When Bob Champion, the British steeple chase jockey, was diagnosed with cancer in the late seventies, it was a dream that kept him going. At the time Bob’s ambitious dream was met with disbelief by many, but despite the odds being stacked against him he went on to make that dream come true.
Bob’s dream was to win the National, and when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 31, it did nothing other than make him even more determined to realise it. Despite being given only eight months to live, and undergoing a course of debilitating and revolutionary chemotherapy as a last chance treatment, Bob never once let his belief falter.
His diagnosis must have been hard to accept. Other than the usual occupational injuries sustained by any jockey Bob, who started racing at 19 and went on to win over 350 races, had never felt fitter. Eventually surgery was the only option and Bob had one of his testicles and part of a rib removed so that surgeons could attempt to treat the cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.
Throughout this terrible period of his life Bob continued to believe, insisting that he would ride again and that he would one day win the Grand National on his favourite horse, Aldaniti.
“It started as a dream and became an obsession,” said Champion. “The way I felt, if I couldn’t ride again, I didn’t want to live. I don’t think many people believed me when I said I’d win the National on Aldaniti, but I never doubted it.”
Of course, in 1981 Bob realised his dream (as portrayed by John Hurt in the 1984 film ‘Champions’) and went on to retire from racing just over a year later in 1982.
But retirement didn’t mean sitting on his laurels and Bob immediately went back to work raising money under a trust set up in Bob’s name – the Bob Champion Cancer Trust.
As always with Bob he didn’t wait around for the money to pour in, instead he got stuck in; although the initial donations were from well-wishers who knew about Bob’s story. “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. “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.”
The trust became Bob’s passion, and as always he insisted on doing things his way; working hard and then even harder, undertaking a horse ride from Buckingham Palace to Liverpool, and later in 2010 completing an ambitious fund-raising 17,500 mile walking tour of the country’s 60 racetracks in only 60 days and raising over £100,000 in the process.
Even Bob’s favourite horse Aldaniti raised funds for the cause. Bob, on hearing of the horse’s death from a heart attack in 1997, aged 27, estimated that between them they had raised more than 6 million pounds. “He helped me so much and even before I was ill he was always a horse I liked riding,” Champion said.
To date more than £12 million pounds has been handed over to the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, paying for vital research into the causes and treatments for cancer, particularly in men and more recently into prostate cancer.
There’s no doubt that the money raised has saved countless lives and in recognition of his fantastic contribution Bob was recently awarded the Helen Rollason Trophy for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity during the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show. The Helen Rollason award is presented in honour of the former BBC Sport presenter who herself died from cancer in 1999.
This is the second time Bob has won an award from the BBC; Bob and Aldaniti won the BBC’s Team of the Year award in 1981 and as always Bob accepted the award from fellow jockey A.P. McCoy, last year’s controversial winner of Sport’s Personality of the Year, with typical humility.
Watched by Anne, the Princess Royal, and surrounded by close friends and family, Bob described how his struggle with cancer had been viewed at the time. “I was written off. Everybody said I was finished. But Josh (Gifford, Aldiniti’s trainer) stood by me, and as you can see we came good on the right day.”
Bob, selfless as usual, summed up by thanking his loyal supporters: “But most of all, people out there, who supported myself and the cancer trust. This award should really be for you. Every little bit of money going to it gives people like me a chance of living.”