Results tagged “BT Storyteller” from Looking Up

Preparing for tennis

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My latest piece for BT Storytellers:

Of all the venues that make up the Olympic Park, there is one that holds a unique honour....

 When the wheelchair tennis players take to the courts of Eton Manor, they will bring competition to the only venue that has been built exclusively for Paralympic competition.

The grass courts of Wimbledon will be hosting the Olympic tennis, but the surface is not well suited to wheelchair players, as pushing is made harder. When coupled with the low bounce, this reduces the potential for longer, more open rallies, and would also make competition in the Quad category virtually impossible.

Instead, the Paralympic tennis players have been provided with a spanking new facility on the site of the old Eton Manor Boys Club in the Olympic Park. The venue boasts nine outdoor courts for competition and four practice courts. Following the Games, the building adjoining the site will also contain four indoor courts. Over all, Eton Manor will provide an impressive legacy to British tennis that could inspire champions in the years ahead.

But first there is the small matter of Paralympic competition to consider. This weekend saw Eton Manor host an International Tennis Federation level 3 rated tournament, part of the London Prepares series of test events.

The line up included some of the top names in wheelchair tennis, including Robin Amerlaan, former world number one, and Britain's Peter Norfolk, currently ranked number one in the world in the quad division.

And now, I would like us all to take a moment to appreciate Peter Norfolk's record. He is chasing quad singles Gold in London to add to previous honours that include Paralympic Gold in Athens as well as Beijing, and six Grand Slam titles (this puts him just two behind Fred Perry).

It is true to say that the field is smaller, but to dominate the division for so long is an impressive achievement, especially when one considers the fierce rivalry that has existed between Norfolk and America's David Wagner for much of his career.

Finished appreciating Mr. Norfolk's record? Impressive, yes? Right. Now let me introduce you to the current world number one in women's wheelchair tennis.

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Esther Vergeer has won three consecutive singles Paralympic Gold Medals. She has also won twenty Grand Slam titles (compared with, say, Roger Federer's sixteen). However, these figures do not do her tennis career justice.

Consider this: The last time Esther Vergeer lost a competitive match was in 2003. And she's been busy. Very busy. Vergeer's unbeaten run now stretches to four hundred and fifty-four consecutive matches. If there is a record to match this in any sport, I am yet to find it.

The women's final on Saturday at Eton Manor saw Vergeer take on Britain's number one Jordanne Whiley, currently ranked twelve in the world. On a windy and very cold centre court, Whiley started brightly, narrowly losing the first set 7-5 before Vergeer seemed to open her shoulders and pull away, taking the second set 6-1. It was an efficient performance in unpleasant conditions, but one can't help but think that Vergeer's record must surely sow a seed of doubt in any opponent's mind.

Before the women, Peter Norfolk got off to a slow start in the quad final, dropping the first set 2-6 before a rain interruption saw him regroup and take the next two sets 7-6 7-5. After the match Norfolk described the tournament as a great opportunity to see how the courts played and to get a feel for the facilities ahead of the Games.
"I can't wait to get out on Centre Court with a big British crowd on my side."

He's not the only one. As a passionate if erratic wheelchair tennis player myself, I am relishing the prospect of Paralympic tennis on the doorstep. The facilities are certainly impressive, if a little cold. Hopefully late summer will provide more conducive weather.

Olympic Park feels more exciting with each visit, as more and more areas are nearing completion and the numbers of visitors increase. That said, I was very disappointed to see empty seats in many venues. This is because there were only a limited number of tickets made available, but it seems scandalous not to use the opportunity to invite children from local schools for what could be the only opportunity they get to see competition in the venues.

This is a real waste of an opportunity, especially with tennis, which can do much to inspire more integration in sport and beyond. The International Tennis Federation is the governing body for ALL tennis players, and the only difference between a wheelchair player and someone on two feet is that the wheelchair player is allowed a second bounce of the ball. This means that I can take my tennis wheelchair to the local park and play with anybody. People immediately understand what's going on, and that can help to begin to change the way that some view disability sport.

I may not be Peter Norfolk, but for a couple of hours on Hackney Downs of a Sunday (with a bit of luck and a decent backhand slice), I can at least pretend...


