“You can’t come from nothing to win it all.” | Ian Sagar has been one of the central figures in the British Wheelchair Basketball Programme since he made his first team in 2009, but missed out on a World Championship gold medal in Hamburg last year after taking some time away from the international game. This year, however, he is back and ready to fight for another gold medal at the European Championships in Poland, and to prove he deserves a sport in the team for Tokyo 2020. Joe Bestwick caught up with his former teammate to talk about how Ian discovered basketball, why he decided to take time out and what his hopes are for this summer and beyond. Part one of the interview can be found here: Click!
So what changed, you’d been so successful, why did you feel you had to leave GB?
Necessity really. I met my wife and step children in Italy and she’s from Ukraine but had lived for a number of years in Italy. We got more serious and we wanted to settle down permanently in Italy, but the bureaucracy was just crazy. At one point leading up to Rio I was even considering living in Ukraine and flying back and forth to the UK for training! It was just a nightmare of going back and forth with paperwork and being told different things by different people. It felt like a perfect storm of nonsense! It didn’t help the regime in charge of GB wasn’t really interested in the athlete’s welfare and they just wanted too much of me. I was going to have to be back in GB for training three weeks out of every four, plus the league season in Italy, plus all the uncertainty and a wife that couldn’t travel with me so something had to give and it was either stop playing all together or stop playing for GB.
So was not playing at all any more a serious option?
Yeah completely. I was already looking for jobs and going to interviews and the job centre in Italy as everywhere I turned it felt like there were walls being put in front of us and I couldn’t do it any more. I didn’t want to leave on bad terms though so I had a lot of meetings with Haj and he was obviously disappointed but he understood and let me take the time out to get my life in order knowing the door was always open to come back.
And the next step …
I started a part time job working in a laboratory with chemical compositions, similar to what I had been doing before my accident, through a sponsor of Cantu. Also, the wife fell pregnant and is due to give birth in October after these Europeans, which is obviously great timing, and it really felt like after probably two years where I didn’t have one good night sleep because of the stress, everything started falling into place.
Can you elaborate?
I had been so worried for so long that I hadn’t just screwed my life up, but the lives of my wife and step children too, that I had made this commitment to them and now I couldn’t provide them with the security or stability they deserved. What if something happened and I couldn’t play any more and I’d have no job and I’d have ruined their lives as well as my own. This worry forced me to make some tough decisions, and that stubbornness and refusal to take no for an answer that Murray had helped teach me really helped me think “no, I can do this” and I managed to get my life in order.
You can order Ian Sagar’s book in Italian here: Click! – An English version is planned.
So how did you end up coming back into GB?
GB come out and play friendly games against Cantu most years, and every time Haj would ask if this was the year I was going to come back, and this time I had a word with the wife, and despite the fact that I will be back and forth for a lot of the first year of my son’s life she was totally supportive. She knew how important it was to me and told me how proud it would make my new son and my step children, not to mention the family back home.
Do you at all second guess your decision to take time out knowing that those guys are now World Champions and you weren’t involved?
No not at all. I made the right decision for my life. While you’re playing basketball it is your life, but you always need to think about that life after sport. I’m 37 now and hopefully I’ve got a good few years left in me, but you have to plan to have a bit of life security. That being said, I watched every one of the guys games in Hamburg and it did of course hurt a little when you see them doing so well, but wow that final against the USA. The amount of times I had my head in my hands watching Harry Brown (2.5, current GB player) and I just couldn’t believe the things he was doing, taking on Matt Scott with the ball, finishing off inside with and ones…
I know what you mean, I remember watching that game and just no feeling nervous for the guys, it just felt like they were so comfortable and it was their day, especially as you said, guys like Harry, who suddenly against some of the best players in the world, seemed unplayable
Without a doubt. And that game Haj only seemed to use about six or seven players, and it was all the young guys Haj had been training up. Despite losing the European final the year before he had faith in them, and faith in that style, and it worked for them that day and they repaid him.
So how is it different now to when you left?
It’s a different mentality now. Everything is based around the athlete and doing the best for us. Rather than “what have I got to for GB” as it was before, now it’s “what can GB do for me”, what can GB do for every single player that will help them be the best…
In what sense?
In every sense.
