THOMPSON - CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE.
DU TOIT - CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE.
- CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE.
an attempt to salute all the sporting heroes with
disabilities, Dubai based magazine CHALLENGE takes
a close look at four disabled sports personalities.
Ruqya Khan and Chitra Ramaswamy discover their
Tanni Grey Thompson: Changing attitudes
Born in Cardiff in 1969,
Tanni Grey Thompson is Britain's most successful
Paralympic athlete ever, having performed at world-class
level for the past 20 years, in distances ranging
from 100m to the marathon.
As a sports-obsessed child, Tanni worshipped Gareth
Edwards – her nomination for 100 Welsh Heroes
– and threw herself into every available
activity. While attending St Cyres School at Penarth
she started competing in wheelchair athletics,
sensationally winning a Welsh junior title at
the age of 15.
obtained an honours degree at Loughborough University.
Here she developed her strength and – equally
importantly – her racing technique. She
emerged as a major force in the 1992 Paralympics
when she swept the board, winning gold in the
100, 200, 400 and 800 metres races.
Her career has
taken her around the world to every major international
event. Her 16 Paralympic medals include 11 golds,
with another six gold medals coming in the London
Marathon. Her comprehensive set of British and
world records make her achievements second to
none in the disability sports arena. She was awarded
third place in the BBC Sports Personality of the
Year 2000, and was named BBC Wales Sports Personality
of the Year thrice. Tanni was also decorated with
the OBE in the Millennium New Years Honours List
in 2000, in honour of her services to sport.
It seems unlikely to end there as her career edges
towards Redgravian dimensions of longevity and
distinction. If there is a weakness it is, perhaps,
that she makes her success appear effortless to
those blissfully unaware of the hundred-mile-a-week
training sessions she frequently puts in. Her
cheerfully confident exterior conceals the grit
The mother of a daughter, Carys Olivia, born in
February 2002, Tanni now lives in Redcar with
her husband, Dr Ian Thompson. Apart from her sports
and training sessions she manages to fit in a
secondary career as a television presenter in
Wales. She has also written Seize the Day, the
story of her life so far. She plays an active
role within the sports administration, which includes
membership of the United Kingdom Sports Council,
the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games Organising
Council Association and patronage of British sports
Over the years, Tanni’s work, both on and
off the track, has helped to normalise attitudes
to wheelchair users. It’s probably not an
effect she set out to produce - although as the
holder of a degree in politics and social administration
she’d hardly needs lecturing on the nature
If Tanni Grey Thompson has changed perceptions,
it is merely by being herself – an outstandingly
talented and dedicated athlete.
Natalie du Toit: Swimming to success
South African disabled swimmer Natalie du Toit,
made history at the age of 18 when she qualified
for the final of the 800 metres freestyle at the
Commonwealth Games held in 2002 at Manchester
- the first time in history that an elite athlete
with a disability has qualified for the final
of an able-bodied event. In Kuala Lumpur four
years ago, competing as an able-bodied athlete,
she qualified for the B-final of the 800 metres.
Natalie earlier claimed South Africa’s first
gold medal in the swimming pool when she won the
Elite Athlete with Disability 50 metres freestyle.
At the Commonwealth Games, medals won by able-bodied
and disabled athletes both count towards the overall
medals table. She also won gold in the multi-disability
50m freestyle and the multi-disability 100m freestyle,
both in world record time.
At the closing of the Manchester Games, she was
presented with the first David Dixon award for
Outstanding Athlete of the Games - a unanimous
choice ahead of Australia's Ian Thorpe, who won
six gold and one silver and set a world record
in the 400 metres freestyle.
Said Natalie, “I believe that by swimming
in both disability and open races, I am forming
a bond. If this can tie a bond, if it can help
disabled people to believe in themselves, if it
can bring them to a better understanding with
able-bodied people, then that's great, if it helps.”
Her courage and achievements were acknowledged
with a nomination for the ‘Oscars of sport’,
the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year 2004
with Disability Award, along with Canadian athlete
Earle Connor, Nigerian athlete Vitalis Lanshima,
Alpine skier Ronny Persson, German cyclist Michael
Teuber and British Dressage World Champion Nicola
When Natalie had her left leg amputated below
the knee following a scooter accident in early
2001, she ended up encouraging tearful family
members while recovering in hospital - and four
months after her operation she was back in the
“My accident only served to increase my
determination. I spent the first week swimming
by myself. After a week I started with the squad,
but in the first lane," she recalled. "It
was not nice seeing little babies beat you; so
I just had to train harder ... get up with the
guys ... get up with the seniors ... get back
to the level I was swimming at before.”
“The greatest thing mentally about making
it through to the final is to show other disabled
athletes what can be done," Natalie said
of her achievement. “There's really no line
between able-bodied and disabled swimming ...
