You are browsing the archive for Paralympics.

‘Rio was one of the scariest experiences ever’

December 13, 2016 in Interviews

Representing your country at any major sporting event is bound to generate nerves, but for Team GB wheelchair racer Ben Rowlings the 2016 Paralympics took that to another level. 

“Rio was one of the scariest experiences ever,” he told me. “To go to my first [Paralympic] games, with all the expectations and hype around it, was a really weird feeling.

“If I’m honest, was overwhelming, waiting under the stadium and hearing the crowd erupting from the race before was scary and something I really wasn’t ready for.”

Rowlings competed in the T34 class 100m and 800m events, but sadly wasn’t able to add to the three bronze medals he won at this year’s IPC Athletics European Championships in Grosetto, Italy.

Nonetheless, the 20-year-old from Shropshire was overwhelmed by the warm acclaim received by Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians on their return home.

Inspirational

“The reception I’ve had since I’ve got back from Rio has been overwhelming, I never thought it would have the impact it has,” he said.

“You get to do some amazing things like going on the pitch at Wembley at half-time during rugby matches.

“I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country”

Then, on the flip-side, you have kids coming up to you telling you that you’ve inspired them to get into sport or try something new, and that hits home and makes everything worthwhile.”

Rowlings, who has cerebral palsy, was once one of those kids, waiting to be inspired to find a sport he could excel in.

Initially, he thought it might be swimming, but a severe condition chlorine allergy left him sneezing every time he went into the pool.

This led him to try wheelchair  racing, and the switch paid off.

Quickest

Coached by Job King at the Coventry Godiva Harriers club since 2011, he showed consistency in 100m, 200m and 800m, moving up the world rankings and competing at meets in Dubai and Switzerland.

As the hard work continued, Rowlings made it into the Team GB lottery-funded World Class Performance Programme in 2014 and raced at that year’s IPC European Championships in Swansea, coming third in the T34 800m final..

“It was a race that could do so much and define my season,” he recalled. ” I can’t remember much, other than the gun sounding and going out hard, the quickest I have ever pushed.

“The rest of the race is a blur, all I know is I crossed the line having won bronze and that it was the best feeling ever.  I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country.”

Training

Rowling is currently training hard, and looking to build on the experience he gained in Rio this summer as he aims for more medals.

“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go”

“At the moment I’m in my off-season so I’m doing lots of miles, anywhere between 15-20 a day, with lots of hours in the gym on top.

“As we get into the season, the mileage will come down as we get ready to sharpen up for the the major events, but I’ll be training 2-3 times a day six days a week all year round.

“Day in day out it’s just time management trying to manage training 2-3 times a day, working part-time and recovery is tough.

“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go.”

London, then Tokyo

With the experience of Rio 2016 now under his belt, Rowling is setting his sights on next year’s IPC World Athletics Championships in London.

“I’m just taking it one season at a time, so in 2017 we have the Worlds in London and that will be huge, racing in front of a home crowd.

“But looking forward I want to make the squad for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, and once I’m there perform better than I did in Rio.

“I have a massive point to prove because I didn’t race as well as I know I could have in Brazil.”

You can follow Ben Rowlings on Twitter @BenRowlings and on Instagram @benrowlings.

‘I was naive about Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy’

November 21, 2016 in Interviews

Athletes across the globe dream of one day having the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world whilst wearing their nation colours,  but for table tennis player Aaron McKibbin, that dream has already become a reality – twice.

At the London 2012 Paralympics, McKibbin fulfilled that ambition, but his adventure had the happiest of endings as together with GB team-mates Ross Wilson and Will Bayley, he clinched a bronze medal in the men’s team class 6-8 competition (moderate to severe limb impairment).

“It was a bit crazy, we didn’t expect it [to take a medal home],” he explains.

“We went in pretty blind; we were young. And being a home games, which was an amazing experience, we didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a dream!”

Rio 2016

Fast forward four years to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and the 25-year-old was part of the team that repeated that medal-winning feat, but he admits to a feeling of disappointment at only managing to finish third again.

©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

“We were so close to beating Ukraine in the doubles, and if we’d done that, we were most likely going to win the match and play Sweden in the final for gold,” explains McKibbin.

“On the other hand, to take a bronze there meant so much more than in London. The teams we beat along the way were so strong, and we saw our draw and knew it was going to be a tough ask.

