ParalympicsGB stormed Pyeongchang this season to compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games. Able Magazine caught up with the athletes and asked them about everything from disability to excitement and of course, the sport. Here’s what they said…
Menna Fitzpatrick and Jennifer Kehoe (guide), Alpine Skiing
Skiing with a visual impairment is incredibly brave…
MF: “I’m quite a thrill-seeker. I love roller coasters and going fast – the wind in your hair – it’s just amazing to have that adrenaline rush, from, almost the danger part of it! You’ve got to be quite fearless because as soon as that fear comes into it, it makes it more risky and more dangerous because as soon as you get those nerves, you take a defensive stance and you don’t ski safely.”
Are there parallels with living with a disability?
MF: “My visual impairment has been with me since birth. I know no different and the way my parents brought me up was to be like any able-bodied person – and that’s the best thing they’ve done for me. It has made me the most independent person I can be. Yes, I do wake up some days and go ‘Why can’t I do this or that?’ but I then think that I’m doing this amazing thing instead… I represent the country at the Paralympics!”
Jennifer, as someone currently serving in the Forces, do you see similarities between sport and the military?
JK: “Absolutely. Sport is hugely important in the military; sporting activities keep everybody motivated and sharp and at the top of their game. A lot of the things I learned through training and with the Royal Engineers, particularly in communication and the ability to stay calm under pressure, have really helped.”
Aileen Nielson, Wheelchair Curling
What’s it like to be ‘Skip’ (captain) of the team?
AN: “Obviously it was a real honour to be selected for the team and to be Skip. In Sochi I was the first female to skip at a Paralympics but I think, within our team, every position is as important as any other.”
You’ve now taken part in 3 Paralympics; how does that feel?
AN: “Every time you get that kit with your name and GB on the back of it, it’s always a real honour. Every Paralympics is very different and obviously you’re at a different stage in your journey and your career. Each one is special for very different reasons.”
You’re a very experienced side… Where are the younger curlers?
AN: “We’ve got a lot of stones left in us yet! That’s one of the great things about curling and wheelchair curling: you can play it from any age and with any ability.”
You’ve been successful in Pyeongchang before…
AN: “Even mentally, just knowing that we were back out somewhere we’ve been and were comfortable… We came back previously with a bronze medal so that gave us real confidence.”
Ben Moore, Snowboarding
How did you get into snowboarding?
BM: “I first went with friends and learnt the hard way. It was an eye-opener! I wish I’d paid for a lesson or two! It took me about four days to get to grips with it until I could take it to where I wanted to and I’ve been hooked ever since. 2014 was the first Paralympics to include snowboarding but I wasn’t able to enter because they only allowed people with lower limb disabilities to compete.
I was (before my road accident) a skateboarder and an extreme sports enthusiast so I liked to dabble in everything. I’ve tried BMX, inline skating and mountain-biking. I’d pretty much give anything a go. Ever since snowboarding became part of my life it has been ‘the’ part of my life. Snowboarding to me is amazing. Mother Nature and an extreme sports enthusiast – on a powder day, anything is game!”
Can we talk about your recovery from your road accident?
BM: “For the first six months I was too busy to ask questions. I was too busy surviving at that point. Then I got back on a skateboard and I eventually got back on a motorcycle and living my life again. I just wanted to be me again so I got back into doing everything that makes me, me.”
Gregor Ewan and Robert McPherson, Wheelchair Curling
How was your experience at the Sochi Games help in Pyeongchang?
RM: “With your first Games you don’t know what to expect and to be in front of 5,000 Russian people shouting, cheering and booing was very intimidating. We knew what to expect this time. Did that give us an edge? – I think so!”
GE: “I felt more ready this time. I had another four years of training with the guys. We played the venue last year at the world championships so we knew what to expect.”
What’s the competition for jerseys like?
RM: “There’s always that fear that you’re going to get passed over. It would be quite easy for me to say that I’m not going to do a gym session this week, or I’m not going to do an ice session this week – my Paralympics are secure – but everybody’s replaceable everybody… If you don’t learn that quickly, you’re out!”
