Natasha Baker – Gold Medal Profile

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In her first ever Paralympics at the age of 22, Natasha Baker could not have asked for a better introduction to the equestrian events at this level.  She broke Paralympic records and took home Team GB’s first equestrian gold medal of the games.

Natasha has been inspired by watching now team-mate Lee Pearson and his horse at the Sydney games on television with her mother.  She contracted transverse myletis, an inflammation of the spine which affects nerve endings, when she was 14 months old leaving her with limited use of her legs. She started Riding For the Disabled classes as a therapy aged nine and was talent spotted aged 11.

She rides by using her seat and voice and she gave up using stirrups — upon which able- bodied riders are so reliant – after being unable to extricate her feet when unseated and being dragged a couple of times.

Going early in her class on her 11-year-old Polish-bred gelding Cabral, Natasha scored a Paralympic record mark of 76.857 per cent for the individual grade II championship test but she then had to watch on as two German riders came desperately close to that incredible score.

First Angelika Trabert, a rider with no legs but incredible balance, scored 76.000 per cent before the reigning Paralympic champion, Britta Napel, a rider who has had paralysis in her legs and torso since being poisoned by insecticide in 1998, came in determined not to let go without a fight. She scored marginally higher than her compatriot, 76.048 per cent, to take silver.

“It’s the most incredible feeling,” said Baker clasping her medal and wrapped in a Union Jack. “It’s my first games, it’s at home and to come back with a gold medal is amazing,” she said. “When I got on the podium and saw all the flags and people cheering it was just wow. It means everything. Since I was 10 I said I’d come to the Paralympics and win gold.”

Helena Lucas – Gold Medal Profile

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Helena Lucas holds the impressive distinction of being the first Brit ever to take a gold in the sailing events at the Paralympics.

Helena suffers from a condition that affects both her hands.  Despite this, she initially focused on competing in the 470 class in non-disabled competition, attempting to qualify to compete for Great Britain at both the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2004 Athens Games. After 2004 she switched to sailing in the 2.4mR class, a Paralympic event contested in a single-person keelboat.  In 2006 she stood in for Shirley Robertson as a member of the British crew in the Yngling event at a test event for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China; competing alongside Annie Lush and Lucy MacGregor, she won a silver medal.

It was a slightly strange way that Helena ended up winning her gold.  It was not quite the way the British sailing team had imagined winning its first ever Paralympic medals. A dearth of wind on the Dorset coast meant the team spent the final hours of the six-day regatta holed up in the GB rather than charging for the finishing line in Portland Harbour.

Not that Helena was too worried. She was leading the standings and so took gold in the single-person 2.4mR, a huge achievement in the trickiest boat and probably the most competitive of the three Paralympic classes. Helena, the only woman in the 2.4 fleet, went into the final day with a nine-point cushion after a brilliant regatta.

Helena was one of the last sailors to be picked for London 2012 and said there was a “huge sense of relief” that the years of hard work had paid off.

The medals are a vindication of the British sailing team’s all-encompassing approach. There was soul-searching after the Paralympic sailors returned from Beijing empty-handed. Since then the Paralympic sailors have lived and trained cheek by jowl with the Olympic squad. Working alongside competitors such as the four-times gold medallist Ben Ainslie has inspired the six Paralympic sailors – the same group that failed in Beijing – on to greater heights.

“All the Olympic guys have been pushing us all the way,” Helena said. “It’s been really close racing and great fun to be out there performing on home waters. It’s amazing for Paralympic sailing.” She said she had forgotten that the rest of the fleet were men. “I am so used to going up against the guys, I forget.”

Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking – Gold Medal Profiles

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Of all the four gold medals won at Dorney Lake, that of Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking was by far the most joyously unexpected. They had only joined forces in a boat three months earlier, boasting a solitary World Cup silver medal to reflect their partnership, and yet they cut through this Olympic final with a wonderfully controlled exhibition of sculling. Feeding off the roar of a tumultuous 30,000-strong crowd, they delivered an improbable final flourish to seal Britain’s most successful regatta in Olympic history.

Sophie could not have avoided rowing if she tried, with a Father who won gold at the World Championships, and a rowing scholarship at school.  She tried to buck destiny and play football, at county level and then for Wimbledon Ladies, but missed rowing.