“We beat Belgium, the former world champions in the first round. Then we beat Spain, the London 2012 silver medallists in the quarter-final, and then lost to the gold medallists in the semi-final.

“Finally, we had to beat China, the current world champions, who had the Rio 2016 gold medallist in their team.”

Tokyo 2020

After two consecutive bronze medals, looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, McKibbin has his eyes on an upgrade.

“I’m very determined [to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics],” McKibbin emphasises.

“I reached the quarter-final of singles in Rio, and my aim is to be competing for a singles medal at Tokyo 2020.”

Should McKibbin qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would be his third Paralympic Games – something he admits he never thought possible.

“My aim of going to London was simply because I had a dream of playing on the world stage and at a home games,” says the Londoner. “I didn’t even know about Brazil until after London 2012!”

European Championships and PTT Open

Whilst Rio and London are McKibbin’s biggest successes so far, they are not the only ones – he has also won medals at the 2015 European Para Table Tennis Championships and China PTT Open.

“They can’t compare to a Paralympics or World Championships. They are the most special competitions you can play in.”

“To win medals at any competition isn’t easy; the standard is getting harder and harder,” McKibbin says.

“Winning the China Open was possibly my most pleasing result outside of the Paralympics. I beat the world number two from China in the final and I had to win the competition to seal my qualification for Rio.”

While McKibbin clearly enjoyed those other triumphs, he admits neither comes close to the experience of Paralympic success.

“They can’t compare – things like the Paralympics or world championships are the most special competitions you can play in.”

Transition

Winning medals playing table tennis was not always McKibbin’s goal, however.

As a youngster, he dreamed of success on the tennis court, until he was forced to quit at the age of 14 because of his bilateral talipes – the medical condition more commonly known as club foot.

“It was was pretty hard, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted,” he admits.

“I was very naive to Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy and not serious”

“I fell out of love with the sport as no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to compete with the people I used to beat. My dream as a child was to play at Wimbledon so, once I knew that wasn’t a reality, then it [the decision to quit tennis] was sort of made for me.”

It was not until his first international table tennis tournament in Romania that his ambitions to compete at the highest level were reignited.

“I wasn’t really expecting much. I went because I was offered and thought it would be a cool experience,” he says.

“I was very naive about Paralympic sport; I thought it was easy and not serious. But once I arrived and saw how high the level was, how professional it was, I made my decision [aiming to compete at London 2012].”

Challenges

McKibbin eventually moved up to the National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield to train full-time in a bid to make his Paralympic dream come true, and he admits the step into the unknown was a tough experience.

“At first I didn’t [find it difficult to leave London for Sheffield], I just made the decision. I needed to go and that’s it.

©Wikimedia Commons

“But then I think after a while I did. I had never left home before, and I was suddenly living 170 miles away from my family, looking after myself, while not knowing everyone that well being so new to the team.”

Several successful years later, McKibbin faces new challenges, such as balancing his time between playing table tennis and studying for a part-time Sports Science degree at Loughborough University.

“It’s hard as I have to drive to Loughborough two times a week, so it’s a lot of driving. But it’s something I must do as I know I a need a degree for my future,” he explained.

“The key is being organised. I have my year planned out; I’m in good contact with my tutors and lecturers. I’ve started back full-time training now, and it is hard after a long day of lots of physical work to come home and focus on learning.

“But I will find a way. I’m not the first to do it and sure won’t be the last.”

Next generation

At 25, and with several international honours to his name, McKibbin is in a good position to give advice to the next generation of future Paralympians – and his key message is the importance of a strong work ethic and mental resilience.

“It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but, if you have a dream, you should go for it and never let anyone tell you otherwise,” he explained.

“There will be lots of ups and downs, but it’s the down periods that make you learn the most about yourself. Enjoy the lows because they make the success taste that much sweeter!”

Aaron is on Twitter @Kibsta91. Featured image ©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

Wheelchair racer Lawson insists his best is yet to come

November 16, 2016 in Interviews

After a training crash which left him paralysed, motocross racer Simon Lawson admits he struggled with a “void” that needed to be filled.

The Cumbrian found a fresh outlet for his competitive nature in endurance wheelchair racing, and was delighted to be selected by Team GB for this year’s Rio Paralympics.

