Pembrokeshire mourns the loss of a great sportsman

Jacob and Family

The people of Pembrokeshire and much further afield have been hugely saddened this weekend to learn of the untimely death of Jacob Thomas, the former Ysgol Y Preseli pupil who famously represented Team GB in the 2012 London Paralympics, has died aged 25.

Jacob was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy shortly after his birth, a genetic condition which meant he was confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, but that didn’t stop him achieving his dreams in his chosen sport.

Introduced to Boccia – and took to it straight away

Jacob and Angela MilesAfter being introduced to boccia as a youngster by Sian Bowen, who worked for PembrokeshireSport, he went on to claim numerous international titles at BC3 level and among his successes were a coveted gold medal at the World Student Games in Brazil, pairs’ bronze at the European Championships, and bronze and silver in the World Championships in Beijing.

He also rose to No 1 in the world rankings in 2015 and then two years later, received his award as the Lifetime Achievement winner at the annual Sport Pembrokeshire Awards in Folly Farm. The standing ovation that he received that night from 700 guests was amazing and the longest ever sustained in the 12 years of its existence.

London 2012 a memorable time!

But undoubtedly, it was London that represented his finest hour. He competed in the team and individual competitions, and poignantly came up against his hero in Greek star Grigorios Polychronidis.

 Mike sets the ramp upI was joined by Western Telegraph reporters Gordon Thomas and Fraser Watson, plus web manager Mark Vincent, in making the trip to watch him play and I can honestly say that it still ranks in my top three events I have ever seen, alongside watching Roger Federer on the centre court at Wimbledon and my first-ever visit to the Millennium Stadium to watch Wales play the All Blacks. 

Jacob just missed out on the medals but his calm assurance and tactical awareness, with dad Mike as the man who loaded the ramp on Jacob’s instructions, was wonderful to watch and all four of us were transfixed at the way a young boy from Bethesda in Pembrokeshire played the best from all around the globe. 

Widely travelled – and showing dignity after disappointment

Father and son travelled to many countries and he often returned with gold medals as his efforts took him to the top of the boccia tree across all borders – he was that good!

He was naturally disappointed to not be chosen for the Paralympics in Rio de Janiero when he was still highly ranked but he showed his competitive edge soon afterwards by winning the British championships and beating all those selected in the process!

Wonderful family support

Celebrating success at The SeneddBut the nature of Jacob’s condition meant a short window for his sporting career, and he retired in 2016 with he and his family able to reflect on a few days they would never, like Jacob, ever forget.

Indeed dad Michael, who accompanied him at every competition, mum Caroline and sister Polly, provided huge support to him, whether it be during boccia events or at the family home in Bethesda.
And speaking to today, Michael said the response from the local community had been overwhelming.

“Jacob touched so many lives and we have had so many messages. As a family, we would like to thank everyone for supporting us at this difficult time.

“And we also have to express our gratitude to Value Independence in Milford Haven, who took care of Jacob so well.

“We have been immensely moved by the huge number of tributes from far and wide since news broke of Jacob’s passing and it is uplifting so what an effect he had on others in his relatively short life.”

Angela was well instructed by Jacob

Jacob and Jessica EnnisAngela Miles became involved with Boccia when she started out with Sport Pembrokeshire and to find out more about a new sport for her she travelled with the Thomas family for the British Championships in Liverpool.

“I was amazed at how good Jacob was already and it wasn’t long afterwards that he started to catch the eye of national selectors and he gave me good advice when we started up our first Boccia club in Crymych.

“In the 14 years I was privileged to work with him he taught me loads – he just had that ability about him and I stayed good friends with him and his lovely family ever since.

“He really was a lovely young man and we will miss him so much.”

Fitting words from his rival – and hero!

Another fitting tribute came from his old rival Polychronidis, who posted the following message on social media: 

“You were one of the greatest boccia players and most importantly you were a true gentleman.

“We shared a lot of special moments and matches together. I will always remember the exhibition match we had in Athens, and how excited we both were that we had the opportunity to promote boccia. That is where we became true friends.

“You will be always remembered by the boccia community.”

And finally . . .

In conclusion I can only repeat that watching him in London was special at such an amazing venue.

I also made the mistake once of taking him on in a challenge match at Haverfordwest Sports Centre where I was convinced I could beat him with ‘my natural ball skills’. I lost 11-0 and only missed out on a total whitewash because Jacob was being kind to me. Lesson learned!

Jacob was a brilliant tactician and Michael did a great job as his ramp loader. He might have taken part in the Paralympics but was an athlete in his own right - a natural competitor, fiercely independent, and one of the nicest people I was ever privileged to meet.

His loss to Pembrokeshire is enormous, and a star has gone out on our sporting scene – and he will never be forgotten because his legacy will extend far beyond his chosen sport.

Jacob Thomas will be remembered, quite simply, as an inspiration.