She was a stellar talent at DurhamUniversity, and from there made it into the national under-23 team, then the seniors.  She had been partnered with Hester Goodsell for the past three years, and the two won medals at World Cups, and bronze at two World Championships.

But waiting in the wings was Katherine, rapidly becoming the brightest new star in the under-23 team, and ready to do more.  Like Sophie, Katherine is a product of Britain’s strong school rowing system, this time at YarmSchool in Teeside, from where she reached the Coupe team, an under-18 group which acts as a development squad for the international juniors.

Sophie was pulled into the under-23 team last year at the age of 20 to make the most of her lightweight physique, and promptly matched Peter Chambers’ achievement by winning the under-23 lightweight single World Championship.

She was then taken to the senior World Championships to be blooded in top-level competition, as the coaches had already realised she would be a strong contender for the Olympic team.  In March of this year Sophie fulfilled her potential by beating Katherine in the national team trials.

This and other results in testing suggested that the two should form a new partnership. Their new boat had promise but in the World Cup regattas they kept being caught out, unable to produce a sprint finish.  That was until they took their gold.

“Two months ago I would never  have dreamed of this,” admitted Sophie, still grinning. “I tried to convince myself that this was just another regatta. I’ve been trying all week not to think about it, because it made me cry every time.”

Josie Pearson – Gold Medal Profile

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Continuing with my profiles of those women who achieved gold medals at the Olympics and Paralympics this week, I am today looking at Josie Pearson, who won gold in the combined F51/52/53 discus.  She will now have her image on a stamp issued by the Royal Mail, and has golden post box in her home town of Hay-on-Wye in her honour.

Josie triumped in spectacular fashion with a third-round throw of 6.58 metres for 1,122 points, with her nearest rival, Ireland’s Catherine O’Neill, finished a distant 242 points behind.  But it had been a long and difficult journey to get there.

Josie was seriously injured in 2003 when she was a passenger in a car that was involved in a head-on collision on a blind bend in Wales. The driver, her boyfriend Daniel Evans, was killed while Pearson, who had been a promising show jumper before the accident, had to adjust to life in a wheelchair after being left paralysed from the chest down.

But a chance meeting in hospital with Alan Ash, a Great Britain wheelchair rugby player, rekindled her sporting ambition.

Pearson was persuaded to take up wheelchair rugby herself and she showed such a talent for the sport that she was selected as the sole female competitor in the British team at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.

The lure of individual competition proved too strong to resist, however, and a year later Pearson switched to athletics, initially as a wheelchair racer, and was selected for last year’s World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand. Competing in the T52 classification, she was fifth in both the 100 and 800 metres.

To improve her chances of being selected for the Paralympics, she added throwing to her to athletic repertoire 18 months ago with a view to competing in London in both track and field events.

But her track hopes were ended earlier this year when she was diagnosed with a cyst on her spine and ordered by doctors to stop racing. She responded to the setback by going to top of the world discus rankings, ensuring her Paralympic selection. She also competed in the club throw last Saturday, finishing fifth.

Her gold medal is another feather in the cap of her personal coach, Peter Eriksson, who is also in charge of the UK Athletics Paralympic programme. On Thursday evening, another of Eriksson’s charges, wheelchair sprinter Hannah Cockroft, won her second gold of the Games in the T34 200m.

Pearson said: “I can’t quite put into words how I’m feeling at the moment. I am absolutely ecstatic.

“In training I was consistently throwing over the world record so I knew it was a definite possibility that I could do it. To get that first throw and break the world record was such a relief. I was able to relax and then my next two throws were even better. I think I thrive on pressure.

“I have always been very determined and I knew I wanted to be Paralympic champion. When you hear that the Games are going to be in your home country that’s such an incentive to be the best at what you do.

“I was inspired by watching Athens a year after my accident. At that point we didn’t know London was hosting the Games, but that inspired me to get back into sport and to be the best that I can be.

“I can’t wait to see that golden postbox and my stamp.”

Female British Gold Medalists – Heather Stanning

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Following on from yesterdays profile on Helen Glover, today’s will be on her team mate, Heather Stanning.