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Crash Bang Wallop

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My latest posting for BT Storytellers:

There is a loud crash as two vehicles collide head-on, immediately followed by a scraping sound of metal on metal as a third vehicle joins the pile-up and is overturned.

 We are not on the motorway. We are in an arena. Welcome to the violent world of wheelchair rugby. The action is frenetic and the hits are big. It's not by chance that the sport was originally dubbed 'murderball'.

I'm at the Olympic Basketball Arena, where Australia, Sweden, Canada and Great Britain (ranked second, fourth, fifth and sixth in the world respectively) are doing battle in The London International Invitational Wheelchair Rugby Tournament. The event is part of the London Prepares series.

As well as enabling LOCOG to test vital areas of operation ahead of the 2012 Games, the programme gives the athletes an opportunity to sample the facilities and get a feel for the venues.

The journey to the venue also presents me with a great opportunity to see how the Olympic Park is shaping up. The Basketball Arena feels like the furthest point away from the Stratford entrance to the park, so the journey from gate to door is like a mini-tour of many of the venues.

There is expectancy in the flurry of activity devoted to getting everything ready for 27th July. The paths and other surfaces are laid, lampposts are being wired up, even the planting is starting to emerge from the flowerbeds.

In the chaos of this enormous building site nestle some iconic buildings. The Velodrome has an elegance and simplicity in the way that it uses the shape of the track contained inside to create the silhouette of the building. I have often admired it from the road, especially as it sits in a location I came to know and love in a previous life when it held the Eastway cycle track, the site of many thrills and spills in my enthusiasm for cycling.

This visit offers me my first close look at the Aquatic Centre, designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. The main body of the structure sits caged between two temporary wings that house additional seating and which will be removed after the Games. It has the feel of an airship in a hangar, awaiting the opportunity to fly.

The Basketball Arena itself is less impressive. A temporary structure, the outside resembles a collection of giant springs that have been shrink-wrapped in white plastic. Inside, the 12,000 seat venue has a bit of a circus tent feel to it, although when filled, the steep banks of seats pouring down onto a single court are certain to produce an electric atmosphere.

But for this event there are only a few hundred tickets available, so the venue feels quiet and empty. That said, once the action starts it only takes a few big hits before the crowd offer enthusiastic vocal support for the home team.

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Wheelchair rugby has its origins in Canada in the late seventies, when the only wheelchair team sport widely played was basketball. For athletes with upper limb impairments, the hand control necessary to dribble and shoot made basketball unsuitable.

A group of wheelchair athletes conceived a new team sport that would allow tetraplegic (also called quadriplegic) players to compete. Where wheelchair basketball involved limited contact between wheelchairs that comes from players blocking each other, the aggressive full contact element of this newly conceived sport led to the original name: 'murderball'.

The sport has come a long way since then, and gained full-medal status at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000.

Even as a spectator sport, Wheelchair Rugby is not for the feint of heart; players are often overturned, and injuries are not uncommon. In 2010, GB captain Steve Brown took a hit from two players simultaneously during a match in Germany. The collision resulted in Brown breaking his sternum and four or five ribs as well as suffering bruising around his heart.

The aggressive element means that first impressions of wheelchair rugby can be interesting. Because many players (but certainly not all) are wheelchair users as the result of injury, some people take the view that they should 'know better' than to participate in such a dangerous sport.

As a wheelchair user myself, I certainly feel that I have as much right to participate in 'dangerous' sporting activities as anyone else. It may be uncomfortable viewing for people to see upturned wheelchairs with players on their backs, waiting to be righted by members of the coaching staff. But watch the opposition. I can guarantee that they will seek to take advantage of their opponents being a man down before they stop to offer assistance.

This is a good example of the ways in which disability sport can contribute to a better understanding of disability that can help to shape social attitudes. Let's be clear: I'm not suggesting that an upturned wheelchair user should always be ignored. But equally, calling an ambulance at the first sign of difficulty is inappropriate. A better response would be to check with the person concerned to see what assistance they need (if any).

It's important to remember that generalisations and stock responses toward disabled people are as likely to be inaccurate as those directed at any other section of society.

There has been much talk about the legacy of the Games. This isn't just about improved transport links or more housing in east London. It could also mean a better understanding of different forms of disability.

