Kriss Akabusi: Overcoming his own hurdles
Sarah Brealey meets an Olympic medallist who is continuing to inspire others.
Kriss Akabusi is known for his ready, larger-than-life laugh as well as his prowess on the athletics track. But he's also a man who sees himself as shaped by his upbringing in a children's home: a quiet, sometimes introspective man.
When I meet him at his offices in Bedfordshire he has the room full of laughter within moments of entering it, but ten minutes later is talking with intense seriousness.
A change of name can be a rite of passage, a signifier that something has changed in a person's life. Kriss Akabusi laid down that marker when he put aside his given name Kezie when he joined the army. As he puts it: "When I joined the army I made the transition from a boy who had been in a children’s home with very little direction - as long as you weren’t bunking off school or nicking cars, you were left alone. The army wasn’t like that, it had a structure and meaning.
"I wanted to divorce myself from Kezie. I saw myself as not normal because normal to me was having a mum and dad and coming from a home you could call your own. Everyone I met in the army seemed to have that. I chose the name Kriss which kept the initial K while blending with my future."
But he hasn't put his original name behind him altogether, and for him it symbolises the two sides of his character. He says: "People like my daughters and my ex-wife and my few close friends, like Roger Black, they know me not just as Kriss but as Kezie Akabusi. The goal focused achieving person people see today is very much Kriss. The touchy-feely sentient needy person in the background is Kezie, saying don’t forget me. Kezie is very grateful for Kriss. He has taken him on a great journey."
To stand on the top as a champion and to have your name etched in the record books, that is something else
His upbringing, with a series of foster parents as well as in a children's home, was not the easiest start in life, and Kriss believes it has formed every aspect of his character. "My fortitude, ability to get on with it, ability to see the lighter side of life, embrace the moment, that has all come from a children’s home. On the other hand, I need solitude, can be wary of trusting people, can be myopic in a self-interested sense. Good and bad, it has shaped the person I am."
He holds three Olympic bronze medals, but counts his proudest achievement as becoming European champion in 1990, when he broke a British 400m hurdles record that had stood for 22 years. Even this victory was framed by his upbringing, in a way that made it even sweeter. "To stand on the top as a champion and to have your name etched in the record books, that is something else. To be Kezie Akabusi, the kid from a children’s home, having the world clapping you and slapping you on the back, is amazing."
Watch our fast and furious video of Kriss answering questions in his record-breaking hurdles time
There are few other such well-known people who have grown up in care, and Kriss is aware of his position as a possible role model for others. He wants to be an inspiration rather than a template, explaining: "Everyone has idiosyncrasies. I am not necessarily saying to the children in a home, follow me and do what I did. I am a good story. I have shown you can have a less than stable background and shaky start. There are people and systems in place that, if you show desire and attitude, will take you and your less than perfect start and give you the opportunity to have a perfect ending."
Kriss has undoubtedly come through difficult times, and says he tries to hold on to the knowledge that life is sweet, and that the alternative is worse. "I wake up every morning and I look forward to the day. I live very much in the moment. I accept what life throws at me. I recognise I am going to succeed but also that I am going to fail. I embrace my successes and failures. I find the enthusiasm goes a long way. I don’t take myself too seriously."
I wake up every morning and I look forward to the day
With a number of strings to his bow - his corporate motivational speaking as well as media and promotional work - he says having different interests and activities in your life is one route to greater happiness.
Now 53, he has had to face the reality of ageing, a process which is perhaps harder for athletes than those of us who achieved lesser physical perfection. He has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and follows a healthy diet as well as taking medication. He also exercises regularly, and although it seems hard to imagine two more different sports, says his favourites are golf and basketball.
He is also the father of young children once again. He has two adult daughters from his first marriage and now has a son, four, and a daughter, one, from his current relationship. They say that children keep you young, and Kriss certainly agrees. He says: "There is a saying that you are the sum of the five people you spend most time with, so if there are a couple of tiddlywinks in there that brings the age down a bit - along with all that modern medicine can do!"
On a more serious note, he adds: "I have been very blessed. To have children that have come into my life at this stage of my life is wonderful. They make you trawl the reservoirs of your mind to bring up stories from 20 years ago. There is also a new source of energy. You start thinking about schools and universities and career paths and wanting to be there to facilitate that. So you think rather than retiring in a few years to play golf you want to keep working. Now I am thinking I will work till I am 75 and then I want to have 10 years to play golf and relax. It is a whole new way of thinking, not just shuffling off this mortal coil at 70. So it makes sense to play basketball and keep healthy!"
Cooking has become another passion in life, one that he says he has developed since his marriage ended nine years ago. He even appeared on Come Dine with Me last year, which he says was "fantastic, and a real challenge to cook for other people in that setting". He adds: "Cooking is a whole new challenge when it is for other people. You realise it is not easy. When you go to restaurants and someone is cooking food professionally you realise it is a great skill. I can't cook without thinking about the people I am cooking for and my love for them. When you cook for someone it is quite an intimate thing. You have got to think about them and the things that they like and don't like."
I can't cook without thinking about the people I am cooking for and my love for them
He talks with his trademark enthusiasm about some of his favourite dishes: "I love making fresh vegetable soups with the veg still crisp, not stewed, with ginger, cayenne pepper and a bit of curry powder in there, and maybe some low-fat soft cheese stirred in at the end to add some extra richness, it is lovely. Sometimes if I have got some chicken I like to stew the bones to add flavour to the soup and put pieces of chicken in there.
"I am a big fish person. You can bake almost any kind of fish, whether it is haddock or halibut. I like to bake fresh tuna and serve it on a bed of vegetables – okra and spinach is one of my favourites, but you can do it with just spinach. You steam the spinach, add some spices, put the tuna on top, and then serve it with something like boiled potatoes or even gnocchi."
It seems appropriate that a man with two sides to his personality is known for his achievements in two disciplines - the 400m and the 400m hurdles. So which does he prefer? "That’s a good question," he replies. "I am in love with the 400m flat even though I am best at hurdles. I am basically a failed quarter-miler!" And the larger-than-life laugh fills the room again.
Read our interview with former Olympian Roger Black
- Take this life seriously. It is not a dress rehearsal. Recognise that you are here today and gone tomorrow, but you can extend today if you work at it.
- Live simply in terms of food, both what and how much you eat.
- Do everything in moderation. You can do all things, but not all things to excess.
- Show gratitude: whether you are religious or not, there is something to be said for waking up in the morning and being grateful for the sun shining on your back.
- Have goals, and picture what you want to achieve. Be hopeful. With gratitude and hope come energy and wellbeing.