I treat both of them the same. They're your opponents
and you've got to race the way you train. It is
important to swim your own race and not someone
Natalie says there's still plenty of swimming
left in her, and she still aims to qualify for
an able-bodied Olympics. She narrowly missed out
on Athens 2004, but she's eyeing Beijing 2008
- and hopes that the 1,500m freestyle will be
an Olympic event by then.
Neil Fuller: Racing against all odds
In 1987, at 17 years
of age, Neil represented South Australia at the
National Youth Soccer Championships. Two weeks
later he came on as substitute in the last few
minutes of a game and was involved in a heavy
tackle, breaking both bones in his right shin
– and severing an artery. After three weeks
in hospital, five operations and just four days
after his eighteenth birthday, Neil was forced
to have the lower part of his right leg amputated.
But sport was too important in his life to turn
his back on it. He returned to the soccer field
before being introduced to amputee sports and,
barely two years after the accident, was chosen
to represent Australia.
In 1992, he won his first Paralympic gold medal
in the 4x100m relay in Barcelona, repeating the
performance four years later in Atlanta. On his
return from the ’92 games he was awarded
an Order of Australia Medal and was named South
Australian Young Achiever of The Year in 1994.
Since Atlanta, Fuller, a carpenter, has been working
with the physical education staff at Golden Grove
High School where he’s acted as a role model
and motivator for students as part of the state
government’s South Australian Athlete Ambassador
Since his accident, Neil's courage and determination
has seen him become one of the world’s best
amputee athletes. He has won 16 gold, 8 silver
and 7 bronze medals while representing Australia.
He is the current world record holder in 400m
(51.89sec) and a member of two world record amputee
relay teams (4 x 100m & 4 x 400m). He has
also previously held the world records in long
jump, with a best of 5.98m, and 800m, with a time
He is the current Australian record holder in
the 100m (11.42sec), 200m (22.78sec), 400m (51.89sec)
and 800m (2:12.58sec).
At the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney he won
four gold medals and one bronze, setting three
world records, four Paralympic records and four
Australian records. Later that year he released
his autobiography titled One Foot in the Door.
He enjoys playing golf with his relay team-mates
at every opportunity.
Boniface Prabhu: Determined to defeat
The sky is the limit to what 33-year-old Boniface
Prabhu can achieve. It was a double treat for
him when he won the singles title at the Florida
Wheelchair Tennis Tournament 2004, beating Mathew
Cousneau of the US 6-1, 6-0 in the finals. He
had earlier shared the doubles title with Spanish
However, the crowning glory was the earlier launching
of the Boniface Prabhu Wheelchair Tennis Academy
(BPTWA) in Bangalore, a long-cherished dream come
true. Says Boniface, “Winning the Florida
Open was the greatest joy after launching the
BPWTA, since I felt my victory was a gift to the
India’s first and only wheelchair tennis
player shot to the limelight in the sporting arena
when he represented his country in the 1996 World
Wheelchair Games held in the UK, bringing home
gold and silver medals for shot put and discus.
Boniface has a number of firsts to his credit:
He is the first Indian to win medals at the 1998
Paralympics World Championship, participating
in the shot put, javelin and discus throws. He
is the first and only ‘quad’ wheelchair
tennis player from India to take part in international
tournaments and the first to be listed in the
By his own admission, Boniface is a born sportsman.
“As a physically challenged person, I always
felt I had to keep myself physically fit!”
he says. “So I began to play a lot of games
with the mobility I had in my upper extremities.
But I got into serious sports only when I was
19. At 24, I was into athletics, with shooting,
archery and the like. In my very first appearance
at the Nationals, I won a gold and bronze. Since
then, there’s been no looking back.”
Boniface was introduced to wheelchair tennis in
1996 and mastered the game in two years! He has
reached the finals of the prestigious US, British
and Australian Open Wheelchair Tennis Grand Slam
finals. He has also won the Japan Open Wheelchair
Tennis Championship in 2001 and was runner up
in the Sydney International Wheelchair Open Tennis
Born a normal child, Boniface was a victim of
a medical error - an unnecessary lumbar puncture
that left him immobile from the hip downwards
when he was three years old. But Boniface grew
up with a healthy outlook on life. “I consider
myself the most fortunate kid in the whole world
since I never had a feeling that I was disabled.
Neither my family nor my friends acted in a way
to make me feel so,” he recalls.
Discipline, dedication and determination are Boniface’s
mantras for defeating disability. “How can
you be disabled when you are helping other disabled
people around you?” he says with a chuckle.
This is the message he wishes to propagate through
his academy, which is gearing up to train young
differently-abled tennis aspirants, free of cost,
to represent their country in the international
© Text : 2005 Ruqya Khan and Chitra Ramaswamy
Photos: Steffen Berk / TALBRONSTEIN.NET