A volunteer coach who has helped develop Aberdeen Amateur Athletic Club’s burgeoning para section, as well as mentoring an emerging – and potentially world-class – wheelchair racing talent, has been nominated for an Aberdeen Sports Award.
Phil Owens, 64, estimates he dedicates 20 to 25 hours per week to Aberdeen AAC.
His impressive commitment includes back-to-back sessions on Monday and Wednesday evenings where he coaches middle and long-distance running to 30 able-bodied teens, plus frame running and wheelchair racing to 12 para-athletes aged 10 to 63 years.
The retired engineer’s arrival at AAAC a couple of years ago coincided with the ongoing expansion of the Aberdeen Sports Village-based club’s para section.
And Phil has even helped the club source a sufficient arsenal of frame running bikes and racing wheelchairs, using his engineering skills to fix them up in the kitchen at his home.
A long-time athletics enthusiast, who started running in his youth for Glasgow club Shettleston Harriers, able-bodied Phil thinks having an older brother with cerebral palsy gave him an understanding of disability and developed a coaching approach where he looks to help his athletes – regardless of any impairments – unlock what they “can do”.
Among the athletes in volunteer Phil’s charge are rising performance wheelchair racers Joanna Robertson and Danny Gordon, who he coaches individually six days a week (and sometimes twice a day).
Working in partnership with Phil, Joanna has risen to number two in the UK rankings for the T54 marathon, 10,000m and 5,000m – with the world stage next on their list of targets.
He has been thrilled by Robertson’s progress since linking up with the athlete, who was paralysed in a 2019 car accident.
Phil said: “We’re in a goal setting discussion recently for 2024 and it’ll be primarily marathon-based.
“But there are other things with Joanna we want to start exploring – can we take this to world qualifying level?
“Last year we put the wheels in motion, pardon the pun, and got her international licence so she can go into the world para-athletics rankings.
“Joanna being Joanna, she recognises there’s still a bit of work to be done, whether it’s middle-distance or long-distance, but she’s already starting to work her way through those rankings.
“It’s driven by Joanna – where she wants to go – and I’ll facilitate that in terms of the plans and being the training partner.”
Joanna’s rapid development, Phil says, is encompassed by the fact he now needs to cycle during training sessions on the road, when he was previously able to run alongside her.
He added: “But that’s a mark of progression, and we wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Showing parents disabled kids CAN participate in athletics is ‘brilliant’ – Phil
On top of his work with his performance athletes, Phil says he also finds introducing youngsters to para-sport and developing their abilities “absolutely brilliant”.
The volunteer has helped put on frame running taster sessions for potential athletes during the summer holidays and supported the annual Grampian Para Festival for around 30 athletes with physical and sensory disabilities.
Those two endeavours have helped grow the AAAC para group.
Capturing the essence of why helping disabled youngsters get involved in sport is so “rewarding”, Phil said: “If we’re talking para here, and there’s maybe an open day, a disability or para-sports ‘come and try day’, the kids are just full of the desire to have a shot of stuff – and then it’s ‘give me a try of that now’.
“You see the natural care and concern from parents, they’re worried ‘is this ok for my kid? Can they do it? Can they participate?’ And the instinct to hang to them and make sure they’re running behind them with the frames and stuff.
“When you show them the (the kids) absolutely can, and as a coach you take over, and can say: ‘We’ll show them the technique and we’ll be there as coaches’, it’s brilliant. It’s great.”
Phil has been nominated for Adult Community Coach/Volunteer of the Year at Aberdeen Sports Awards 2024.
The awards, organised by the Evening Express and supported by headline sponsors Bounty Competitions, take place at P&J Live on Thursday, March 7.
For more details, visit: www.dctevents.com/event/aberdeensportsawards