Kriss Akabusi: “He transformed my life because he believed in me”
7 December 2016
Thanks to his time as a multiple medal-winning athlete, TV presenter and motivational speaker, Kriss Akabusi has touched the lives of millions.
However, the 1991 4x400m world champion attributes much of his success to Sergeant Ian Mackenzie, who he met upon joining the army as a 16-year-old, having been in a care home for 12 years.
While Kriss had a natural propensity for making people laugh, Sergeant Mackenzie saw something else: raw athletic ability. Although not blessed with the same natural talent as, say, an Ed Moses or even his compatriot and friend Roger Black, Kriss had something else: boundless enthusiasm and, in his own words, “an almost childlike belief” that anything was possible.
Mackenzie’s faith in the young Kriss would have a huge impact on his remarkable athletics career, which saw him win Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth medals, including, most memorably, a gold at the 1991 World Championships in the men’s 4x400m. Kriss even launched Project Mackenzie, a scheme aimed at helping young people into work.
We caught up with Kriss to find out more about the man who would change his life.
Tell us a bit about your relationship with Sergeant Mackenzie?
I’m in touch with him again – he’s a lovely man. I met Sergeant Mackenzie when I was very young. I joined the army having left a children’s home. I’d been in care for 12 years. I wasn’t a real bad lad, but had got into trouble when I was a kid because I was easily led. Then, when I met Sergeant Mackenzie, he transformed my life because he believed in me. All of us need somebody who believes in us, who sees our potential, who thinks we can make something of ourselves and, with a little bit of input, can be great. He believed in me when no one else had seen anything else worthwhile in me. At that time – I now know it was a bit of a fallacy – I thought that my mum didn’t love me, I didn’t think the world loved me – I was being a clown to make everyone happy, and Sergeant Mackenzie saw through all of that and said, “Do you know what, mate? You’ve got some gifts.”
He bought me my very first pair of spikes and developed a training programme. He had been a decent-standard army athlete and said, “You can be better than me and go all the way, son.” And, over a nine-month period, he built up my confidence and got me into races. On what was the old army internet, a thing called ‘Army Orders’, he told everyone: “We’ve got a flier.” He entered me into the Army Championships. I won that and the history was set. Just one man saw something in me: I was nothing special, but he saw something special. There’s a Buddhist saying: “When you drink the water, remember who dug the well.” I will go to my grave remembering this guy. And, because of him, I invest in other young people.
And he will have no idea of the impact he’s made, will he?
“That’s the beauty of it. He didn’t do it because he wanted to be a superstar. He’s doing it because to help people on the journey is in his DNA. He saw a young person, he knew my backstory, knew I was from a home, knew I wasn’t going home at weekends, knew I had no home to go to, and was just being a surrogate father and investing in that child, that young man, and helping me make that transition from erstwhile education into full-time engagement with my future. He wasn’t doing it for the laurel wreaths and to be bigged-up on-stage. He did it because he saw something in somebody.
And it almost wouldn’t have mattered if you hadn’t become an athlete: it’s more about saving you from a darker life
Correct. A lot of the kids from my children’s home ended up in the sex industry, GBH, armed robbery, drugs and mental care. The story of looked-after children is replete with negative images. However, fortunately for me, I went into the army, met a guy and was given some infrastructure. I could easily have mugged or shot someone or been the watch-out on a robbery. Not because I’m a bad lad, but because I’m easily led and would have wanted to impress the leader. There but by the grace of God go I.
As for your own career, no one had a bigger heart, did they?
I wasn’t the most talented athlete in the world. I didn’t have the quickest leg speed, I wasn’t the best at sport, and so on. But what I did have was a body that didn’t break down and an almost childlike belief that I could do it. I now realise how unlikely it was for me to do it, but I believed I could. You can achieve a lot of things when you really believe you can achieve it. I didn’t understand I was taking on people who were on drugs or who had faster leg speed. But I believed, on my day, that I could take on someone and hang on in there. My stamina and courage were my strength, whereas some people have speed or are tall. I had horse strength.
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