28 Aug 2012

Gotcha boccia!

Jess Hunter, at 20, is by any test, severely disabled. She is also remarkably pretty. I’m not sure that it is even politically correct to say that. One day last month she ventured to our news studio in her cumbersome wheelchair with her “talent manager” and her assistant, and her coach. Jess is one of ParalympicsGB’s prospects for a gold medal in the upcoming Paralympic Games. Her sport is Boccia.

Her sport is what? Boccia rhymes with Gotcha and is, I reckon, the secret sensation of this month’s Paralympics. It’s just one of the remarkable sports that will take the games into another sphere from the breathtaking Olympics that have gone before. I suppose that its nearest able bodied relative is the French sport of boule, or our own village green game of bowls.

Jess Hunter was born severely affected by cerebral palsy. She has little or no control over any of her limbs and cannot speak. Her wheel chair tilts her in a 45-degree position half way between sitting up and lying down. Yet this extraordinary Para-athlete trains fifteen hours a week to sustain her position as one the world’s greatest exponents of Boccia.  She is aided by an assistant who is not permitted to see the field of play – an area perhaps half a tennis court in size.

Jess is armed with six Boccia balls of varying weights. Using her eyes to signal which ball she wants to “throw”, Jess then has to line up the ramp from which the ball will be projected. The assistant moves it up, down, left, and right according to Jess’s eye signals. Once in position the jack is placed on a ledge on the ramp. There’s a groove at the back of the ramp and Jess – with huge difficulty locates it with a probe on her helmeted head. She locates the ball and prods with the probe. She repeats the exercise as she plays each of her six balls. Stunningly, her fist ball ends up nudging the jack. Playing in teams of two (Jess’s equally disabled teammate is 17-years-old), the field of play amazingly become a dense contest of tightly pitched balls. Suddenly one of the other contestants will blast the field open taking her own ball close to the newly positioned jack.

As the play unfolds, I, and my colleagues watching, all forget that we are engrossed in a contest between profoundly disabled young women, who cannot walk, or dress, or talk – playing a mesmerising and completely absorbing sport. For myself, with very little exposure to disability, my Paralympic journey as a commentator training for the games has been one of the most exciting and uplifting adventures of my reporting life.

I have played wheelchair basketball – one of the most savage sports I ever expect to play. I was crashed into, spun, tipped out, and constantly found the ball ripped from my grasp. Like wheel chair rugby it is an incredibly fast sport, skilled, making, like Boccia, for an extraordinary and all consuming spectator sport.

Blind cycling

As a cyclist though I have to confess that blind cycling is the sport that finally scared the lycra pants off me. A few months back I made my way to the Manchester velodrome to experience the sport. The track was swarming with Olympic and Paralympic cyclists alike. It was here that I encountered some of the British military amputees from the Iraq and Afghan wars. Some had lost a leg and sport incredibly engineered prosthetic that were cleated into the pedal. Others had lost an arm and were aided by brilliantly conceived handle bar grips attached to their artificial arms.

Blind cycling places you on the back of tandem with sighted rider at the front. I had never been on a tandem, never cycled completely blindfolded, and never ridden a fixed wheeled bicycle on which there are neither gears nor breaks. Oh, and I had never cycled in a velodrome.

Unsighted, the swoops up and down the sides of the track – the dives and spurts as you go faster and faster – were completely disorienting. I never knew where I was as I buried my head in the back of the rider in front. As we topped 43 mph I feared my ageing legs just would not be able to keep up. I screamed to be allowed to stop. But the exhilaration, the space, the wind, the crowd noise, and yes, once again the sheer sport obliterated my initial obsession with the disability.

In Jon Snow’s Paralympic Show in the ten days leading up to the Paralympics, I’m going to share this adventure with you – meeting the Paralympians training amongst the rubble in Gaza; talking to the blind footballer whose brilliant left foot finds the ball by hearing the little bell that rings within it; and so much more. One of the most remarkable films in our half hourly nightly show will be an unprecedented access to the Military rehabilitation centre at Headley Court where many supreme Paralympic sportsmen have had their lives rebuilt and transformed. The Olympics may have thrilled us to the core; the Paralympics will take us somewhere else – one of the most exciting “places” I have ever been.

