Exclusive: Townsend relives memorable London 2012 entrance
As the nation was glued to its TV sets and 80,000 fans were roaring during the London 2012 Opening Ceremony there was one man with a unique perspective of the iconic occasion.
While the ceremony was in full swing below few knew Joe Townsend was watching from 100 metres above waiting to make the most memorable of entrances.
At the time Townsend was an aspiring Paralympian and had been chosen to zipline into the stadium carrying the torch – not the ideal entrance for someone who is afraid of heights.
But the 29-year-old was determined to savour the moment and recalls a sense of awe at watching events unfold.
“I had to stand on top of the Orbit Tower and I was probably up there for about ten minutes before I was introduced and it was so quiet up there but you could hear the noise from the stadium,” he said.
“I had this incredible view where I was a hundred metres up watching and no one knew I was there and it was such a weirdly peaceful moment.
“The only thing I can liken it to is there’s a shot from the Superman film where he’s hovering above the Earth and looking down. It felt like that because I could see the whole of London and could see inside the stadium too.
“I just spent that time looking around and thinking that no none else is going to have had this view, it was unique so I tried to savour it all.”
To this day Townsend has no idea who put his name forward to the organisers but he is thankful for whoever did – though he admits there were more than a few nerves before he made the final leap.
“I think we did two training runs before the ceremony and when I first got up there I was scared. I’m not the biggest fan of heights as it is so it was a lot to deal with,” Townsend added.
“On the day itself I missed a lot of the ceremony because I was in a dressing room waiting to do my bit. I knew my time was about to come and I won’t lie, I was nervous . It’s quite a big thing to zipline into a stadium in front of 80,000 people and millions watching on TV.
“The whole place was buzzing and at the time I was a nobody and next door to me there was Stephen Hawking in one dressing room and Sir Ian McKellen in the other and Beverley Knight down the hall.
“They were all coming up to me because they knew what my part was and I was just thinking ‘I’m a nobody and you’re very famous’ but they were coming up to me.
“I just wanted to make sure I did my bit correctly and didn’t mess anything up.”
Townsend – who represented ParalympicsGB in para-triathlon four years later in Rio – admits he doesn’t stop and reminisce as much as he should but remembers how surreal it felt hearing his name being called.
“Before I did it I was worried about dropping the flame and killing someone, or of the flame going out and what a flop that would be on live TV. Just crazy worst-case scenario things like that,” said Townsend.
“But then my name was called and they shone a giant floodlight on me and the whole stadium erupted and it was the most surreal and amazing feeling ever so that’s why when you watch it I have a giant silly grin on my face.
“All those thoughts and anxiety disappeared and I just enjoyed it.”
And, five years later, Townsend still credits London 2012 with giving him that extra bit of fire when he needs it.
“I had big aspiration of getting to Rio but it was a long way off back in 2012,” he said.
“Being part of the event in London and being there for a theatrical piece was phenomenal but it really fuelled the fire of wanting to be at the next Paralympic Games representing my country in the field of sport.
“I remember one of my last sessions before Rio we were training so hard and it was tough. I had a photo of Christ the Redeemer statue up and I looked at it and thought ‘you need to suck it up’ and I thought about how amazing London was and it gave me that extra boost to carry on.”