The Paralympics, formerly the younger, overlooked sibling of the Olympics, but I think it’s safe to say that that is a perception that has finally been broken.
London 2012 firmly obliterated that view, sparking a new wave of support amidst the U.K; myself included. High on the spirit of the Olympics, I went straight to watching the Para’s instead of doing the routine job of only watching a few moments and then switching channels.
And in doing so, I found something wonderful.
I watched a nineteen-year-old Jonnie Peacock win gold in the T44 100m, I was delighted to watch Hannah Cockroft set two Paralympic records, and even more so when I found out she was a fellow Northerner! I remember my family and I screaming our support for Ellie Simmonds as she steamed through the 400m freestyle to shave a whole five seconds off the world record.
And I realised something so painfully obvious that it felt silly to admit, ‘Why the fuck hadn’t I been watching this before?’
These athletes, these superhumans are just as worthy of our support, so why did it take the Paralympics coming home for so many of us to realise it?
Disability is something I’ve embraced my whole life, growing up with my younger, autistic brother my family and I have never shied away from the realities of his condition. I remember my Dad giving me The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime to read in order to help me learn about the parts of my brother that I couldn’t quite understand as a child. When it comes to any form of disability, talking openly about it is key, my brother is the most amazing person I know, teaching me on a daily basis how to remain completely fearless in the face of adversity and to face it with a sense of humour.
So, whilst I was watching London, the fire inside of me now firmly ignited by the Paralympians, I simultaneously discovered a little, live show hosted by three comedic lads by the name of The Last Leg. The show struck me as a refreshing mix of emotive, inspiring content and a wicked sense of humour; both celebrating and finding the funny side of disability. It’s undoubtably played a huge part in both engaging the nation and sparking up more active support for the Paralympics, so to whoever commissioned the show you have my eternal gratitude.
Fast-forward a year, and my Dad, brother and I were down at Queen Elizabeth Park celebrating National Paralympic Day (a now annual event). This time I was able to meet some of our superheroes in person: swimmer Jessica Jane Applegate, heavyweight lifter Ali Jawad, sprinter/long jumper Olivia Breen and judoka Ben Quilter. I was overwhelmed with how grateful they were when we expressed our support; I felt a real inclusive spirit that I had never before experienced with sport, with everyone from the volunteers to the performers just radiating positive energy.
This time, I was ready. Ready to wait the two weeks between the Olympics and Paralympics in anticipation, I had my favourite athletes this time round, people I wanted to watch, events I was desperate to see. The Last Leg, having now become a much-loved weekly show ensured the people were kept updated with everything Paralympics. This time, I watched the Paralympics with all the fire and passion that I hadn’t even watched the Olympics with. London had opened my eyes to all the incredible stories behind each athlete and the amazing wealth of strength that lies within people, to face what they have and come through to achieve so much more.
In my house we had soon established an enjoyable routine: get in from work, Paralympics highlights with Clare Balding, The Last Leg, then flick back to Paralympics Live until 1:00am. And it was magic. I laughed, I teared up and shouted my support once more; jealous of all the lovely supporters lucky enough to be witnessing it.
I still can’t describe the immense pride and love I feel having watched our superheroes go out there and kick some serious arse! I mean, this year we totaled more medals than London, we won gold across the board and finished in second on the medals table.
Although one Rio athlete that has really inspired me in a different sense is athletics star Liam Malone. After losing his Mum to cancer four years ago, Liam decided upon a goal big enough to drive him forward into the future. As well as being incredibly determined, he’s delivered some of my favourite moments of the games with his memorable interviews. After his spectacular 400m win, he was asked if he had firmly found his future in athletics and his reply has really stayed with me, “Not at all, I’m here to do as many experiences in life as possible.”
To see someone achieve so much, and still have the courage and confidence to say that they will go on to conquer more mountains of a different kind, is remarkable to me. More often than not in this life, we are told to find the thing we’re good at and stick to it. But by embracing that notion, you stop yourself from finding out just how much you’re capable of.
The Paralympics is a true testament to finding your inner strength, testing it, using it and celebrating it. I am proud to call myself a supporter of the superhumans and I am beyond excited to be going to the World ParaAthletics Championships and make some real noise!