and set PBs with Lincoln, including a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympics. In 2010, because Lincoln was getting older, I began running with his stepson, Mikail. I’d learned that if you find a good guide, you hang on to them. And like Lincoln, Mikail and I gelled straight away. 

I’ve realised that it’s hard being a guide. Neither of you can go out of your lane, they mustn’t drag you and they can’t cross the line first. Also, if they false start, you both get disqualified. It means you have to run as one rather than two people. Mostly it works really well, but once, while running a 200m race, Mikail finished ahead of me and we were disqualified. That happens occasionally and you simply put it down to experience. That bond between us is key. It’s quite a responsibility Mikail takes on and I never take him for granted because he’s making massive sacrifices for me.  

It’s hard to explain what running feels like when you’re blind. It’s exhilarating, being in control and out of control at the same time. Last summer’s Paralympics was fantastic. It was such an amazing atmosphere in the stadium. At our other events, there’s usually only a handful of spectators, but the crowd of 80,000 screaming for us was surreal. We ran well – we broke a European record in the T12 100m final – but we came second. Although I couldn’t see the crowd, I could feel the roar through my whole body as we sprinted up the track together. It was a unique experience.

When I saw Libby training with my stepdad I remember thinking, ‘this looks a real challenge’ – but one I wanted to try. So, after my dad stopped running with Libby, I took over. I had run for my county but because of injury, I never made it higher. Although I still run 100m in 11 seconds. 

I soon realised keeping in sync was what we needed to achieve if Libby was to reach top speed. If the synchronisation fails, it all goes wrong. Being a guide is quite a juggling act as I need to run, watch Libby’s technique and get instructions to her. In races I communicate with little cues that tell Libby, for instance, to move her arm. I also count us down so she knows exactly where we are on the track. I know if I don’t do my job correctly she isn’t able to run. As she only has peripheral vision, once she hits top speed, she can’t see anything. Running with Libby has been one of my biggest achievements. I feel I’ve got her destiny resting on my arm.