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.”

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 – 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.

Britain’s Paralympic Greats – Anne Dunham

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Anne Dunham is one of the most successful British equestrian to have competed at the Paralympics.

Anne’s love of horses began when she was very young and worked at a local stable in her spare time and, by the age of 16, she was running a yard of 80 horses at weekends. She had “always wanted to compete” but while she was able to ride the horses in the stables it was their owners who competed with them.

At the age of 27 Anne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has used a wheelchair since the age of 30.

It was not until she turned 40, when her husband sold his business, that she was able to buy a horse and begin to compete.

Anne first competed at the Paralympics competing on her horse Doodlebug in dressage events at the 1996 Atlanta Games.  She won a bronze medal in the individual mixed Kur trot grade II, and gold in the open team event.  In the individual mixed dressage grade II she finished just outside of the medals in fourth position.

Anne’s success continued at the 2000 Summer Paralympics, in Sydney, Dunham was part of the team that successfully defended their title in the open team dressage event. In the individual events at the games she finished fifth.  The 2004 Athens Games were Anne’s third Paralympic appearance. As part of a team with Lee Pearson, Debbie Criddle and Nicola Tustain she won her third consecutive gold medal in the team dressage.

But in her fourth Paralympics in 2008 Anne, then aged 59, won her first individual gold, competing on her horse Teddy Edwards.  She also won silver in freestyle.

In recognition of her achievements Anne was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours.

Britain’s Paralympic Hopefuls – Jemma Morris

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This week’s subject in the series on women Olympians is Jemma Morris.  In 2010, at the age of fifteen, Jemma  became the youngest archer to shoot for the GB Senior Paralympian team.  She goes in to this summer’s games as one ofBritain’s best hopes for a medal, and she’ll barely be seventeen.

When Jemma was quite young she was diagnosed with a disorder leading to muscle wastage and loss of touch sensation.  At the point when her younger brother, Iwan, began to show symptons, her father Damian asked Carmarthenshire council if there were any sporting pursuits the whole family could enjoy together.

The whole family became keen archers, with Jemma making her debut for the Welsh Junior team in the British Junior Indoor Championships in 2010, where she won a silver medal.  A few months after this, Jemma competed in the British Outdoor Championships where once again Jemma won a silver medal while shooting for the Welsh Junior team.

In the same year, Jemma was selected to shoot as part of the Great Britain Paralympian team.  She then went on to take part in the European Disabled Championships in France as part of the Great British team.

In her time, Jemma has set nine Welsh records in was awarded the Des Clarke memorial trophy for being the most promising junior archer in theUK.

Jemma’s success is incredible for someone so young and, whether she medals or not, this summer will be a wonderful expreience and she will no doubt be a regular feature of the British Paralympic team for many years to come.  Having said that, there’s no reason to believe that this young, prodigious talent can’t bring home the gold this summer.

Britain’s Olympic Greats – Davina Ingrams, Baroness Darcy de Knayth, DBE

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Davina Ingrams is not only holds a gold medal for swimming, but was used her position of influence as a member of the House of Lords to help start the Paralympics.

Davina was born in 1938, the daughter of Mervyn Herbert, 17th Baron Darcy de Knayth.  She inherited the barony in 1943, when her father was killed in action during the Second World War, flying in the RAF.

Davina was educated at St Mary’s School, Wantage, and later in Florence and the Sorbonne. She married publisher Rupert Ingrams in 1960 and had three children.

Tragedy struck only a few years later when Davina and her husband were involved in a serious accident, returning from a dance, when their car hit a tree. Rupert Ingrams was killed outright, and she was paralysed from the neck down. She was treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and later recovered some movement in her upper body.

Davina became a wheelchair user, and took up table tennis and archery. She decided to become involved in campaigning for disabled rights and was soon one of the leading voices in the campaign that led to the creation of the Paralympic Games.

Not only did she help create the Paralympics, but she successfully competed in them.  She won a gold medal in swimming at the 1968 Summer Paralympics inIsrael, and a bronze for table tennis at the 1972 Games in West Germany.

Davina continued to be a pioneer away from the sporting arena when she became one of the first 16 hereditary peeresses admitted to the House of Lords in 1963.  She used her position within the House of Lords to speak on disabled rights.  This led in 1996 to her being made a Dame (DBE) for her services to disabled people in 1996.