Disability Sport or Mainstream Sport? I needed both for my Paralympic Career
By Esther Jones: sports coach UK Coaching Advisor
I was always very keen on sport and being active and dreamed of one day being at the Olympics, and owning a GB tracksuit. My sporting hero was Daley Thompson. At this time there were no disabled role models (this was before Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson gained world-wide recognition) and I certainly had not heard of the Paralympics!!!
I went to a mainstream secondary school and enjoyed netball, hockey and cross country. My mum (who was also involved in disability sport) took me to a regional development day organised by Cerebral Palsy Sport, the National Disability Sports Organisation for people with Cerebral Palsy (CP). Here I was introduced to training and competing in track athletics with other young athletes that had CP, and I loved it!!
I was encouraged to go to the local athletics club to get some specialist coaching from a sprints coach. However, my first experience of mainstream athletics didn’t go so well – the club were very friendly and welcoming, but told me that they could not help, as the only coach that had done any ‘disability training’ was the Javelin Coach. I was still relatively new to athletics, but I knew that wasn’t going to work!
So, I worked with the school, and coaches involved with Cerebral Palsy Sport (CP Sport). After a successful winter and summer track season running in dedicated disability sport events I was encouraged again to go and join a mainstream athletics club in order to access further training and competition opportunities.
I received a huge amount of support from the coaches involved in CP Sport (where I found my long-time coach) but the reality was If I wanted to get better at athletics and reach my full potential (international call-ups were shortly to follow) I had to take advantage of all that sport of Athletics had to offer.
So (with a little apprehension) I went to another athletics club. They were great, and I found a sprints coach with a group of female athletes to join. I continued to work with my personal coach from CP Sport who liaised with the coach at the club to:
- raise awareness of my events (standards of the event/competitors/qualification times needed)
- Helped to ensure that training programme took into account the key disability athletics events that I had to compete well in, and key qualification periods in the year
My international athletics career as an athlete spanned 10 years (from 1991 to 2001) During this time I represented Paralympics GB at three Paralympic Games (Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney) and two IPC Athletics World Championships (Berlin in 1994 and Birmingham in 1998.)
Over this period I achieved:
- Paralympic Gold (with WR) for T38 400m
- Twice World Champion for T38 400m
- World Champion for T38 200m
CP Sport supported me all the way through my career, and by being involved with them I also gained confidence as a young disabled person growing up.
I was also a member of two mainstream athletics clubs during this time, and benefited from:
- Coaches who knew about sprinting - main ingredient!! Yes, I had a disability, but I was a sprinter first and foremost!! (everything else we worked around)
- Training in a group on a regular basis – I needed to work hard and be stretched in training and running with non disabled athletes did that (and we had some laughs along the way!!)
- Extra competition opportunities that I could access through the club – as a disabled athlete I could always access highly competitive races, which I needed
I am sure that the Parlaympic Games in London last year will inspire many young disabled people to take up sport, with maybe aspirations to be part of a Paralympic Team one day. So, here is my plea to coaches out there ...Don’t be afraid.
- A welcoming attitude is what is needed – the young person may have had to pluck up a lot of courage to come in the first place!
- See the young person who wants to learn about your sport and help them to realise what they can do (not the impairment and what you think they might not be able to do)
- You don’t need to be an expert in their impairment and have all the answers. You know about the sport – they know about their impairment.... work together!