For most Olympians, taking part in this summer’s Games is by far the most daunting challenge they are likely to face all year. For Heather Stanning, however, this is not necessarily true. A captain in the Royal Artillery, she was temporarily released from duties to train full-time but could potentially be sent to Afghanistan this autumn.

Stanning, 27, was born in Yeovil but raised in Lossiemouth in Scotland and educated at Bath University, where she graduated in sports technology. She started rowing seriously in 2006 when she joined the Team GB Start programme. Since then she has gone from strength to strength, proving her early talent by winning the women’s pair competition at the 2007 world under-23 championships and in 2008 coming first in the Remenham Challenge Cup at the Henley royal regatta. She was commissioned from Sandhurst college into the Royal Artillery in August of the same year.

But it was only once she was paired with Helen Glover that things started to take off in a big way. The duo made a name for themselves in 2010 with strong performances in the World Cup Series and a heroic silver at the world championships – and since then have never looked back.

Once the Games are done in September, Stanning has said that she will go back to her work in the Royal Artillery barracks at Larkhill. Her military experience helps her put the sport into perspective, she says. “The army training has given me determination and toughness,” she told the Sun. “A year at Sandhurst – you don’t just float through that. It has shaped me as a person and helped me to get where I am. Training for the army has given me perspective – in that what I’m doing now isn’t the be all and end all. Although rowing is important for me at the moment, I have a bigger picture to look at.”

Female British Gold Medalists – Helen Glover

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Today and tomorrow’s profiles will be looking at the two women who won Britain’s first golds of the Olympics; the rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning.  We’ll start today with Helen Glover.

Five years ago Helen Glover had never rowed in her life. A student of sport and exercise science at Cardiff Metropolitan University, her goal in life was to qualify with a PGCE and start work as a primary school teacher – an ambition which, true to form, she achieved. The main sports for the daughter of the former Cornwall rugby captain Jimmy Glover were cross-country running, tennis, swimming and hockey (she was part of the England satellite squad).

But during her first year of teaching in Bath, the now 26-year-old discovered a new passion. She started rowing through the government- and National Lottery-funded scheme Sporting Giants and went on to get a place on the Team GB Start programme. The coach who spotted her, Paul Stannard, was the same coach who had recognised her fellow rower Heather Stanning’s potential three years earlier.

The Truro-born, Penzance-raised Glover already has a cluster of medals in her back pocket, having – along with Stanning – struck gold at this year’s World Cup Series, taken silver at last year’s world rowing championships in Bled, Slovenia, and won the overall World Rowing Cup Series. The pair made their breakthrough on the world stage in 2010, when at the world rowing championships on New Zealand’s Lake Karapiro, they clung on to the coat-tails of the host nation, then the world champions, to clinch silver.

In an interview with her local paper, the Cornishman, before she left for the 2012 Games, Glover said meeting Sir Steve Redgrave had been a key inspiration in her transformation from late starter to champion. “It makes you realise what’s possible. A couple of years ago people thought: ‘What can she really do when it’s only two years to the Olympics?’ Then you think how he broke through those barriers and his health problems and his age, and you think: ‘If that’s possible, then it’s possible for me to break through and be part of the team.'”

Not only did Helen make the team, but she went on to take the gold with her team mate.

Female British Gold Medalists – Sarah Storey

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After my e-book before the summer with profiles of British female athletes competing in London, I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate those women who achieved gold medals.  Of course it wasn’t just about medals this summer; all of our athletes were outstanding, and London as a whole, especially those working on the games, deserves a huge amount of credit for what was achieved.  Nevertheless I thought I would start with a profile of paralympic cyclist, Sarah Storey.

Sarah Storey joined the ranks of Britain’s greatest ever Paralympians in London this summer, winning her fourth cycling gold medal of the London Games in the women’s road race in an utterly imperious ride that saw her finish more than seven minutes ahead of her closest rival.

So dominant was the 34-year-old from Cheshire in the 64km race that by the second lap of the Brands Hatch course, having left the women’s field far behind her, she caught and passed the peloton of the men’s road race, which had started two minutes earlier.

Her victory, the 11th gold of a career spanning six Paralympic Games, equals the modern-era records of wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson and swimmer Dave Roberts. But the cyclist’s tally is all the more remarkable given that she began her Paralympics career, as a 14-year-old at the Barcelona Games, as a swimmer, winning two golds and three silvers in her debut appearance in 1992. London is her second Games competing as a cyclist – she won double gold in Beijing in her track and time trial debut.

