‘We bicker like cat and dog’ boccia assistant says of gold-medal partnership

David Smith’s on-court assistant has said of her relationship with the Paralympic boccia champion: “I think a lot of people find it quite difficult to understand”.

Smith, 32, became the Paralympic-specific game’s most successful British player after retaining his individual BC1 title with a nervy win over Malaysia’s Chew Wei Lun.

He did so with friend, assistant and Tokyo 2020 carer Sarah Nolan just a few feet behind him.

“We have a really close relationship,” Nolan, 49, from Gloucester told the PA news agency.

“I think a lot of people find it quite difficult to understand actually, the relationship that we do have.

“I mean, we bicker like cat and dog. It’s horrendous for some people around us, because we will kind of really have a go at each other.

“I think it is just what comes from how comfortable we are with each other, that we can kind of pick up on where we’ve made errors, we can criticise each other, we can tell each other when it’s actually going well.”

Nolan also works in healthcare and counselling at Tresham College in Kettering, but she has been Smith’s assistant since 2010, as well as holding a number of boccia coaching roles.

Great Britain’s David Smith competes in the Individual – BC1 Gold Medal Match against Malaysia’s Chew Wei Lun at the Ariake Gym during day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Japan. Picture date: Wednesday September 1, 2021
Paralympic boccia champion David Smith and on-court assistant Sarah Nolan (Tim Goode/PA)

She has seen him win silver and bronze at London 2012, gold at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, and been best man at his wedding.

In Tokyo Nolan also works as a personal carer for Smith – who has cerebral palsy – which means long hours, late nights and early starts making sure he is prepared to go out and perform.

But what is her role on the court?

“David is quite restricted in his movements. So he actually has no way of storing balls and being able to pick them up,” said Nolan.

“David is in an electric chair, so he’s pretty solid in there. However, if he’s going to aim for an underarm shot, then I’ve got to put the brakes on for him, take them off for him.

“I’ll have to wipe his hand – with CP you get terribly hot and sweaty, because there’s an awful lot of spasms and all that kind of stuff going on.

“Then in between the ends, I need to have a word with him. I’m not coach for him as a BC1. I’m the person who gets him in the right place in order to deal with what he’s got to deal with.

“I’ll still take the mick out of him. In one of his games he didn’t get his jack ball over the line. So I called him a tit, because he needed to hear that he was a tit!”

Great Britain’s David Smith competes in the Individual – BC1 Gold Medal Match against Malaysia’s Chew Wei Lun at the Ariake Gym during day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Japan. Picture date: Wednesday September 1, 2021
David Smith is the most successful British boccia player (Tim Goode/PA)

When Malaysia’s Wei Lun was unable to prevent Smith from retaining his Paralympic title, Nolan placed her head in her hands before emotion got the better of both her and the gold medal winner.

“My heart rate is horrendous, I’m going through everything that he’s doing on that court,” she said.

“We were both seriously crying our eyes out together with what had been achieved.

“Okay, I’m not the one… but I am playing all those shots with him, which is why, you know, it was a very emotional moment at the end, knowing how much he’d achieved.”