AS SHE looks back on 2014, Alison Walker can reflect with professional and patriotic pride on some big events that Scotland staged with spectacular success. One of the Hampden comperes for the athletics at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the radio and television broadcaster was also an on-course commentator at the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, and is one of the board members of Scottish Women in Sport (SWiS), an organisation that has just completed its first full year in existence.
But, while this has been one of the busiest and best years in a career that has now spanned quarter of a century, it has also been one of the toughest and saddest for Walker personally. Both of her parents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her father, a former GP, has had to be taken into care, while her mother, who was a midwife, although still living in the family home, needs constant help.
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Perhaps the joy of sport offers no more than minimal consolation when you have to deal with a serious illness that has, very unusually, struck both your parents at once. But Walker gained much of her enthusiasm for sport from her father, and conversations about their beloved Hamilton Accies do provide some much-needed humour.
“My dad still recognises me and the family,” she says. “He completely lives in the moment, and he’s happy in the moment. As long as you tell him things about Hamilton Accies and talk about sport to him he’s fine.
“He still gets the British Medical Journal delivered, and he still reads it. He’ll say things like ‘You know, they keep telling me that I’ve got that disease – that thing that I bloody well can’t remember that I’ve got…’ And he has a wee twinkle in his eye. We’ll talk about when Billy Reid was the manager of Hamilton and we weren’t doing very well for a while. We were playing quite negative football, before all the good stuff kicked in.
“We’ll test dad. ‘Dad, who’s the manager of Hamilton Accies?’ And he’ll say ‘Who is it? who is it? I can’t remember the name of the guy, but he should be sacked anyway’.
“So, every now and then, you get these glimmers, these chinks of light amongst the dementia. But it’s been hard going for the last three years with him, and in particular this year. Having to put your own father into a home is absolutely heartbreaking, but it is the best thing for him, because my mum couldn’t care for him.
“He’s happy. She’s struggling, because she’s got Alzheimer’s and she’s on her own. And she misses him dreadfully, because they’ve been married for 55 years.
“I’ve been talking to Alzheimer Scotland. Helping raise awareness in any way I can – that would be my next quest, having had both my parents diagnosed with it.
“It’s a horrible, horrible disease, when you see well-educated, on-the-ball people change personalities in the space of a year. You see the people that you know and love drift away from you. They’re there physically, and they’re very fit physically, but it’s very frightening to watch, and very, very sad.
“My mum phones me about 16 times a day, and by the tenth phone call I might say ‘Mum, you phoned me before’.
‘Oh, have I?’
‘You know dad’s gone into a home’.
‘Yes, he’s been in five months’.
‘Oh, I’d forgotten. My memory’s terrible’.
‘I know it is mum. We need to try and remind you, so when you wake up in the morning you don’t panic that he’s not there any more’.
“She panics and she calls the police and tells them he’s gone missing. I feel so sorry for her, because she’s on the ball in every other way. It’s just this part of her brain, the short-term memory part, that’s dying.
“It is like a bereavement. Like losing both parents at the same time. It’s amazing how you manage, though.”
When she left the BBC to go freelance some four years ago, Walker expected to have a heavier workload – and that was only taking her journalism into account. Since then, SWiS as she calls it – pronounced as in the nationality – has taken up an increasing amount of her (unpaid) time, as have the increasingly frequent visits to her parents in Edinburgh.
Although much work remains to be done before women’s sport is accorded the same respect as men’s, Walker is sure that progress is being made. “Things are changing – I’ll give you two examples of that. One coach told me recently that a girl came to join their club who had never played football before. He asked why she wanted to play football, and she said ‘I want to be Kim Little’. And I thought ‘Oh, that’s a bit of a turning point’.
“The other example I can give is from when I was going into Hampden each day to compere the athletics at the Commonwealth Games with Bryan Burnett. I got the bus, and there was a wee girl on the bus, who must have been about eight. She saw my accreditation, and she and her mum started to talk to me, and she said to me ‘Do you know Hannah Miley?’
“And I said, ‘Yes, I do know Hannah’’, having interviewed her quite a few times. And she said ‘I think Hannah’s amazing. I want to be a swimmer just like Hannah’.
“I thought that was great. I talked to her mum, and she said the girl had been swimming for about a year, and the Commonwealth Games had given her the extra incentive to keep going. To hear things like that is what keeps us going when we think ‘Are we getting anywhere?’ ”
From a professional point of view, Walker’s own highlight of Glasgow 2014 was probably interviewing Usain Bolt on the Hampden track, just as an abiding memory of London 2012 was getting to interview Pelé for the Olympic Broadcast Service before the closing ceremony. But more than her personal pride in meeting such sporting greats, she has derived most pleasure this year from the two big events hosted by her own country.
“Usain Bolt, Eilidh Child, Lynsey Sharp… and the noise,” she says when asked about her abiding memories of Glasgow 2014. “That noise. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt deafened. I couldn’t hear – even the loudest nightclub couldn’t have beaten that. It was just phenomenal.
“At Gleneagles, I was so pleased that the Ryder Cup really pulled out all the stops and managed that spectator experience so well.
“I’d been at Celtic Manor as a spectator and had a nightmare experience with my son. I felt so strongly about the way that spectators were treated.
“Everybody loved it at Gleneagles. Everybody had such a great time, and I was so thrilled that we made such a great job of it.”
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