Speaking immediately after the race, Storey said she was “just so chuffed” to have matched in the road racing the two golds she won in the velodrome, after taking time trial gold with an almost equally comfortable.

Asked about equalling the records of Roberts and Grey-Thompson, Storey said: “To be even on the same page … as Tanni, but to have won 11 and made today a clean sweep for this week is just a dream come true. I can’t thank enough people. I’m so proud to be part of such an amazing team and I’m just so pleased to be finished now as well.”

Launch of e-Book on Female Olympians and Paralympians

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Today I’m publishing my e-book of British female Olympians and Paralympians, past and present.

It charts their hard work and dedication for their past achievements or in the build up to London 2012  this summer.

This is going to be a great summer for London, our Olympians and Paralympians and I’m sure you join me in wishing them all huge luck.

Britain’s Paralympic Greats – Nyree Kindred

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Nyree Kindred, nee Lewis, is one of Britain’s most successful paralympians and will be competing again at this summer’s games as a swimmer.

Nyree took up swimming at the age of 5, after she was taken to a swimming pool by her aunt  and encouraged her to give the sport a go. Nyree quickly developed a taste for the fast-pace competition and was soon taking part in elite level races. She was selected for the national team in 1999.

Nyree has a form of cerebral palsy and therefore competes in the S6 (butterfly, backstroke, freestyle), SM6 (medley) and SB5 (breaststroke) classifications.

Nyree began her fantastic Paralympic career at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where she amazingly won three medals; two silver and a bronze. She enjoyed further success at the 2004 Summer Paralympics, where she won the gold medal in the S6 100 metres backstroke event, in a new Paralympic record time of 1:32.03.

She followed this up with another gold in the 4×50 m medley 20 pts relay, silver medals in both the 100 m breaststroke SB5 and 200 m SM6 individual medley, and a bronze in the 400 m freestyle S6.

Nyree didn’t enjoy the same level of success at the Beijing Paralympic games.  In the 100 metres S6 backstroke she was, surprisingly, beaten into second place by Dutch swimmer Mirjam de Koning-Peper. She later explained her defeat by saying : “My legs were spasming, but to be honest, there are no excuses for that, … I should have gone quicker but it just wasn’t there tonight”.

In addition to this medal winning performance Kindred also reached the finals of the 100 m breaststroke SB5 (finishing 4th), 200 m SM6 individual medley (finishing 6th) and 400 m freestyle S6 (finishing 6th).

Nyree’s husband is fellow British Paralympic- the gold medal winning swimmer Sascha Kindred. Together the pair are known as the ‘golden couple’ of British disability swimming.  They will both be swimming for Britain this summer and I’m sure both will be working hard to bring home the gold for Britain.

Britain’s Paralympic Hopefuls – Rachel Morris

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This week’s post in the series on women Olympians features Rachel Morris. Rachel entered the history books at the Beijing Paralympics when she became Britain’s first ever handcyclist to enter the competition.  Not only did she take home the gold, but she then went on to become the only British handcyclist to be crowned double World Champion.

Rachel was born in Guildford, Surrey, and grew up in Farnham where she attended St. Peters School. She demonstrated a keen interest in sport and also helped disabled members of the local community as a Girl Guide. She completed a Duke of Edinburgh programme with the Royal Yachting Association at Frensham Ponds Sailing Club, which introduced her to sailing, a sport in which she reached international level.

On Rachel’s 17th birthday in April 1996 she suffered an ankle injury that triggered the onset of an extremely rare and painful illness, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or CRPS. This led to her left leg being amputated above the knee in January 2003 and a few years later, the disease had spread to her right leg, forcing a second amputation.

But Rachel’s interest in sport continued when she bought a handcycle attachment for her wheelchair. She quickly reached a level that where she was competing in 2007 in Barcelona and became the double World Champion, winning both the Time Trial and Road Race competition.  It was this that led to her receiving formal Olympic funding, and she went on to win gold in Beijing 2008.

Rachel is looking to defend her title this summer in London and all her supporters on her home turf will be hoping the same.