Runner’s astonishing journey from Big Issue seller to Olympic flame carrier

By Heather Greenaway at the dailyrecord.co.uk.


JUST three years ago, Joel Hodgson was sleeping rough on the steps of a police station.

Today, the 24-year-old is preparing to carry the Olympic torch.

Born in Belize in Central America, adopted by Scottish parents and brought up in Renton, Dunbartonshire, Joel’s life has already been an amazing rollercoaster.

And, in another twist, he is now training to run for Belize at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014.

In July, the former Big Issue seller, who now works for one of London’s top law firms, will proudly carry the Olympic torch through the capital.

And last week he discovered he could play an even bigger role at the Glasgow games and line up with some of the world’s best athletes – including world record holder Usain Bolt – in the premier athletics event, the 100m.

Joel has come a long, long way since being born in Belize.

Abandoned by his mum when he was just three months old, Joel – and his sisters Yvette, 26, and Keisha, 27 – ended up in a children’s home.

But, when he was four, they were adopted by Scots marine engineer George Hodgson and his wife Susan, 62.

Joel said: “My birth mum walked out on us when I was a baby and left us with our dad, who was a very bad man. Social services put us in a home.

“The Hodgsons wanted to adopt three children and chose my sisters and I, without knowing we were all related.

“Then they brought us back to Scotland and we had an amazing childhood.

“I remember seeing snow for the first time and running outside in my underpants. I didn’t know it was going to be so cold.

“Sadly, my dad passed away when I was seven. I owe my Scots mum and dad everything. I owe them my life.

“Who knows what would have happened to me if I had been left in the home in Belize? I would have probably got sucked into a life of crime and drugs.

“It’s thanks to the Hodgsons I am the person I am today. We’ve all done well. My sisters both have good jobs.

“Our parents never let us forget our roots and took us back to Belize every two years to visit our older brother Raymond.

“We couldn’t have wished for a better mum and dad. I’m determined to make them proud.”

At 21, Joel travelled to London hoping to make his fortune with his gardener girlfriend Michelle Clark, who he had met while working in a Motherwell call centre.

One day, while he popped to the shops, Michelle was assaulted on the rough Croydon housing estate where they were living.

Joel said: “Police advised us not to go back to the flat and we ended up on the streets.

“Michelle was offered a place in a homeless hostel but because I was not a drunk, a druggie or gay, I was told to go and fend for myself.

“Not wanting to be separated, we spent three weeks sleeping on the steps of police stations to keep safe until Michelle’s boss found us a flat. Then I got a job selling The Big Issue.

“Life was tough for a while but then things started to improve.”

Joel, who now lives in Enfield with Michelle, 27, spent two years selling the magazine on the streets of London.

Everything changed for him in 2010 when he got the chance to sell The Big Issue at London law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer as part of a pilot scheme.

While there, Joel did unpaid work helping the staff, shadowing them, learning how to use a computer and gaining other skills.

His positive attitude and hard work ­impressed bosses so much that when a job came up in the billing department, Joel beat hundreds of others to get it.

He said: “I had been selling The Big Issue for two years when the opportunity came up for a vendor to work inside Freshfields.

“I got to do some work experience with them and a year later when a job came up I got it.

“I also took over as player-coach of the company’s football team and this year we won our league.

“They are amazing to work for and I owe them so much. I got the job with Freshfields and it’s been onwards and upwards ever since.”

Joel admits being chosen to join the team of runners carrying the Olympic torch is a dream come true.

He said: “I was over the moon when I discovered I had been chosen to run with the flame. It’s an incredible honour.

“When I was talking to people from the Olympics, I told them how, as a kid, I dreamed of winning the 100m gold.

“Then last week they got in touch to say I’m eligible to compete for Belize at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. I just have to achieve the qualifying times.”

Joel, who ran for Helensburgh Amateur Athletics Club as a boy, said: “I’ve always been a good sprinter and have won lots of trophies but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have a chance of competing on the world stage.

“My best 100m time is 10.8 seconds and I haven’t run competitively for three years but I still keep fit and try to run at least five miles a day.

“After the Olympics are over, I’ll start training in earnest for Glasgow. I will have to attend Belize training camps and get the times.

“People are joking that Usain Bolt better watch out. It’s all a bit surreal.

“When I was sleeping rough, my main concern was where my next meal might come from and if I would get through the night.

“Now I’ve been picked to run with the flame and could be flying the flag for Belize in Scotland, the country I call home.”

Joel, who has two stepsisters and a stepbrother, said: “I’ve worked really hard to turn my life around but so many people have helped me along the way.

“To run for Belize in Scotland would be my way of thanking them all for believing in me, especially my mum Susan.”

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