The Paralympic Games provide a unique showcase to demonstrate how exciting disability sport can be. It is also an opportunity for people to get a measure of the levels of personal sacrifice made by the participants. These are elite athletes at the peak of their abilities, often with less support than their able-bodied counterparts.

They don't need to be told how brave they are. They do need a rousing cheer and enthusiastic support.

Eleven Seconds

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Here's my latest article for BT Storytellers on meeting Jonnie Peacock, Paralympic sprinter:

 

Anticipation is building as we move to within six months of The Games. Storytellers around the country are tapping into this excitement, recording the 2012 effect on the national mood.

Many of us are wishing we had tickets. Some of us are wondering how the demands placed on public transport in the summer will affect us. We might be trying to decide which other events we will attend, or what cultural activities are taking place in our local community this year.


Yes, people. The Circus is coming to town. The biggest travelling circus on the planet. Lives will be changed forever, and we can be a part of it. But while there are plenty of opportunities for us to 'take part' in the spectacle, our main role will be that of the spectator. We will come in our millions to watch, to wonder at the triumphs and failures as the very best strive to win. For some it will be the culmination of a lifetime's work. Others will be just starting out on their sporting careers. Either way, this event will shape the rest of their lives.

But while we seek to capture the energy that is building around the Olympics and Paralympics, there is a calm eye to the storm. For the athletes themselves, there is still a long way to go. The training continues, there are other events to compete in, injury worries, nutritional details to be worked out, shoes, helmets, blades, wheels to be experimented with. With so much going on, they need to be aware of but not overwhelmed by the sense of anticipation.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Jonnie Peacock, Paralympic sprinter. One to watch, he has the potential to be the best. Inspired to run after seeing Oscar Pistorius, Jonnie went along to a Talent ID day run by The British Paralympic Association and was immediately identified as a real prospect.

Having the talent is only one part of the equation. To be a success an athlete also has to have the drive, the desire to win, the self-discipline, the confidence.

When we talk about talent, Jonnie smiles.
"My coach always says, "You have to outwork your talent.""

"The world record is 10.91. My coach was recently asked who is the one to watch. He replied, "Jonnie Peacock. If he doesn't run 10.9 in London, it's his own fault."

I wonder if this feels like more pressure. If it is, Jonnie takes it calmly in his stride.
"I have the ability to run quick. I don't like to say a time, because I don't know what I'm capable of. I have ideas but until I have five races behind me this season, I don't know what time I'll be running. I surprise myself every year, and I'm in good form at the moment.

"All the medals [in the T44 100 meters] will be decided under 11.2 seconds. It's going to be a hugely competitive event. There are three Americans coming up that are young and they've all taken their times down quickly. Then there's Jerome Singleton and Oscar Pistorius, but Oscar is very focussed on the 400 meters. If he goes to the Olympics, he's likely to be drained. The media attention there is going to be immense. He's been working for it for so long that it will be the height of his career and everything will have been focussed on peaking for that event."

So if the most famous Paralympian on the planet is not guaranteed Gold, does Jonnie think it might be his for the taking? He soon dampens such speculation.

"If you're on that start line thinking "If I get a Gold medal my life's changed," you're not going to run quick. I still don't know exactly what my race plan is going to be or what I'm going to think about when I'm on the line. At the moment I just focus on keeping my head down and exploding out of the blocks, pushing through my left hip. Running the 100 meters is all about acceleration. If you stand up too quickly, you have to hold your top speed for longer because otherwise you start to decelerate. Each step feeds the next step. If you take a step wrong in the 100 meters it can be the difference between first place and last place."

All of the hard work that Jonnie has put in will come down to those few steps. How does he cope with the pressure, the sense of anticipation?

"Sometimes I wake up and think "Two years of training is all for 11 seconds of a race. What's the point?" But it's something I love. I love athletics because it's so raw. If that guy was in front of you, he won. If that guy threw a little further than you, he won. It's about the strongest, the fastest.

"Other times I wake up and think, "What if I break my toe two weeks before the Games? What happens if I fall over and break my elbow, or if I get a cold on the day and it affects my performance?" To combat this, I just take things step by step. This morning I didn't think London's only six months away. I thought, ah I've got to make breakfast. Then I've got to go to training, and then on the track I'm focussed on what I have to do on the track."

And with that, it's time for Jonnie Peacock to hit the gym and dream of dinner. One step at a time...

