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Lighting the way for the Paralympics

Countrywide Torch Relay events will unite disabled athletes in Britain ahead of the 2012 London Paralympics

Caroline Matthews will represent Britain on the Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Picture courtesy of Cardiff CELTS Wheelchair Basketball Club

It can be the experience of a lifetime: hearing the roar of the crowd, competing for honour and glory in a euphoric rush of adrenaline. This is something which most athletes dream of experiencing, and at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, athletes from around the world will have the chance to rise to greatness.

But what about the athletes whose games are played in wheelchairs, and whose battles are fought without arms or legs? For them, there are the Paralympics, where physically disabled athletes are defined not by their disability, but by their athletic achievements.

In 2012, Paralympic history will be written as London plays host to the Games for the first time since their 1960 conception. This is of great significance to disabled people across Britain, and the British Paralympic Association hopes that the London Paralympics will lead to a lasting change in Paralympic sport.

A spokesperson for ParalympicsGB believes that seeing the outstanding performances of the athletes at the Paralympics may influence perceptions of disability in Britain, saying, “It’s a great way to show the world what disabled people can achieve, and dispel stereotypes about disabled people.”

Cardiff lights the way for disabled athletes

Across the UK,  organisations for disabled athletes are busy preparing for the Paralympics. A pre-Games Torch Relay will allow selected cities to showcase their Paralympic pride before the flame is taken to London, and Cardiff is among the four cities chosen to host a Torch Relay event.

On August 24, the Paralympic Flame will be lit in London, and following this, the nation’s other capitals will each light their own Torch. Cardiff’s Torch will be lit on August 27, and the event will be an opportunity to show both Wales’s heritage and culture, as well as to celebrate its Paralympic achievements. Wales has a proud Paralympic record; Welsh athletes were responsible for a quarter of all the gold medals won by Britain at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

Cardiff Council’s disability sports development officer, Joanna Coates-McGrath, sees it as a great honour for Cardiff that the Paralympic Torch will pass through the city. “It can only help further in encouraging local disabled people to get involved as participants, coaches or volunteers,” she says.

The lighting of the Paralympic Torch represents the spirit of the Games, and the hope and inspiration associated with the international sporting event. For London 2012, individuals have been able to nominate not only disabled athletes for the Torch Bearer positions, but also individuals who have in some way inspired the disabled community. And for Joanna, inspiring the disabled community to get involved with sport is one of the main reasons why the Paralympics are so important.

For the love of the game

Britain’s best disabled athletes are faced with the honour and responsibility of representing their nation in the upcoming Games, and one of them is Cardiff resident Caroline Matthews, 38, who played basketball until she was diagnosed with arthritis in both knees more than 10 years ago.

“I was very depressed about my situation,” Caroline recalls, “but eventually I plucked up the courage to find my nearest wheelchair basketball club, and as soon as I sat in the chair and got on court, I instantly loved it!”

For Caroline, who has competed in both the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, it is the love of the game which motivates her. “I love the whole challenge of it and the thrill of functioning as part of a team who all have one goal in mind,” she explains.

Caroline describes being selected to play on the Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team as, “An unbelievable and incredible bonus. When I first sat in the chair, I had no idea that playing wheelchair basketball could lead to such opportunities.”

While the Games themselves are important, Caroline is also anticipating the Cardiff Torch Relay and the Opening Ceremony events. “The clearest memory I have from Beijing is the Opening Ceremony,” she remembers. “It was just unbelievable, and I will never forget the sheer scale and moving elegance of the whole event. The whole Paralympic experience was astounding.”

An inspiration to the disabled community

Both Caroline and Joanna hope that the London 2012 Paralympics will inspire local athletes to strive for greatness. Caroline is greatly anticipating the Games, and although she has retired from the British Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, she is looking forward to seeing them play. She says, “To be able to do it on your home soil, in front of your home crowd, will be the pinnacle of any athlete’s career.”

When the Paralympic torch is lit in 2012 it will not only be for the London Games, but for all disabled athletes who can find inspiration in the Games. And hopefully everyone else will be inspired by the fantastic athletic achievements of the participants.

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