Lewis Hatchett on living with Poland Syndrome and his journey to become a professional cricketer
PUBLISHED: 14:46 05 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:46 05 April 2018
Former Sussex County Cricket Club player Lewis Hatchett's ascent to professional athlete is a story of literally back-breaking struggle and defiance of the odds. None of his opponents on the field knew he had been born with Poland Syndrome but complications from his condition led to his retirement on medical grounds at 26
At the beginning of 2018, 28-year-old Lewis Hatchett started writing an essay for his blog. It didn’t come easily – he was revealing things abut himself that he had assiduously hidden for the duration of his professional career – but the eloquent outpouring about his relationship with his body represented the culmination of a two-year journey since his retirement on medical grounds.
When Lewis retired at just 26, it was a devastating blow – one he is still processing. But with the awful news that his professional career was over, came a growing awareness of the magnitude of his achievements. Lewis was born with Poland Syndrome, a congenital condition with varying manifestations, most commonly the absence of the chest muscles on one side of the body. Lewis is missing his right pectoral muscle and two ribs and from birth the medical advice was that he should not play any contact sports. To put his condition into context, three of the Paralympians to compete at London 2012 were born with Poland Syndrome.
But the doctors hadn’t reckoned with sibling rivalry. Younger brother Bradley arrived a year later. “I have always said that if I didn’t have my younger brother there wouldn’t be anyone to compete with and challenge myself,” says Lewis. “You just want to be that big older brother.” Lewis’ grandfather introduced him to cricket in the back garden. “I think my parents just thought ‘it seems to be working’,” he says. Because his school, Steyning Grammar, didn’t play the sport he joined St James’s Montefiore Cricket Club in Ditchling. Around the age of 14 he started thinking about pursuing a career in the game and went for a trial at Sussex. “I just nagged my way onto the side really,” he says. “I got onto the very outskirts of the team and didn’t play much, so my dad pretty much put the phone in my hand and told me to call the head coach Mark Robinson, and ask if I could come and train with the professional squad. I can remember being up there for about two hours before I even dialled the number. I had a script and everything. He said no at first but after nagging for a few weeks [he relented] and then I was hanging out with guys who were my heroes. I was stuck to the wall through sheer fear of messing up around them.”
Unfortunately Lewis was asking too much of his “small, weak” body and he suffered a stress fracture in his back – meaning he spent much of the Sixth Form in a brace. The frustration he felt in seeing people he’d trained with find their paths in cricket galvanised him to make his body as strong as it could be. By then he was facing a decision: go to university or gamble on making it as a cricketer. But by the time he was ready the season was over and so he made the decision to spend a couple of winters in Adelaide working on his game. “Before I went out there for the last time I sat down with the head coach at Sussex and said this is my last chance, I need to know what to do in order to be a professional cricketer. He wrote me a long list and I knew when I came back that I had ticked it off.”
When he got back he asked for a month’s trial – he wanted to be the opening bowler for the second team – and “I did really well, took a load of wickets.” After a couple of months they put him on the professional side. At the time he was juggling jobs in the factory at Springs Smoked Salmon near Henfield and as a waiter at Singing Hills Golf Course in Albourne, driving to practice in his battered old Ford Fiesta. Finally he made it onto the professional squad and began travelling with them around the country. “I was just carrying drinks until one of the big international players got injured.” That gave Lewis his chance – and the first batsmen he had to bowl to was the England Captain. He did well that game and they kept him on the team. “The coach came to me as we were going back to the hotel, grabbed me and said we’re going to give you a professional contract. You’ve done it.” He describes that moment as the highlight of his professional career.
What gave him the single-minded determination to succeed? “Initially I think it was wanting to be better than my brother,” he says, laughing. “But I never saw myself as disabled or impaired, so whenever kids teased me about it I always thought ‘I’m going to do something bigger than what you’re doing.’ I look back on it now and think how ridiculous it is that a kid with this condition went into a fully able-bodied sport and no-one knew.
