BBC Sports Personality: Bob Champion wins Helen Rollason award

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport
Sports Personality: Bob Champion wins Helen Rollason award

Thirty years on from his fairytale Grand National success with Aldaniti, former jockey Bob Champion admits he feels lucky to be alive today, let alone be honoured for his charity work.

Champion fought cancer to win the world's most famous steeplechase at Aintree on his injury-plagued mount in 1981, and has been a tireless fundraiser ever since.

He was given the Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity at the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

"It's absolutely amazing, a great honour. I was shocked when I heard about it," the 63-year-old said.

Bob Champion with Aldaniti
Champion enjoyed a special partnership with Aldaniti

Champion overcame debilitating bouts of chemotherapy and months in hospital to triumph in the gruelling National over four-and-a-half miles and 30 demanding fences, and his story was made into the movie Champions where John Hurt played his character.

The jockey helped set up the Bob Champion Cancer Trust in 1983, which has since gone on to raise in excess of £12m for research into male cancers and has its own laboratory at the Royal Marsden Hospital, where he was treated.

"We initially had a few thousand pounds sent in from people who won money on the horse. There were a lot of fivers here and there," said Champion, who lives in Newmarket, Suffolk.

"They sent money to me care of the Royal Marsden. My doctor, Professor Sir Michael Peckham, and the horse's owner Nick Embiricos, thought it would be a good idea to set up a cancer trust.

"To go back to the hospital now and see scientists working in our research laboratory is fantastic to see.

"I had testicular cancer and was told I had a 35-40% chance of living. I thought it was a death sentence. Now the chances are 95% if it's caught early enough.

"In my time the chemotherapy was barbaric. I was sick 24 hours a day - it was awful, but now there are better anti-sickness drugs."

In 2010, Champion raised £100,000 as he covered 17,500 miles visiting all 60 racecourses in the UK over 60 racedays. His previous efforts have included a horse ride from Buckingham Palace to Liverpool.

Champion had dreamed of success in the Grand National since he was a boy watching black and white repeats of the contest on Pathe News at the cinema days after the race had been run.

"It was a race I always wanted to win. When I was in hospital some days having chemotherapy, I felt like giving up," he said.

"But I kept giving myself goals and thought hopefully I would get back and ride in a National.

"Aldaniti had problems with his legs and joints and always seemed to be on the injury list. He was in plaster in his stable for six months, and I was in and out of hospital for seven months.

"The vets wanted to put him down but they must have listened to me when I said he would win the National one day.

"Maybe they gave him a chance to give me a little bit of hope in hospital. Thankfully, we got there together.

"The horse was eventually sound and he went from being an outsider to being second favourite. I suppose there was a lot of public money looking for a fairy story, and it came true."

Trainer Josh Gifford still finds it hard to talk about the triumph without shedding a tear.

"Josh's loyalty was unbelievable. He always said the job was there when I came back. Whether he actually thought I would, I don't know," said Champion.

"Whenever the old horse's name comes up, he gets very emotional."

Champion said the day after the National, when Aldaniti was paraded near Gifford's stables in Findon, West Sussex, brought the triumph home to him.

"The next day meant more to me, because thousands and thousands came to see the horse," he said.

"Some had travelled through the night. People came down from Scotland and one couple travelled over from France.

"That was really touching. It was the horse who did the work. I had the enjoyable bit."

Champion's story is known all over the globe thanks to the movie.

"I was really honoured to be played by John Hurt," said Champion who won the Sports Personality Team of the Year award with Aldaniti 30 years ago.

"I promoted the film around the world so God knows how many people have seen it. I went to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Tokyo and South Africa, as well as Europe."

Champion says he is in good health despite a heart attack in March, which came exactly 10 years to the day after a previous heart scare, and does not tire of recalling his remarkable story.

"I still get emotional about it, although I might not show it. It was not just coming back from the cancer, it was a lifelong dream," he said.