Panathlon Ambassador and former Paralympic swimming champion Liz Johnson blogged from the 2016 Games and commentated for Channel 4. Here are her reports from Rio:
Two weeks have passed since the Paralympic flame of the Rio 2016 Games was extinguished, the final medals were won and the teams started to return to their home countries.
Following the closing ceremony, I travelled to the North of Brazil with my partner, Phelipe, (pictured below right with one of his Silver medals from Rio) to visit his family and relax with a few beach days after the intensity of the 12 days that had gone before. It is important to plan in this period of recovery and reflection because whatever your role at the Games, it is the culmination of at least four years’ work – often a lifetime’s – and you experience the ultimate extremes of emotion and physical exertion, so your body and mind need the opportunity to rest. I have seen many tweets from athletes during the last week or so who’ve said that they’ve had a cold or been under the weather since returning from the Games, which so often happens when the pace changes.
Many of the athletes will have returned to extremely busy homecomings as their local areas and countries join in to celebrate their successes and recognise their achievements. This is an enjoyable time for an athlete as they are rewarded for all of the efforts that have gone into their achievements to make themselves and their nation proud. I think that this has been the part of the experience that has been the most different for me this time around, the fact that I didn’t return from this Paralympic Games with a medal.
But then that was always going to be the case, because I wasn’t racing and I knew that before I went. This didn’t make my latest Games any less fulfilling or exhilarating, just different, and I really enjoyed the new challenge. There were many similarities; I still had to perform when it mattered, I worked alongside a brilliant team and I lived in a ‘Games bubble’.
This time, though, that Games bubble was very specific to me. I cannot think of anywhere that I would rather have been whilst experiencing the Games as a non-athlete and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to challenge myself and experience that adrenalin rush and need to perform when it counts that you have as a competitor. Once an athlete, always an athlete; simply a different task this time.
One of the things that made this Paralympic Games exciting was that it was successful. There was a lot of doom and gloom leading into the event, initially with the Zika fears, financial worries and the ban on Russian Paralympic athletes to compete, but in spite of everything, Rio delivered. Not only did it deliver, but it delivered in style. The Brazilians were proud. The crowds were knowledgeable, engaged and respectful, and the athletic performances were competitive and built upon the standard we saw in London.
ParalympicsGB excelled, winning 147 medals (64 gold, 39 silver, 44 bronze) and personally, what was exciting was that the swimmers delivered 47, of which 16 were gold. The encouraging thing is that 75% of the swimming gold medals were won by athletes based in club programmes, not at the National Performance Centre, which demonstrates the legacy of London 2012 and the way that the nation’s sporting sector has further embraced our Para-athletes. There is now a greater understanding of Paralympic sport and a willingness to support the athletes in their pursuit of greatness, as everybody plays their part. The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games excelled in reinforcing the progress made at London 2012 and provided a brilliant platform for the Paralympic Movement to keep evolving towards Tokyo 2020.
Two glorious, unforgettable evenings
As I write this, Great Britain are well on the way to reaching their medal target of 121. One of the biggest things I’ve learned here in Rio is that the Paralympic Games can be far more emotionally draining for a spectator.
As an athlete, you are so focussed on your own performance bubble that whilst you are aware of your team-mates’ results, you are often oblivious to the exact process that they’ve gone through during their event.
From my new position, in the studio under the scoreboard in the Aquatics Centre, I feel as though I have swum every stroke and taken each breath with every single swimmer who has donned the red ParalympicsGB swimming cap. It is both exhausting and exhilarating.
Last night, as I exited the Olympic Park, I found myself questioning why, even though we had seen the biggest medal haul of the week in the pool (eight) and won three gold medals in one night for the second night in three. The pride and excitement were there, but something was missing.
First up, Sascha Kindred, in his last Paralympic appearance after six Games, took to the starting blocks for the final time after winning an appeal to overturn disqualification and broke the world record on his way to a seventh career gold medal, dominating a contest that was expected to be very tight in dramatic fashion.
In the very next event Ellie Simmonds demonstrated why she is such a master of her trade by handling the pressure of a nation’s expectation and becoming the first woman ever to break the three-minute barrier in the SM6 category 200m individual medley.
Hardly enough time to draw a breath, mop the brow or wipe the tears and up stepped Susie Rodgers. At the age of 33 she broke the European record in the S7 50m butterfly to seize an opportunity and snatch victory in a blanket finish.
