Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was a rapt spectator as 200 disabled children from across the capital took part in Panathlon’s showpiece London Multisport Final at the Copper Box Arena on Thursday.
For Panathlon, the charity that gives over 15,000 disabled young people every year the chance to engage in competitive sport, its London finale is the culmination of a year-long competition encompassing 1,5000 competitors from all 32 London Boroughs.
For the third year in succession, Barking & Dagenham took home the winners’ trophy, becoming the first team to accumulate five titles overall since the event began in 2005.
After handing out the prizes, Baroness Grey-Thompson, winner of 11 Paralympic gold medals, commented: “Panathlon is amazing because it brings sport and physical activity to a range of people who might not be so easily able to access it otherwise.
“Physical activity is good for physical health and wellbeing, it makes you more independent and confident, and that’s why it’s really important to help change disabled people’s lives.
“The competitive element is really important because life is about winning, losing, finding solutions, being a bit disappointed, finding your way through that and working a bit harder the next time. Competition has got to be done in the right way. Being here and seeing the teamwork, camaraderie, support, the volunteers; it all comes together perfectly.
“It’s amazing to be here; it’s such a cool atmosphere. It’s a little while since I came to my last Panathlon event and it has grown so much in that time.”
Barking & Dagenham finished with 60 points, an impressive victory margin of 12 over second-placed Enfield. Merton claimed bronze medals ahead of Croydon.
Amongst the victorious team was Georgina Hart, Panathlon’s Jack Petchey Outstanding Achievement award winner back in 2015. She is currently working towards the GB team and potential future Paralympic appearance in her chosen sport of cub throwing and was featured on this year’s Sport Relief for her work combatting bullying.
She said: “I’m incredibly proud. No matter how many times I come here I’m always a little bit nervous but to win gold again is a dream come true.”
Georgina, who has cerebral palsy, is Barking & Dagenham’s precision beanbag expert and competing in Panathlon for the last few years has been a key part of her growth in confidence after a tough time at junior school.
“When she was younger she was bullied a lot, but Panathlon has given her a massive confidence boost,” said Emma Gillon of the Borough of Barking & Dagenham Healthy Lifestyles Team. “She started in Year 7 and has just grown and grown. She is more outgoing and has blossomed into a fantastic role model, and Panathlon has been key to that.”
Georgina’s mum, Susan, agreed: “Panathlon has opened so many doors for her. She was accepted here and that has helped her feel accepted everywhere.– she’s starred in shows at the Queen’s Theatre, has done public speaking and volunteers at the Scyamore Trust helping autistic children.”
Panathlon has also been a hugely important stepping stone for 15-year-old Matthew Key of the second-placed Enfield team. Previously a self-confessed “couch potato” whose autism contributed to him being “sullen, angry and difficult” in PE lessons, competing in Panathlon competitions began a turnaround in his attitude to sport.
“There’s no doubt about it, Panathlon has given me a better future,” he said. “It has let me focus that negative energy into something positive instead of just mucking about. I’ve now started boxing at Finchley Amateur Boxing Club. One day, Anthony Joshua came in and sparred with me. My nose started bleeding, but despite that I just wanted to keep going. My ultimate ambition is to get every belt in the heavyweight division. It is honestly Panathlon that has let that fire in me.”
Another ex-Paralympic gold medallist who witnessed the action was Panathlon Ambassador Liz Johnson. She said: “There are so many initiatives out there that introduce disabled young people to sport and are all about participation and inclusion, but I’ve learned so much as an para-athlete from winning and losing. That is no different from these Panathletes here today.”
Fellow Ambassador Steve Brown, the 2012 Great Britain wheelchair rugby captain, added: “I just love what Panathlon does and what it stands for.
“For the young people here today, they’re here because they’ve earned their right to be here. This is a final. That’s huge for their togetherness, self-belief and confidence. It’s about being part of a team and progressing through stages. If they can do it here, it makes them believe they can achieve in other areas of life too.”