We fill out our app every morning saying how we’ve slept and how we feel, and if I say I feel tired for two or three days in a row then I’m getting a phone call from Charlie, our physio, asking me what’s wrong. Then even if I just say I’ve had a couple of extra hard gym sessions the last few days then she’ll be telling me I need to up my food thirty percent and increase my protein, things like that. Even when we’re away then Fish, our team manager is running around after us. Someone just needs to mention that they’re a bit hungry and five minutes later he’s back with a sandwich or a snack! After games, for example, there are five of us who like to take an ice bath, so there’s an ice bath ready for us, some guys like to use the Game Ready system and those guys get that, we all have cereal and a protein bar there waiting for us. Just totally athlete centred …
It’s still hard work on court, and you have to do whatever is best for the team. Again, guys like Harry are just relentless, they just never stop pushing and making you work, and that’s what you’ve got to be like to be a World Champion. So now I’m back in for these Europeans, hopefully I can help the team regain their European title, and then next year I have already committed to trying out for the team for Tokyo (Paralympics 2020) and training with the team every month.
So your spot obviously isn’t guaranteed, but regardless of how this Europeans goes, you’re committed to trying out again next year?
Absolutely. The bug is back you know. I lost it a bit with everything going on in my personal life, whereas now I can, or I want to rather. It’s another one of Murray’s phrases, “If you want to find to do something, you’ll find the time”.
How does it look for you post Tokyo? Is it a case of win gold and go out on a bang, or if it’s another fourth then keep fighting for four more years..?
The aim is to win and to play as much as I can. I’d like to stay in as long as I can, as long as Haj thinks I’m capable and I can help the team I want to be around, because it’s a nice place to be now. The next Paralympics after Tokyo is Paris, and I live in Milan so that’s not especially exciting, but after that is Los Angeles and that would be nice to go to, even though I’ll be a bit of an old man by then!
You’ll be younger than Simon (Munn, 4.0, former GB player) was in Rio!
Exactly! My sporting idol did it, so why can’t I?
So what about your club future?
Well this last year at Cantu was a difficult one, I had a few injuries and problems with my shoulders, and their style of play has moved away from playing with an old school centre like me. So, again I had to make a big decision as I want to be in the best shape I can, to be the best player I can for GB leading into Tokyo. So I have decided to change teams and go to Bergamo. They’ve got some good players coming in next year and I’ll be playing a more similar role to the one I have for GB, getting inside and finishing off. So on the one hand I am sad to go, but I’m also excited to have a new challenge. Bergamo have a new gym being built for them, with a weights gym etc on site, so it reminds me a lot of Cantu when they were starting their successful cycle.
I guess there’s a nice symmetry too, where you’re starting a new stage of life with your family, and new start with your club career.
Exactly. And sometimes things can go stale too. I had been at Cantu seven years and sometimes you need to jump out of your comfort zone just to freshen things up. I always say the a person is only the sum of their experiences, even if those are negative experiences, so experience as much as possible. Even if you try and fail you’re still better off than someone who never tried in the first place, as every failure is a chance to learn. I have failed a lot in basketball and in life and in business. We’ve talked about a lot today, but there’s loads that we haven’t covered which have knocked me back but that I’ve learned from.
Things which coincidentally are mentioned in your book?
Haha, absolutely! So once it is translated into English people will be able to read it and find out some more
I can’t think of many wheelchair basketball players who have written an autobiography, how did that come about?
I was actually at a sponsor event with Cantu and speaking to a group of kids and telling them a few stories and there was a journalist there who liked what he heard and asked if he could do a newspaper article about me and my story. I agreed and he came over to my house for the next few days and just started talking, but at some point he said there was way too much here just for an article and how did I feel about writing a book together. It’s done pretty well and been reprinted twice, so the plan is to get it translated and published in England too.
How did you find writing it as an experience?
I’ve got to admit there is a lot of emotional stuff in there, all about my accident and getting back into normal life and basketball and my family, so there’s a lot of stuff in there that I haven’t ever really talked to my parents about, about that time and how I felt and things like that.
It must be tough for them that you’ve included all this stuff in a book, but one that they can’t read.
Well exactly. It’s all this stuff that I would be a bit embarrassed talking so bluntly and honestly with my parents about, so for me it doesn’t need to go on mass sale or anything, I just want one copy, perfectly made and translated into English for my mum to read so she can finally appreciate and be at peace knowing my life has turned out well, that it’s been hard but that everything that she did in that period was the right thing to do, because it’s all paid off. As of now I’m a happy lad with a lovely family, and a family that’s about to get even bigger. The only thorn in my side now is Brexit!
Thanks for your time, Ian.
Interview: Joe Bestwick | Photos: private & Steffie Wunderl