Brave and inspirational… do me a favour! Changing attitudes in the newest Paralympic sport
Having completed his first triathlon in July, Sportsmail's Matt Fortune was invited to Loughborough University, the base for some of the country's best athletes, to experience the sport in a very different way. He returned with a renewed sense of drive and an attitude changed.
‘Brave and inspirational Don’t you patronise us.’
It was a reaction I had not expected when I asked the team of para-triathletes I had joined for the day how they felt about the way they are perceived.
However after experiencing the sport like never before – as a visually impaired runner and as a cyclist without the use of my legs – I do, to a certain extent, maintain my position.
Attitude changing: Sportsmail's Matt Fortune spent the day with some of Britain's leading para-triathletes
Seeing all too often people wallow in their own minor misfortune, these people are an inspiration, though I see the point they were are at such pains to prove. Their battle for 'acceptance' has been tough going. As one put it: ‘I only ever feel disabled during sport.’
Claire Cunningham, born without her left forearm, was most struck by my controversial assessment. She experienced Paralympic success before her 16th birthday and now works as a chartered accountant at Deloitte.
‘My parents would never allow my disability to act as a barrier, and never was it an excuse,’ she says. ‘Until I was in my teens I would compete against able-bodied athletes and even when I finished second in those races, I would be angry, disappointed.
'I only ever feel disabled when I participate in sport because I fit into a category there'
‘Even at a young age, being told I would be able to succeed at the highest level in disabled sport and travel the world doing it, my parents and I would dismiss the idea.
‘And now for me, I only ever feel disabled when I participate in sport because I fit into a category there.’
Jane Egan, who has a rare neurological disorder affecting her central and peripheral nervous systems, is matter of fact about her success: ‘Everybody has things in their life they have to overcome – physical, psychological, day-to-day work things – and those people do things in their life that inspire people without even realising it.
‘There are lots of people who get really uptight about the words brave and inspirational, and believe in some way it is demeaning what we are doing, but I think that if other people get something from what we are doing, take that into motivating someone to try triathlon, or to try sport, then that is fantastic.
Disconcerting: Matt was put through his paces wearing blackout glasses
'Everybody is inspired in life but what they see others doing, and it isn’t really any different. We don’t want it elevated above anything else.’
On the topic of bravery, the athletes opinions are even more forthright. They have tired of attitudes which are to them condescending and belittling.
Claire adds: ‘The brave thing is what gets me most. We’re not brave, there is no danger of death in what we do,’ while Sarah Butler, a runner-up in last year’s world championship grand final in Beijing, says: ‘When people say “isn’t it scary”, my response is, “I’ve never not been visually impaired so I couldn’t tell you really”. I think that is where the brave thing is seen as really bizarre.'
The distances covered correlate to that of the sprint event for able-bodied athletes – 750m of swimming, followed by 20km of cycling and 5km of running.
Alongside the three competitors is John Kearns, who acts as a help for the athletes during competition.
He says: ‘It isn’t about bravery or anything like that, it is just a case of appreciating the effort.’
As a sport in Britain, triathlon is doing more than most to break down barriers with both the para and the able-bodied elite level athletes operating under the same supervision – the British Triathlon Federation.
‘That it all comes under the same federation means I don’t feel mollycoddled or treated specially,’ Claire says.
I ask, timidly, if the success of the likes of Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee – Britain and indeed the world’s finest in elite able-bodied men's triathlon – filters through the system. Are they, I suggest, an inspiration.
Leading the way: British brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee
Jane explains: ‘I don’t think it
works like that, but I do think the integration of the para-side with
mainstream triathlon means that the whole thing feels like one sport. It
also means that from a funding perspective that the better the able
bodied athletes do, the better we all do.
means more funding, more resources, sponsors will be keener to get
involved and that has a knock on effect. I may swim, bike and run but
there is not much I can get from the guys, so it is a different sport
technically, but we feel like a part of the big sports family.’