GE: “Last year I was out for eight months with a gallbladder problem. I bounced back but I was saying to myself: ‘Will I get selected?’ Now it’s down to the five of us (curlers).”
Chris Lloyd, Alpine Skiing
Can we talk about your disability?
CL: “My disability is from a spinal cord injury – C3/C4 injury. I was originally paralysed from the neck down. I was driving a rally car and had a crash and broke my back and damaged my spinal cord. When I was in the hospital they told me that I’d never ski – or do a lot of things again. I had a lot of rehab and the determination to prove them wrong. I’ve been back in a rally car and done everything I was doing before.”
Did you think you’d ski again?
CL: “Skiing was the biggest thing they said I wouldn’t do and it was a passion of mine. I was a recreational skier. I’d never raced, I just did it for fun really. When I was in hospital, in my wheelchair, I saw a Paralympic poster and that gave me the inspiration to try to get to the Games. That was probably six weeks after my injury in 2011.”
What do you think about when you’re at the top of the piste?
CL: “Just trying to do the best I can do really – and just feeling privileged to do the things that I love after they’d been taken away from me. My quality of life has got better through sport and from challenging myself and pushing myself – you can always make improvements. You’ve got to be positive. You’ve got one life and you’ve just got to live it.”
Angie Malone, Wheelchair Curling
You’ve just completed your fourth Paralympics: that makes you ‘Queen of ParalympicsGB’…
AM: “It’s amazing to have gone to my fourth Games. Torino 2006, Vancouver 2010 and then Sochi 2014 – winning that bronze medal at Sochi 2014 was amazing – I had the time of my life out there; it was phenomenal. To have been selected for Pyeongchang makes me really emotional; I’m so delighted and happy to be going out there.”
What keeps you at the top of your sport?
AM: “I started curling in 2003 and the accuracy and precision of the sport and the team dynamics, with the camaraderie and all, is absolutely brilliant. I’m very focused, I’m very determined and I have a lot of fun with my sport. I thoroughly enjoy it and having that has kept me at the top of my game. I’m part of a sport that I love.
I would love people to feel the way I do and get out of sport what I’ve been given. My health, fitness: just to get out there and have fun and be part of a club and have a sociable time and make friends. I would say go and try it!”
Owen Pick, Snowboarding
Can we talk about your disability?
OP: “I served in Afghanistan, stood on an IED and got blown up. They saved my leg for about 18 months but it was shattered. I decided to get rid of it – and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. The pain was gone and I could get on with my life again.”
That’s quite a matter of fact description…
OM: “When something like this happens you really do have two choices: you either look at what’s happened, deal with it – and get on with it – or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re going to be making excuses and saying things to make yourself feel better all the time. Well, that’s not me.”
Where did snowboarding come into it?
OM: “I’d never done snowboarding before. I saw it on TV and it looked pretty cool so I wanted to give it a go. I was told in the hospital that I’d never walk again, so I took it upon myself to prove all my doctors wrong.”
There haven’t been any British Paralympic snowboarders before…
OM: “No, never. That’s really exciting for us. Me, Ben (Moore) and James (Barnes-Miller) have all gone out there and are the first British snowboarding team at a Paralympics. We’re all extremely proud of that, regardless of how we do. We’ll always have that.”
James Whitley, Alpine Skiing
What goes through your mind at the start gate?
JW: “At the start gate, nothing else really goes through my mind other than my plan of action for doing the best run I can: thinking of all of the technical elements I need to nail and where they are on the course – as well as the tricky parts of the course.
Having done a Games before and having the extra nerves taken out of it because you know what to expect, is a big advantage. To do this four years ago when I was 16 was quite daunting so to have one under my belt, I didn’t feel nearly as nervous as I was in 2014.”
What kind of form do you go to the Games with?
JW: “I felt I was on the best form of my life to be honest. I’m four years wiser and stronger than I was when I was 16 and I’ve had four years more training on the slope and in the gym – as well as having taken part in the World Championships and picking up that experience. I felt quite confident that I could go in with a bit of an advantage above some of the others that hadn’t been skiing for as long as I have – the gains I’ve made in the last couple of years have really put me ahead.”