“I never wanted my body to be a reason for them not to pick me. So I set out to make myself the fittest player in the team, and I think maybe looking back that was to my detriment because I was so focused on getting fit and strong that I overworked and injured myself. I always had that goal of wanting to be better than everyone else because I knew subconsciously that I was weaker, and I think being physically weaker allowed me to grow mentally stronger.”
As a teenager, he took inspiration from other athletes who had overcome adversity – highlighting a campaign by Adidas called Impossible is Nothing. One of his sporting heroes is Oscar Pistorious, though he concedes that his legacy is sadly tainted: “Obviously my situation is not as severe as his disability but seeing a guy with no legs running against people with legs resonated with me so much: being in a world where you are competing against people who have every resource available to them, when you don’t.” It is partly in order to deliver the message that great achievement can grow out of adversity that Lewis is building a brand as a motivational speaker. The biggest message he wants to spread is that of body-confidence. “There’s quite a movement about it the moment but a lot of it is driven by women. I think to have a guy who has gone through a lot of self-confidence issues about how I look, and who is able to say I’ve found ways of getting through it, hopefully opens up another demographic of people I can potentially reach and help.
“I’ve always spoken about there being this perception of an athlete. If you shut your eyes and imagine that word, what is the image that comes into your head? It’s usually a gorgeous-looking guy with big arms and abs on the cover of a magazine. I was an athlete and I had muscles and abs but there was a bit of me missing and I was very insecure about it.” Recently he had an interview with Champs Academy, a coaching company working to build life skills and create self-confidence in children. “They had been working with kids as young as six who are not going to school through fear of changing in PE because of how they look. That’s incredible, it’s outrageous. And it made me think. Because social media wasn’t around when I was a kid, how would I have reacted with those added pressures? I would 100 per cent feel differently but actually the way you deal with it as a person doesn’t change, it’s the things that are in your way that change. Fundamentally you have to love yourself first in order to love others.”
He is also working with Models of Diversity, a charity trying to raise visibility in the fashion industry of people of minority ethnic origin, older people, larger and smaller people, people with a disability, and non-binary gender people. “That has got me thinking about my own process of thinking in this area. I used to go to the swimming pool or the beach and until I was 18 and above I would really hide my condition if I could. I’d wear a shirt, I’d wear a towel over my right shoulder to hide it, because I had this idea that girls didn’t want to see something different. There were people I could tell were looking at it and that just brings self-consciousness. But the older I got the more I started to realise that if someone has an issue with it, that is because they have an issue. I really have no issue with it – it’s me and I cannot change it.
“That realisation has evolved into releasing my story of having my condition in the sport, and finally to releasing images of me showing my condition which was a huge step. It’s so powerful to say I’ve accepted myself for what it is. Once you acknowledge your insecurities and know they’re there, you deal with them. It takes away their power. The way I see body image in social media is it’s just giving young people such a false idea of what real life is like.” The message he hopes to impart to young people in his talks in schools is that “people fall in love or like people for who they are and how they make you feel, rather than what they look like. In the real world you don’t have to be that gorgeous pin-up model in order for people to like you.”
Lewis still plays club cricket for East Grinstead and helped the team take the Sussex Cup last year, playing alongside his brother – while playing every weekend takes a toll on his body, it is manageable. Yoga helps minimise the headaches and muscular pain arising from his body’s asymmetry – which has become more pronounced as he has frame becomes more muscular. He recently returned from Hawaii, where he did his yoga teacher training, and he has plans to produce online tuition videos for athletes. For the past year Lewis has thrown himself into swimming, training intensively at Crawley in the hope of qualifying for the Paralympic team. Sadly a few days after our meeting he went for a trial and was found to be ineligible: “So I’m in this weird space because I’m not eligible for Paralympic but I’m also not able-bodied enough to do a full able-bodied event. Nevertheless it gives me a lot more clarity on where I can take my life now.”
Whichever route he takes – and for now it’s about building his brand, motivational speaking and teaching yoga – there is little doubt that he will conquer it. It is rare to meet someone with such apparently limitless internal resources. “I hate the word ‘talent’,” he says. “I always say to kids that what I did was just work harder than everyone else. I also think that strength can come from your perceived weaknesses. Being real and speaking your mind is very valuable.”
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