'Getting para-tri into the 2016 Games is as important as triathlon getting into the Sydney Olympics [in 2000]'
the success of the Brownlees and in the women’s discipline – Chrissie
Wellington is a four-time champion – the development is mirrored in the
para event. Participation is on the up and last year paratri was granted
a spot at 2016 the Olympics in Rio de Janiero.
Claire says: ‘The standard and quality of depth has increased a lot, and it is growing year on year. But this is a huge turning point having it in the Paralympics. It means we should get more funding to become better athletes, it will hopefully attract more people into it, and profile-wise it will help increase it.
‘It is a massive step forward. If we hadn’t got in, this progress we’ve all made would have stagnated. I think it is as important as triathlon getting into the Sydney Olympics [in 2000].
‘The team is now building towards to it and I think the key is getting young athletes into the sport. We need to develop younger people as triathletes rather than take them on from the individual sports. That happened in the able-bodied arena in 2000, and now here we are going through that.
And Sara, adds: 'People are now making a long-term commitment to it and once 2012 has gone I think you will see a big turning point because at the moment all the focus is on this summer.’
Jane agrees. She says: ‘From a motivational perspective, whether you think you have a chance of making it or not, it still gives you that dream, something to aim for.’
Trust: Giving over the ability to brake and steer was a curious experience
The understanding is that, as well as with the help of the BTF and its sponsors, British attitudes ensure the best for these athletes.
Claire says: ‘Paratri has only been going for a few years, and as a serious event for only a couple. It is very young.
‘But Britain has always been a leader in Paralympic sport, and with para triathlon we are leaders again. We have got guys who are trained to go water handling, trained to do transition and other countries just don't have that. A lot of that is the excellent funding initiatives, including from GE.’
Reflections on my day
In transition: Much faith is placed in those that are help between stages
Of all the experiences, most disconcerting was the run, for which I donned a pair of blackout glasses. As anyone who’s struggled to find the light for the bathroom in the dead of night will know, it’s disorientating.
Despite knowing I was running in a straight line on a perfectly smooth athletics track surface, the feeling of an impending collision was enough for my running technique to disintegrate.
Even the presence of a guide, strapped to me as they were HOW! and talking throughout the experience, failed to give me confidence. Imagine how one would cope on the open road against competitors.
In many ways it is about sacrificing control, a challenge many who have inherited disabilities will struggle to adapt to when their most basic human instincts have been taken away from them for whatever reason.
The same feeling I'd had on the run hits home on the tandem bike where the visually impaired athlete rides at the rear, without any access to breaks, gears or indeed the right to steer. Overcoming the instinct to direct the bike was a challenge throughout and brought home the complexities of what has for me become instinct.
When roles were reversed, the superior power in the legs of the other rider accentuated quite how many more barriers need breaking down and solutions need finding for these individuals to take part. No longer relying on your own will to succeed, you as well place faith in your guide and in the fact that you have chosen a suitable match.
Further understanding of the role others play came in transition, the section of the race between disciplines – from swim to bike, then from bike to run. The professionals will tell you it is here that your race can be won or lost.
Readjusting: The day was as educational as it was enjoyable
For Jane, who has won back-to-back female triathlete of the year awards since starting out in 2009, making her way from the water to chair requires the help of one person. For more powerful male competitors, two men are enlisted to lift, strap in and get going. It’s an effort as efficient as a F1 pit stop and one where the utmost urgency is imperative. There is a lot of trust involved, but it comes with time.
Sara says: ‘I almost have to switch off in a race in terms of trust. I just have to say “what will be will be”. If I was worried I wouldn’t race to my full potential, I’d be holding back a little bit, a bit tentative, and you can't be like that. Luckily now I am starting to enjoy relationships where I can build it so much that I don’t worry.’
Sara's comfort and overall feeling having been involved for a comparatively short period of time is testament to the work done to aid the development of the sport. Long may it continue. And let it, not them, remain an inspiration.
GE is a proud partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Elite Partner of the GE GB Triathlon & Paratriathlon teams – providing support and expertise for the athletes as they prepare and compete at the highest levels. See more facebook.com/GEtriathlon