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Tanni Grey Thompson, Photo Steffen Berk, TALBRONSTEIN.NET - Click to enlarge photo!
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In 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 abilities.

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.

She subsequently 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 beneath.

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 leaders.

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 of equality.

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 Tustain.

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 swimming pool.

“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 else's."

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 programme.

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 of 2:14.44.

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 disability

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 partner Rodriguez.
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 whole organisation.”

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 world rankings.

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 in 2003.

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 arena.

© Text : 2005 Ruqya Khan and Chitra Ramaswamy / CHALLENGE
Photos: Steffen Berk / TALBRONSTEIN.NET

DISABILITY BOOKS

"AMPUTEE IDENTITY DISORDER", "LIFE ON WHEELS - FOR THE ACTIVE WHEELCHAIR USER", "AMPUTATIONS AND PROSTHETICS" - FIND OUT MORE ABOUT SOME OF THE BEST TITLES REGARDING DISABILITY, AMPUTATION AND THE PROCESS OF REHABILITATION.

PARALYMPIC SPORTS EVENTS

PARALYMPIC WORLD CUP IN MANCHESTER, FIRST SITTING VOLLEYBALL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS IN KAMNIK, WHEELCHAIR TENNIS MASTERS, SHORT COURSE SWIMMING CHAMPS IN CHEMNITZ: FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THESE AND OTHER SPORTS EVENTS FOR ATHLETES WITH A DISABILITY.

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