“It feel like it’s definitely been my best year to date,” he  told me. “I’ve set new personal best times, plus being selected to represent our country in the Paralympics was a massive highlight.”

“Wheelchair racing was the sport I chose to fill that void in my life, and so far things are going great”

Lawson, 34, finished 14th in the men’s marathon in the T53 class (for athletes with full use of their arms but limited trunk and lower body movement) in Brazil.

He followed that up with races in Berlin, Chicago, Scotland and New York – in the famous Big Apple marathon, he crossed the line in sixth place.

“New York came at the end of a very busy six-week period, and I think it has got to be one of my best results of the year.

“I didn’t win and it wasn’t my fastest time, but I exceeded my expectations in that race and I managed to get my best position against the best athletes in the world.”

“Berlin was also a good race, finishing sixth again but only six seconds behind the winner and Rio Paralympics gold medalist Marcel Hug. So I think I proved to myself and the other athletes what I was capable of.”

‘Hard to let go’
simon-lawson-motorcross

Lawson competed at national level in motocross before an accident in 2001 left him paralysed from the chest down.

“It’s never easy leaving anything you love doing. I obviously had no choice but to quit motocross because of my injury, but it still was hard to let that go,” he admits.

“Wheelchair racing was the sport I chose to fill that void in my life, and so far things are going great.”

His job at Jack Horseman Motorcycles in Carlisle keeps up his connection with two-wheeled machines, but it’s his three-wheeled racing chair that has taken him to the highest level of disability sport.

Personal parade

After that impressive 14th place finish in Rio, Lawson was excited to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic celebration in Manchester.

But he was even more thrilled when he discovered that the people of his hometown Mayport had organised a street parade to mark his return from Brazil.

“That truly was amazing, I was blown away by the parade! They closed off the main street and let the local schools have the morning off to come and cheer for me. What a reception.

“It was even more special than the Team GB parade in Manchester because this was local and personal and just for me.

“I couldn’t believe how many people turned out and supported me. It will be a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Pride

Of course, taking part in the Team GB event was, Lawson stresses, another very special day.

“It was such an honour to be part of it. Parading through the streets of Manchester with thousands of people cheering and waving GB flags.

“I aim to be at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and hopefully this time bring home a medal”

“It gave me a massive sense of pride and also a lot of motivation to continue in my sport and represent my country again.”

Now that the racing season is over for the wheelchair racer, you would think that he deserves some off time and a break from the sport before the tough training regime starts again next year. Wrong.

Lawson said: “I’ve had a short break from training and racing, but now I’m starting my winter training programme to get ready for 2017. I’m aiming to work on my weaknesses and develop my strengths.”

Funding

Despite the progress he has made in 2016, Lawson didn’t do enough to keep his lottery funding for 2017.

He admits it is a blow, and knows that being self-funded next season will be tough. But he sees it as “extra motivation” to prove people wrong and is determined to get good results and use the prize money to help out with his costs.

“I plan to compete in the Abbott World Major marathon series, races in Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York, plus some track races and races in this country between the major events.

“I aim to be at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and hopefully this time bring home a medal.”

You can follow Simon Lawson on Twitter @_SL74. Image courtesy of timeandstar.co.uk

‘I decided to text my coach and quit. It was my lowest point’

November 8, 2016 in Interviews

Ryan Crouch admits he came close to giving up the sport he loves last year, having grown frustrated as health problems took their toll on his confidence and abilities.

The two-time cerebral palsy world swimming champion recalls: “In December 2014, I had health setbacks that forced me out of the pool. After a few months not training, I decided to text my coach that I would be quitting. It was the lowest point of my life.”

But after taking a break and clearing his head, the Essex-born Paralympian realised he needed to be back in the water and doing what he’s does best.

“In April 2015, after a few other issues outside of the pool and health aside, I decided I missed swimming too much. Added to this, I was asked to compete at the Cerebral Palsy World Games and it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t refuse.

“For the first time in a while I really had something to focus on, and just four months later I found myself in the England cerebral palsy team and took two golds in Nottingham.”

Missed out

Fast forward to this summer, and Crouch found himself lining up in the 50m freestyle final in his classification (S9) at the 2016 Paralympics, having won his heat.

He finished down in eighth place, but just getting to Rio has fuelled his desire to compete again on disabled sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo 2020.