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7 reader comments

  1. Gordon Smith says:

    Mr Snow is to be congratulated on his Paralympic show. I believe that no one else could bring the combination of enthusiasm, professionalism, respect and sheer joy to the subject that he has. Simply fantastic!

  2. Loraine Nicholas says:

    As always, Jon Snow has managed to combine enthusiasm, humanity, respect, humour and utter honesty – qualities he applies to everything he touches. Brilliant! Thank-you, also, to Channel 4,

  3. Cyril Wheat says:

    A remarkable report on remarkable people. The level of dedication and effort is brought to life by Jon Snow. Terrific reporting. Well done the athletes and well done Jon.

  4. Patsy Stevens says:

    Yes, most of us sympthasie iwth and admire the w chair/amputee competitors but you have not even mentioned deaf, hearing impaired or deaf-blind people who are equally disabled, dont receive access/facilties or financial support and whose gifts & talents are all too often ignored. Where is the Equality when the first language (signing)of these disabled people is not available? What if any necessary facilities (eg loops, signers) were provided within the Olympic Village?
    Neither the BBC nor ch4 are providing access, that is sign language or adequate sub titles within their wide spread world wide television programmes. When are you going to stop discriminating against people disabled by deafness, hearing impairment, etc? PS

    1. Patsy Stevens says:

      Why does highlighting the needs of disabled people need moderation. My comments are facts that have been ignored throghout

  5. Bob Latto says:

    Why oh why couldnt their have been some programs rescheduled so that we could have see the historic lighting of the flame Live at Stoke Mandeville??? Utter disgrace after all the good coverage we have sat and watched on the build up to the games. I am the parent of Silver Medal winner from Sydney Games and have seen an enormous change in the coverage, and peoples attitudes, of the Paralympics, but tonight left a bad taste!

  6. Caroline Blackburn says:

    Jon, do we really need painstaking and clumsy attempts to convince people that disabled athletes are REALLY VERY SKILLED, because oh my goodness, you couldn’t do some of the things they do? Have you tried able-bodied sport like this? Probably not, as you’re a journalist and usually stick to the bits you’re good at, leaving the athletes to theirs. What might you be implying, then, by trying Paralympic level sport?

    Is it really stunning Jess’s ball hits the jack – I would hope it does, her being a Paralympian – that means she’s a bit good, surely? If Boccia players have to train to qualify, then why not talk about this process, emphasise dedication and talent alongside difference? As part of the audience, I’d like to know what it takes for someone to develop their skills – not details about what their impairment is like. When did Jess start training? What’s the selection process for Boccia? I’d rather know that than have you point out it rhymes with Gotcha! Have you ever whimsically rhymed the name of any able-bodied sports with an unrelated noun? If not, why not? (I’m sincerely hoping the answer is no.)

    As a general rule, if you wouldn’t bang on about, say, Steve Redgrave’s diabetes management, how wonderfully he overcomes it when reporting on rowing competitions, and incidentally, how rowing rhymes with growing (!) then please don’t do it for the Paralympians. They deserve the same level of dignity. Their medical details aren’t public property, any more than you’d like yours to be when your field of expertise is the case in point.

    The Paralympics is the UK’s chance to show the world how sincere we are at making equality a reality. It’s why I feel using a different tone to discuss paralympic sport serves to emphasise differences instead. I want to see reporting on medal hopes, excellence, who our competitors are – y’know, the stuff that gets talked about in any non-disabled sporting commentary! That and only that. Who are our Boccia rivals and what important matches are the UK team going to have? I care if Jess and the team get a medal, far less about their medical conditions voiced or misplaced whimsy please.

    The audience for your blog is mixed, plenty of disabled people are also reading, so could you please try to appeal to our perspective too, and leave the ‘different’ stuff behind? This is 2012 after all. It’s up to everyone, non-disabled and disabled, to go forward together. You’re a seasoned broadcaster – remember, broadcaster doesn’t have to rhyme with disaster. Thanks and all the best.

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