26 Aug 2010

2012 Paralympic preparations get underway

As preparations begin for the Paralympic training camp in Bath, Katie Razzall speaks to London 2012 hopefuls who hope to continue Britain’s winning tradition at the games.

How much food to get in for the guide dogs? Is the ice bath too big for the dwarf athletes? These are just some of the concerns of the organisers of the Paralympic Potentials camp.

With two years to go to the Games, ParalympicsGB has gathered 160 athletes from 14 sports for their first taste of what the Paralympics will be like.

They are spending five days at the Sports Training Village at Bath University. On the agenda is everything from training to massage, nutrition advice to bonding with men and women from different sports.

A chance for athletes who’ve never been to a Paralympic Games to meet those who have. The idea is to replicate the Olympic Village – even down to not putting enough places in the dining room so athletes will get used to waiting for lunch.

As Liz Johnson – who won gold in the 100m breaststroke in Beijing – put it to me at half past seven this morning at the end of her morning swim session: “Being a part of the Paralympic team, in the squad and at a camp like this – it is the one place you can be yourself. If you want someone to cut your steak you can ask.

“If someone else needs someone to read them the menu or pass them their wheelchair, they can ask. You don’t have to worry, you can be really comfortable with yourself.”

Ms Johnson has cerebral palsy, which affects her right side, but in the pool, she’s like a fish. For her, winning gold again, this time in front of the home crowd in 2012, is the ultimate ambition.

All the athletes here have similar dreams – and similar dedication and focus. Their disabilities become irrelevant as soon as they start competing. I have watched Adam Alderman powerlifting – the bar at 7 foot long nearly three foot bigger than his 4 foot 3 frame. The visually impaired Powell brothers, Dan and Marc, sparring at judo.

But sitting volleyball won out for me. The squad are amputees – the result of motorbike accidents, birth deformities and even the war in Afghanistan. Britain has never sent a sitting volleyball team to the Paralympics before, but the International Federation have granted them a place in 2012, as long as the British Paralympic Association (BPA) rule they will give a “credible” performance.

The captain, Rob Richardson, has 33 GB caps already. When he heard the Paralympics would be in the UK, he decided he wanted to take part, even though he had never competed in anything at top level before. He rang the BPA and they sent him a list of potential sports for a man with only one foot – the other was amputated when he was 14.

He chose volleyball and has not looked back. Today he explained how – in this sport – a greater disability than his is an advantage: “The ideal player to recruit would probably be a double amputee, above the knee. They’d be closer to the net, so their blocking would be more aggressive. Players with legs find they have to fold their legs out of the way to play.”

In a similar vein, a scan of Liz Johnson’s brain for a Channel 4 documentary, Inside Incredible Athletes, to be broadcast on Sunday, found that her disability works to her advantage in water.

Brain damage in the left side of her brain – the result of cerebral palsy – explains why her right side is disabled. But the scan showed an increase in nerve bundles on the right side of the brain. What that means is that the right side of her brain compensates for the damaged left side – and has learnt to control both sides of her body. Which means it is perfect for the symmetry needed to breaststroke.

Britain came second on the medals table at the Beijing Paralympics, beaten only by China, a country with as many disabled people in it as our entire population. Or that is the story being told at this camp today. It will be tough to equal the British medal position in 2012 – but that is the aim.