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Crouch wins his heat in Rio

“Rio was like something I have never seen before, the Brazilian fans were incredible, so loud and so passionate. My parents being there and watching me take on the world was so important for me.

“They have always been so supportive of my dreams and ambitions as a swimmer.”

The only sour note in his Paralympic experience came when the 22-year-old missed out on selection for the relay team.

“It was a big blow not being selected for something I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” he says about what is still clearly a subject that rankles with him.

“The most important thing for me is I was happy with my individual 50m and 100m freestyle performances in Rio, and it has given me a taste for more international success.”

Hero

As well as the family and friends who have backed him all the way, another person who Crouch hopes will cheering him on towards the 2020 Games is his hero James Hickman.

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio”

He’s never forgotten how the five-time world champion took time out to offer him some encouragement when he met him as a boy.

“I was just 11 years old at the time,” he told me. “I was training at Harwich & Parkeston Swimming Club, which was my club at the time, and he came to have a talk with us.

“I remember him sitting me down individually and giving me the most inspiring chat about his experiences and his journey.

“But the most important thing I learnt from James was to maintain the love for swimming.

“He gave me a motivational CD to play in the car too, and it really did all start from there. That is when my Olympic dream started.”

Tattoo

Having missed out on the London 2012 Paralympics, Crouch, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, celebrated his Rio adventure with an Olympic rings tattoo – a permanent reminder of his call-up to compete on the global stage.

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Crouch’s tattoo

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio, and it’s a tattoo I said I would always get if I ever made it there.

“It’s the biggest and best achievement of my life so far, and one I want to remember forever – the tattoo is the perfect way to depict it.

“My other tattoo ‘Forever Young’ is dedicated to my late cousin and grandad who supported my dream so much and were sadly taken too early.

“Every time I step into the pool, it’s for them and they are always so close to my heart.”

Coaching

Crouch dedicates a lot of his time to coaching others, and believes it is a major part of his progression as a swimmer.

“When I look back to before I started coaching, I was very young and didn’t understand the sport like I do now,” he explained. “These last five years of coaching has really opened my eyes to it all.

“Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot”

“I love helping to improve and inspire others, it’s what gets me up in the morning, knowing that I am making a difference, and I definitely see my future in coaching in the long term.”

Having sampled one Paralympics, however, he’s hoping he’s got plenty more to offer as a competitor at the highest level.

“Of course I am aiming to compete at the next Games but for me, it’s about breaking down my aims into the short term,” he said.

“That includes maintaining my love for swimming and to go to the World Championships qualifiers in July next year and consequently make the team for Mexico.

“Keeping that burning desire for swimming deep inside of me is so important for me and any swimmer. Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot.”

Hodge aiming to get back in the fast lane

November 3, 2016 in Interviews

There are some interviews when you really have to strain to get some reluctant sporting character to say anything even vaguely interesting or unanticipated.

Marcel Hodge, with his easy-going attitude and willingness to talk, is very different.

The Ascot-born athlete has overcome Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s Syndrome to make his mark in the T20 (learning disabilities) category of track and field.

“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me”

However, the 24-year-old’s career has been stop-start so far, ranging from becoming the fastest T20 sprinter of all time in the UK over 100m and 60m to defeat by female athlete Louise Bloor in a 200m indoor race in Manchester in 2016.

But first, back to the beginning, and Hodge’s decision – or rather his mum’s – that he should take up running as at eight-year-old at Slough Junior Athletics Club

“In all honesty, in the beginning it was just a way for my mum to get me out of the house,” he admits. “I have ADHD, so I was hyperactive as a child, running around everywhere and swinging on the chandeliers – not literally…

“But at the same time, I loved sitting around watching Cartoon Network and Fox Kids while eating snacks. I knew I was always quick but I was useless at every other sport.

“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me.”

“Not really represented Great Britain” 

Hodge speaks with great maturity as he reflects on being classified as a T20 athlete in 2012, opening the door for him to compete for Great Britain’s learning disability athletics team due to his promising times.

“Ha ha, well, I won’t say my times were amazing,” he laughs. “I for one was not impressed. I think people knew I was capable of much faster times. Running the 100m in 11.1 seconds and running 22.6 in the 200m in 2012, is nothing to brag about.