When four makes two

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Rreading.jpgWith Penny and Felix in Australia so that the little man can meet the other half of his family, I am still adjusting after a week of school run routine. Who knew there was so much time in the day before nine o'clock?

All these miles (slight exaggeration) clocked up to and from the school gate with a scooter balanced on my lap have made me think. If I got a huge elastic band, the scooter could return home without me having to carry it. Except then I'd need two scooters and two elastic bands.... No, not that. I find myself reflecting on how lucky I am to be in a situation that allows me to re-organise my day (by which I mean do less work) in order to give my time to single-parenting for a couple of weeks.

This is partly because I am a freelance writer/journalist and can therefore make reasonable use of the time between 9 and 3.30 without extra child care. But it is also because I am able to look after myself enough to be able to look after a small human being too. Not everyone with a spinal cord injury is that fortunate. Partly this comes down to the level of injury, but it is also due to the level of support that I have received and still do receive from family and friends. By creating a sense of security, they have enabled me to try (and occasionally fail at) things in order to make the most of what is left to me.

My determination/bloody-mindedness may have contributed to this, but without feeling fully supported, I would not be able to push hard against the things that make my life difficult. If my mobility and confidence were still at the levels reached after I had been out of hospital for a couple of years, I would have been extremely apprehensive about coping for two weeks. Instead I was only mildly apprehensive.

There have been other people who have made the first week relatively easy. Other parents from Rosalie's school have invited her on playdates with their kids and offered to pick her up on the way to school in the morning. All of this has been welcome, if only to keep her distracted from the absence of her of our family unit.

But perhaps more than anyone else, the person who has made the week stress free and fun has been Rosalie herself. Although only six, she understands so much about what I can and can't do, and is patient and cheerful most of the time. I could do well to learn from her example.

Finally, could I point you in the direction of the BT Storytellers for my article on a strange game of tennis, and observations on the subject of teamwork.

That is all.


Wonderland

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My six year old daughter Rosalie squealed in delight as she leapt from her seat and ran after the white rabbit. Alice sighed and put the 'drink me' potion back in her basket, content to finish her story another time. I looked up from our tea party, and stared at the Olympic Stadium. For Rosalie and her friends, would the Games feel any less of a fantasy than this afternoon's entertainment?
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Before you conclude that I have lost more than a few marbles, dear reader, I should explain. The Mad Hatter's tea party was not a figment of my imagination, but a tribute to that of Lewis Carroll. The long tables, activities and willing actors were provided by the Discover Centre in Stratford, a wonderful place of stories and games that fire the imaginations of all children who visit.

The venue was The Greenway, outside the View Tube café. For anyone unfamiliar with this location, perhaps an explanation is in order...

 

The Greenway is the unlikely name given to a footpath and cycleway, which stretches from Bow in east London out to Beckton. This pleasant path is actually laid upon an embankment containing London's northern outfall sewer.

 

The View Tube is a social enterprise comprised of a café and a community venue. It was built using recycled shipping containers, and commands a fantastic view of the Olympic Park. It is a popular tourist attraction, with regular tour groups making their way along the Greenway to enjoy the view and read the information boards provided by the Olympic Delivery Authority.

 

This corner of east London has already seen profound change at a rate that some people see as unsustainable. Where successful urban regeneration usually evolves over time as local needs are identified and issues resolved, the Olympic circus lands on a city and then moves on, leaving any number of sites and facilities. The challenge of incorporating these into a successful legacy is a tough one. There are some notable successes, the most obvious being Barcelona, but even in such instances the transition has taken a number of years.

 

One of the best ways to encourage the successful integration of the site into east London life must be to engage with the local community. With the demand for tickets and the questionable 'lottery' system for allocation, there has been no ring-fencing of tickets for local people. It is a shame that this idea was not adopted, as it would have strengthened a sense of ownership of the Games among the local community. This means that fringe sites and events will be crucial in making people feel fully involved in the changes taking place in their neighbourhood.


Events like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party are a good start. I hope there are many more creative activities over the next twelve months. It's certainly feeding Rosalie's imagination. When we discussed the stadium afterwards, she asked what the grass in the middle was used for. I explained that it was for things like throwing the discus and shot put. She looked at me with a confused expression.

"Really? They throw biscuits and chocolate?"


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