A look back at the Paralympics

DSCN0928With the Paralympics now done and dusted, I thought it would be a great time to take a look back at the highlights of the Equestrian events.

The equestrian events were held in the manicured parkland of Greenwich Park in south-east London. As I sat in my seat I was breath-taken by the fantastic views of Canary Wharf, the City and much of London's fascinating skyline.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to both the Olympic show jumping as a graduation present and the Paralympic dressage. Although watching Great Britain win silver in the show jumping brought tears to my eyes, that was nothing compared to how I felt when Sophie Christiansen took gold on the DSCN0942final day of the Paralympics.

The atmosphere throughout the whole afternoon was absolutely electric. From chanting to clapping, to Mexican waves, the crowd was simply going wild and I am sure by the end there wasn't a dry eye in the crowd.

"So before we get started, what's the difference between the grades?"

Athletes are classified according to their functional ability when mounted across five grades (Ia, Ib, II, III and IV). The grading determines the complexity of the movements riders perform with their horses during their DSCN0950tests, ensuring that the tests are judged on the skill of the rider, regardless of their impairment. Riders may use permitted assistive devices such as dressage whips, connecting rein bars looped reins, and so on. Riders who have visual impairments are permitted to use 'callers' to help them navigate around the arena.

 - Grade Ia riders are usually wheelchair users with impairment of all four limbs. They may be able to walk, but this is usually with an unsteady gait due to difficulties with balance and trunk stability.

- Grade Ib riders are similar to Grade Ia in that they are mainly wheelchair DSCN1018users. They must have poor trunk balance and/or impairment of all four limbs. Some riders will have both, but some will have just one of the two listed impairments.

- Grade II riders are often wheelchair users. Riders in this grade can have severe impairment involving the trunk but with good or mild upper limb function, or can have severe arm impairment and slight leg impairment, or can have severe degree of impairment down one side.

- Grade III riders are usually able to walk without support but may require a wheelchair for longer distances. Riders can have moderate unilateral DSCN1026impairment, moderate impairment of all four limbs, or severe arm impairment. Blind riders compete in this category but must wear blacked-out glasses or a blindfold. Riders who have learning disability also compete in this category at non-Paralympic level.  

- Grade IV riders have an impairment of one of two limbs or a visual impairment at B2 level.

Riders with just a hearing impairment or who have a visual impairment at B3 or B4 level are not eligible to compete at a Paralympic Games in Para-Dressage. Riders with recovering or deteriorating conditions such as MS DSCN1033are eligible but must have been reclassified within six months of a World Championships or Paralympic Games to ensure their classification is correct.

What struck me as I watched each rider enter the arena is that no rider is the same; each has a disability that despite having to live with is still as brave and determined to aim for that gold medal position.

Lee Pearson and Natasha Baker were just two of the riders on the British team to bring home medals. I was surprised whilst listening to the commentary that a lot of riders were left disabled because of some form of riding accident, bike, car or even motorbike accident.

Whilst we cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like thinking you will never ride, let alone walk again, each and every rider that entered that arena were all as inspirational as the last and deserved to be there.

One rider that can empathise with all of them is Claire Lomas, a talented event rider that was left paralysed after a freak accident whilst competing at Osberton Horse Trials in May 2007.

I caught up with Claire and found out her thoughts on the Paralympics.

"Everyone's achievement is fantastic, both in the Paralympics and Olympics - I have equal respect for all of the competitors, they are all amazing."

Many people I have spoken to have commented on both how hard but enjoyable it has been to watch the Paralympics. One particular person I caught up with said it was difficult the varying forms of disabilities shown on television. When I asked Claire her thoughts on this she only had positive things to say.

"I have only heard good reports to be fair. These are active, determined, dedicated athletes and I think most people have seen them as that."

Despite wanting to applaud and show my encouragement to each individual rider, the crowd were told not to unless instructed to by the riders. This was so it did not spook or startle the horses in case riders weren't able to hold them.

Instead we were told to wave at the riders and if they gave us an instruction to clap, then we could. Although we were able to once they were back with their trainers and out of the field of play.

Whilst it was strange not applauding a rider that had just performed a beautiful test, it simply emphasised the hard work and dedication they had clearly gone through to be there.

I enjoyed how accessible the Paralympics were to everybody, tickets were cheaper and for those that didn't already have them, 1000 more became available on the day, making it both more affordable and available to everyone.

Tickets did not have reserved seats, instead you could chose where you sat and if you wanted different views from throughout the day you could move to another vacant seat. Initially I thought this would cause a problem but thankfully I didn't hear any grumbles bout the seating arrangements and I was lucky enough to get right at the front where the parents of the riders were sat!

Deborah Criddle on Akilles, riding for Great Britain took second in the Grade III individual test to start the afternoon off with what was a fantastically ridden test that was a pleasure to watch.

The crowd went wild on Criddle leaving the arena and British flags were flying everywhere. The 46 year-old, who had her right arm amputated in 2003 after losing the use of it in a motorcycle accident in 1985.

In the afternoon the crowd were treated to an amazing ride by Sophie Christiansen whose score was clearly unbeatable and almost 11% above second place for quite some time.

Christiansen, 24, was born with cerebral palsy and had other health problems including jaundice, blood poisoning, a heart attack and a collapsed lung. She took up riding at the age of six through Riding for the Disabled, and what had begun as physiotherapy eventually became her life's passion.

When the last riders score was confirmed and wasn't a patch on Christiansen's the crowd were mesmerised and stood to give her a standing ovation as she departed the field of play.

The whole arena was covered with British flags and I would be surprised if there was a dry eye in the whole of the crowd as they all went wild.

Natasha Baker, Lee Pearson, Deborah Criddle, Sophie Wells and Sophie Christiansen were all in their own ways deserving medallists. Between them they brought home 11 medals, consisting of 5 golds, 5 silvers and 1 bronze.

The great, Lee Pearson has won nine Paralympics gold medals at three successive Games, along with six world titles. He has a remarkable 100 percent success rate in Paralympic competition.

Having been to both the Olympics and Paralympics I was absolutely thrilled with how successful and well they were both ran. The opportunity to watch our fantastic athletes compete and even come home with medals in our home country was one I will never forget. Wiping away a tear as I shouted, chanted and stood for Christiansen to take her Gold I had no other feeling at that very moment that being proud to be British.


Written by Sian Lovatt at 10:00, 20 September 2012

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