25 August 2008

Paralympians are ready, willing and able

Britain's Paralympians could pick up a bumper haul of medals in Beijing next month,says John Goodbody

That golden glow British sports fans have been feeling for the past fortnight may linger for a while yet. Following the historic success of the Great Britain competitors at the Beijing Olympics, which close today, their Paralympic counterparts are hoping to top the 94 medals (including 35 golds) they won at the Athens Games in 2004.
While some of the British team are serious contenders for gold next month, others will be looking to gain invaluable experience ahead of the London 2012 Paralympics. The Great Britain team is more than 200 strong and will be competing in 18 of the 20 sports.
One Briton expected to collect a pile of medals in Beijing is David Roberts, 28, a swimmer with cerebral palsy, who holds freestyle world records in the 50m, 100m, 200m and 400m. Four years ago in Athens, the ebullient Roberts won three individual gold medals plus one in the 4 x 100m relay. His favourite event is the 50m, the flat-out sprint over one length of the pool, in which he will be going for his third successive Paralympic title.
Roberts lives in the rugby union heartland of Pontypridd, trains at Swansea and relies on his father “to get me up really early and take me swimming. If I weren’t a swimmer, I’d want to play rugby for Wales”.
Several others will be defending their titles at the Paralympics, including Lee Pearson, 34, who has six equestrian golds from Sydney and Athens. Pearson has a condition that affects his joints and therefore has limited use of his legs when riding. Instead, he controls his horse, called Gentleman, using only his hips. He runs a yard and breeding business near Leek, Staffordshire, but relies on public funding because, as he says: “Horses eat money, not grass.”
The multi-medallist swimmer Sarah Bailey, 30, from Manchester, hopes to add to her haul in her new Paralympic sport of cycling, under her new married name of Storey.
In swimming, Louise Watkin, 16, warmed up for the Paralympics by setting a European record in her disabled category for the 200m individual medley at the national championships in Sheffield. Despite having only one hand, the Devon college student’s weekly training often adds up to the equivalent of swimming the Channel.
Nathan Stephens, who lost his legs in a railway accident at the age of nine, will be taking part in his first summer Games. The 20-year-old from Cardiff will be throwing the shot, discus and javelin, having competed in the ice sledge hockey at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin.
Other debutants expected to do well next month include Libby Clegg, 18, a visually impaired sprinter based in Edinburgh, and law student Danielle Brown, 20, from North Yorkshire, who competes in the wheelchair archery event.
Judo is one sport in which visually impaired and able-bodied athletes could compete equally. Visually impaired fighters may, indeed, have an advantage through being particularly sensitive to opponents’ movement and shifts in balance prior to the launching of throws. The main difference, says Sam Ingram, who will be in the under90kg category at the Paralympics, is that fighters grip each other under the arms at the start of the bout, rather than tus-sling for a grip on the jackets.
Ingram, 23, joined a local judo club in Coventry after his elder brother Joe, who narrowly missed selection for the Paralympics, took up the sport. He stopped for three years while studying in Cornwall because of a lack of top-class facilities but returned to the sport in 2006 and finished second in the World Championships last year. Now training full-time in Edinburgh, he is working on a particular move that he and Steve Gawthorpe, the national coach for the visually impaired, call the Subduer. Opponents in Beijing had better beware.
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, 39, Britain’s most successful Paralympian with 16 medals, 11 of them gold, will be following events in China with interest. “My goal was never to be Britain’s greatest competitor in the Paralympics,” she says. “It was to fulfil my potential. And now I will be able to watch and applaud others doing the same.”
Among the international stars poised to make an impact next month is Chantal Petitclerc, 38, the Canadian wheelchair athlete who won five gold medals and broke three world records at the 2004 Paralympics. She lost the use of her legs after an accident at the age of 13, and was introduced to swimming by a teacher in an effort to build up her strength. Later she switched to wheelchair racing.
Her 800m victory at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester made history because it was included in Canada’s medal tally for the whole Games. Previously, disabled events had been classed as demonstration sports, and therefore excluded from each country’s overall total.
“At last, it’s a sport which counts for our country,” Petitclerc said. “We have been fighting for this for years, so this medal has a special meaning.” In Beijing she is expected to compete in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m.
Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorius will be looking to win Paralympic gold for South Africa. Du Toit, 24, had been aiming for a place in the able-bodied swimming team at the 2004 Games before she lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. She achieved her Olympics dream in China last week with a place in the 10km open-water swim, coming 16th, and will take part in a number of events at the Paralympics.
Pistorius, 21, a double amputee who runs on curved blades, won his legal campaign to be allowed to compete in the able-bodied Games but failed to make the 400m qualifying time. At the Paralympics he will be seeking to improve his times in the 100m, 200m and 400m - before resuming his quest to run in the London Olympics in 2012.
What to watch
The Beijing Paralympic Games, which take place on September 6-17, feature events such as boccia (similar to bowls), goalball and wheelchair fencing Competitors in the Paralympics are grouped in classes according to the nature of their disabilities Live television coverage will be shown on BBC1, BBC2 and British Eurosport. You can also follow the latest action at www.timesonline.co.uk/olympics
The 2012 Paralympics in London will be held on August 29-September 9

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