Leon Reid conquers troubled past in quest for Olympic glory
After a childhood spent surrounded by drug abuse and crime, Leon Reid is forging his own destiny. The 200m sprinter spoke with Tokyo 2020 about life growing up, training with Usain Bolt and what it felt like to become Northern Ireland’s first international track and field medallist in 28 years.
The first time you read Leon Reid’s story, you’d be forgiven for thinking his life could more easily have turned out another way. Brought up in England’s West Country by a mother struggling with drug addiction and sent to live in 14 different foster homes, Reid had to learn quickly to rely on himself.
“At primary school, I’d have to get myself up if I wanted to go,” the 25-year-old sprinter remembers. “If I did go, I’d have to make my own way there. Or rarely you’d get the bus, if mum was around to even give you bus money. So you’d be arguing with mum to give you bus money just so you could go to school.”
At home he was surrounded by drug abuse, with people downstairs frequently smoking crack and heroin. Reid describes witnessing scenes like that as “just normal life for me”. Reid and his older brother were soon taken into the social services system, where he was moved from foster home to foster home, never getting the chance to settle in one place for any significant amount of time.
“That was from the earliest I can remember,” he explains. “My brother was always getting into trouble, so it depended how he behaved really. It was really dictated by how much they could cope with him, because they’d always try to keep you together in social services.”
Listening to Reid, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d heard this story before. That you know where his life ends up without needing to be told.
But Reid is now one of the world’s leading sprinters, on the verge of Olympic qualification.
And speaking to him, there is a feeling it would not have been any other way.
The story of how Reid met the woman who went on to adopt him, is as unconventional as the life he’d led up until that point.
“I can remember playing football and ended up fighting with this boy. We hated each other for absolutely no reason."
“We started fighting and then at lunchtime he came up to me again, and I was like, ‘OK, round two!’
“And then it turned out that he just wanted to play football. And then he turned out to be my best friend… and now he’s my brother.”
Every weekend, Reid would visit his new friend Ryan’s house and soon felt like part of the family.
“I didn’t ever want to go home,” he remembers.
Eventually, having found a place that he truly felt like he belonged, Ryan's mother, Claire, took him in on a permanent basis, giving him a base and the support needed to follow his dreams.
It was she who ferried him to athletics training, went through years of paperwork to formalise his adoption and, as a Wexford native, gave him his connection to Ireland - the country he is hoping to represent at next year’s Olympic Games.
Talent to burn
At first, Reid had no ambition to become an athlete. He didn’t dream of competing at the Olympics from a young age. He didn’t idolise any athletes.
He was just fast. Very fast.
A matter of weeks after taking up athletics for the first time, Reid was bored of the training routine. He wanted to race, but his coach disagreed.
“He was like, ‘you’re not ready for this’, and I was like ‘no, I can do it!’ And he said, 'Alright, put your money where your mouth is'.”
“And then I raced, and it turns out I was number one in the south west (of England). And so it really took off from there.”
And it really did take off.
Just eight months later, Reid was competing for Great Britain at the European Youth Summer Olympic Festival, winning silver medals in the 100m and 4x100m relay.
“It was amazing,” he says of the experience. “I felt like I was the fastest person in the world, literally after a couple of months of training.”
He hasn’t looked back since.
Mixing it with the greats
For someone who has had such a meteoric rise to the top, you might think Reid would be overawed by the ways in which his life has changed. But the sprinter seems to take everything in his stride.
Even training with arguably the greatest athlete of all time: Usain Bolt.
“I went over to Jamaica. I was in the younger group, he was in the senior group. Yohan Blake was [also] there, Warren Weir was there. It was obviously really good, but because I wasn’t big in the sport it wasn’t like, ‘this is amazing’, it was just like, ‘this is cool’.”
Years later, as an athlete competing in the same discipline as the Jamaican world record holder, the experience of training alongside that group of legends holds more significance for him.
“Now it’s unbelievable. You don’t really think about that stuff [at age 17], but now it’s like, you rubbed shoulders with the greats!”
More recently, Reid has been training with another world record holder, after 400m king Wayde van Niekerk invited him to his training camp in the Republic of South Africa at the beginning of 2020.
“He really looked after me while I was out there. He took me to his parents house, I got to meet his family, got to meet his friends."
“I wasn’t just another person. It was like, ‘I’m bringing you into my circle'.”
But for someone who has spent so much time training alongside the very best runners in the world, Reid believes the mental aspects of running - rather than any physical training tips - are the most valuable takeaways from those experiences.
“It’s more the little things. With Wayde, he runs around the bend really well, really clean and efficient, and I don’t."
“So rather than be like, 'how do you do that?' I just want to know what his feeling is, where he is mentally. So I can try and get myself into his shoes, rather than copy his technique.”
Recently, Reid has been making his own history. Having transferred his allegiance from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland (he will race for the Republic of Ireland if he qualifies for the Olympics but represented Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games), Reid won a bronze medal in the men’s 200m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, having been promoted to third place after England’s Zharnel Hughes was disqualified.
It was the first international track and field medal won by a Northern Irish athlete in 28 years.
“It was pretty surreal. We were like, ‘Have we won it? Have we not?’ But we ended up getting it,” says Reid.
Now looking forward to Tokyo, the athlete is cautiously optimistic about his chances - although he believes his prospects have not been affected by the postponement.
“The 200m is in such good shape at the moment. It’s actually annoying,” he says jokingly.
“I finished sixth in the European final last year, that time would have won the Europeans in 2011 and 2013.
“So I feel like if it was moved two years or whenever, I still feel everybody is going to be on point because it’s in such good shape at the moment.”
If the shirt fits...
With just over a year to go until the Olympic Games, Reid can allow himself to dream about what might take place in Tokyo.
“Anything can happen in the final,” he says matter-of-factly. “When you get into that final there are eight of you and only three people can get medals. So the odds are even more in your favour.”
And if he is to succeed, it may well come down to the smallest details… just as it did when he won his first senior medal at the Commonwealth Games.
“I’ve got a big thing with kits. When they [Northern Ireland] first started releasing the kit, I wasn’t happy with it."
“I was like, ‘I need one skin tight vest’. And then they made this vest for me and it was absolutely incredible and it just fitted well.
“When I put it on I felt confident in my own skin. And when you feel confident you literally feel like you can take on the world.
“And that’s what I ended up doing!”
Forging your own destiny
From difficult beginnings, Reid has turned his life into an undeniable success story. And you get the impression that so much of that comes down to himself. His own strength of will, meaning it couldn’t have been any other way.
Now the determination he has shown throughout his life has left him fractions of a second away from being able to call himself an Olympian.
It is a prospect that drives him on to face the next challenge.
“Just having that elite status that you’re one of the greats. Even if you don’t perform as well as you want on the day, you’re still an Olympian, and no-one can take that away from you.”
Is Olympic glory on the horizon for Ireland’s Reid at next year’s Games in Tokyo? One thing’s for sure, it would be a fitting chapter in a truly Olympic tale.