“It’s sort of controversial. Ever since I was 15 years old, I wanted to compete at international mainstream level [non-disability] such as the World Juniors and the European Junior Championships.

“I felt you get more respect and appreciation, hitting those sort of levels. It made me feel okay but not Tony-the-Tiger great.”

Then there was the cost factor, with learning disability athletes effectively expected to pay their own way.

“The whole squad had to fund themselves,” he explains.

“It was about £80 for my kit and about £500 to compete at the INAS World indoor championships in Manchester and in the same year, I competed at the INAS European Uutdoor Athletics Championships in Gavle, Sweden.

“We had to fork out a £250 deposit plus £850 on top of that, so that’s £1,100 in total we had to pay to represent our country.

It might as well have been called a Thomas Cook all-inclusive holiday package to Sweden! Utter joke. It’s the same every competition.

“So I feel that personally, I haven’t properly represented Great Britain as in simple terms: if you can’t afford it, you can’t be on the team. And that’s not fair on anyone.”

Disappointments 

Hodge has, however, continued to strive to be the best in his sport, but he’s still smarting over his loss to Louise Bloor over 200m in March.

It came in an open competition where runners were seeded by time, and Team GB’s Bloor was looking for a fast run as she chased qualification for the World Indoor Championships.

“Getting beaten by her was hard,” Hodge recalls. “She wasn’t just any girl, though. She’s competed at World and Olympic level and is coached by Tony Minichiello, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s coach.

“I’m not making excuses, but running an indoor 200m is very different to running an outdoor 200m. The last time I ran an indoor 200m was back in 2012 and I’d had no practice at running an indoor since then.

“I also had a cold, but honestly I was just slow. I was still in my winter phase with no proper speed work in me.

“I thought I would break the world T20 200m indoor record of 22.17 seconds, which isn’t that quick by mainstream standards, or even destroy my old indoor 200m personal best of 23.09. Instead I got 23.86. I felt humiliated and embarrassed.”

Paralympics 

For any aspiring athlete with a disability, the main objective is to compete in the Paralympics.

But after missing out on going to Rio this summer, Hodge insists he is focused on competing at future Games.

“I was training fine for the Paralympics but the 400m was not my natural event,” insists the sprinter.

“Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong”

“I only took it up so I could go to Rio for my category as they haven’t yet added  in the 100m and 200m. I did try long jump but I couldn’t jump to save my life, and I don’t compete in long distances, so my last and only choice was to do the 400m.

“I didn’t like the event from day one. I couldn’t even jog 400m when I started athletics. My mum had to run with me and she was pregnant at the time!

“People at British Athletics were telling me to take it up because of my 200m times, and they said I could make the top four in the T20 world rankings if I did a full 400m winter training programme.

“I was naive enough to believe them. Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong. Despite that knockback, I want to compete in five Paralympics and I believe I can still be 40-plus years old and still hold my own as long as I stay on top of everything.”

Team GB won 64 Paralympic gold medals in Rio, their highest total since 1988, however Hodge was disappointed by the lack of support from the general public and the TV coverage.

“One thing I despise is adverts. Why put the Olympics on the BBC where it’s uninterrupted coverage and the Paralympics on Channel 4? It’s unfair. Paralympic stars do not get the same coverage as able athletes because they have a disability, it’s as simple as that.”

Ambassadorial work 

The highs and lows Hodge has experienced make him ideal as an ambassador for the UK Sports Association’s My Sport, My Voice project, and he says it’s important to give opportunities to young athletes with learning disabilities.

“I want to make a difference,” he says.

“Learning disability athletes don’t get half the recognition as other disabled athletes and it’s my duty to change that.

“The governing bodies are doing a lot right now. However, it’s about adding more events to our category for the 2020 Paralympics, so athletes such as myself have the chance to show what we can produce.”

Hodge’s career has not progressed in the way he’d hoped, but he is optimistic about the future.

“To be honest, I just want to be competitive again,” he says.

“I want to go back to the level I know that I was capable of, when I was 18-years-old. I may aim to break the T20 60m world record which currently stands at 7.01 in 2017, or I hope to become the world outdoor champion over the 100m and 200m, if I can afford it and if we have a team.

“I want to continue to progress and put my name into T20 sprinting history because at the end of the day I aspire to be myself, I am my own inspiration.

“Learning about yourself is limitless, there is always something new you discover about yourself.”

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