The London 2012 Paralympic Games have gone down in history as a turning point for disabled sport. For the first time the Paralympics, following directly on from The Olympics, achieved a real mass appeal.
The whole Paralympic movement started in the UK in 1948, when Stoke Mandeville hospital put on a small tournament for disabled soldiers from the Second World War, at the same time as The Olympics were taking place in London. So it was fitting that the coming of age of Para sport should take place so close to its spiritual home.
The UK punched well above its weight in the games, finishing third overall in the medals table, behind China and Russia, and several members of the team became household names around the world.
Rio 2016 will see Para Triathlon as part of the games for the first time, and Team GB is tipped to feature strongly amongst the medals, with several members of the squad having enjoyed great success at the recent World Championships.
We met with the team’s administrator, Kirsty Hillier, last year when she visited the island to explore the possibilities for running a winter training camp here. We were delighted when the decision was taken to bring the squad to Lanzarote for two weeks and base themselves at Sands Beach Active.
With around 25 athletes, coaches, physiotherapists and a sports psychologist, it’s a big group and it was important to the team’s Performance Manager, Jonathon Riall that the organisation was as smooth as possible, so we spent his first day on the island with him and coach Steve Casson, exploring the best training routes for the bike, open water swims and trail running.
Jonathon explained to us that there were several aims, beyond the obvious one that the athletes could train hard every day. One issue they face in the UK is that everyone lives in different parts of the country, so part of the reason for the visit is to foster the beginnings of a team spirit. It was also about bringing together a group of specialist coaches, using the latest technology, to work intensively on each athlete to allow them to perform at their best.
They’ve certainly worked hard! Everyone has been in the 25 metre pool each morning at 0615, with the coaches at poolside monitoring progress. On most days, this has been followed by some challenging bike rides on the island’s fabulous roads. The team uses a mixture of conventional bikes, tandems for the sight challenged athletes and hand bikes, including reclined and upright versions. Every day has also included a run session, either on road or on the coastal tracks around Sands Beach.
Twice during their stay, they all headed down to Puerto del Carmen to swim the Ironman swim course – cycling there, doing the swim and then running along the promenade before cycling back to Costa Teguise. They’ve also managed to get in a visit to the running track in Arrecife, and make full use of the gym facilities at the hotel.
One night of light relief was when we joined them for a meal at local restaurant Barstro in Nazaret – the team there laid on a superb “Tapas surprise” feast.
My observation is that they are a hard working group, who are incredibly supportive of each other, and they are all blessed with a great sense of humour. They’re supported by a professional “back room” team who work tirelessly to get them to give their best.
It’s been a privilege to spend time with them and to train alongside them, and I look forward to seeing many of them on the podium in Rio in 2016.