Every single member of the Channel 4 swimming coverage team who I’ve been working with was bouncing with excitement. The adrenalin was pumping.
Last night the gold-medal swims were impressive. Very impressive. Hannah Russell broke her own world record in the S12 100m backstroke and then there were two exciting all-British battles for gold and silver, firstly in the men’s S7 400m freestyle as Mikey Jones triumphed over Jon Fox and then in the SB14 100m breaststroke as Aaron Moores sealed a narrow victory over Scott Quin by a margin of 0.03sec.
The only difference between these two evenings, I realised, was expectation and the element of surprise. Both were glorious and unforgettable.
Fantastic Friday for ParalympicsGB
The Paralympic flag has been raised, the anthem played and the flame lit; the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games are underway!
After much speculation about attendance levels, I’m delighted to say that the stands were full for the opening ceremony at the iconic Maracana Stadium and swimming was well represented during official proceedings.
On a personal note, I’m very proud of this, as the flame was lit by local hero Clodoaldo Silva and the Athletes’ Oath was taken by my partner (and Clodoaldo’s room-mate for the last three Games), Phelipe Rodrigues, a three-time silver medallist in the S10 Classification.
It was very special to have my beloved have the honour of taking the Oath, a privilege which I was afforded four years ago in London. I’m certain no other couple have ever both taken the Olympic or Paralympic Oath before and equally sure it will never happen again!
ParalympicsGB marched out proudly led by Lee Pearson CBE, at his fourth Paralympic Games. Lee has been such a great contributor to the team over the past 16 years and it was great to see him voted into this role by his team-mates.
For the next 10 days I will be based at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium (pictured right), a structure towards the rear of the Olympic Park with a temporary pool brought in specifically for Rio 2016, and I’m looking forward to my new role with Channel 4’s Paralympic broadcasting team as a commentator and pundit.
As an athlete, you’re always very focussed on executing your own performance, so at my past three Paralympics I’ve often missed many races, but from my new vantage point I’m excited to see lots of fast and close racing, as well as keeping up to date with performances coming in from other venues, in real time.
Day one of competition did not disappoint, with ParalympicsGB winning five gold medals and three of those coming from the velodrome, and Dame Sarah Storey, a former swimming team-mate of mine, becoming the most decorated British female Paralympian of all time by winning her 12th gold medal.
In the pool the swimmers put in an impressive shift, with gold medals in world-record times for Bethany Firth (S14 100m backstroke) and Ollie Hynd (S8 400m freestyle), the latter ensuring that his family has been represented on the podium for three consecutive Games as he repeated the feat of older brother Sam from Beijing 2008.
There were two contrasting silver medal reactions from Harriet Lee (SB9 100m breaststroke) – in a brilliant contest in which the Netherlands’ Lisa Kruger lowered the world record twice – and Jonathan Fox, who was disappointed not to take gold in his favoured event, the S7 100m backstroke.
Andrew Mullen won his first Paralympic medal, taking bronze in the S5 200m freestyle behind home champion Daniel Dias as the entire poolside erupted to sing the Brazilian national anthem.
Jessica-Jane Applegate won a brave bronze behind Bethany and Stephanie Millward also took bronze in the S8 400m freestyle.
TeamGB had a ‘Super Saturday’ and for ParalympicsGB it was ‘Fantastic Friday’. More of that in my next blog!
An opportunity to etch your name in history
The wait is finally over and I’ve arrived in Rio. The excitement I felt about the journey, picking up my accreditation and actually getting to my accommodation wasn’t too dissimilar to how I used to feel when heading to a Paralympic Games as an athlete – the combination of anticipation and trepidation for the new chapter that is imminently on the horizon. I guess that the main difference between this arrival and my previous three is the sense of reaching the ‘end goal’ that you have when competing.
As an athlete with desires to compete and win medals at a Paralympic Games, you very much deal with your life in four-year cycles, with each creating a chapter in your book. On those dark winter mornings when your alarm goes off, when you have to decline invitations to milestone moments in the lives of others, such as weddings, anniversaries and christenings, or when you are out for a dinner and you choose the meal that you know you need to have rather than the one you would really love to have, it is the Paralympic Games at the end of the four-year block and the dream of standing on the top step of the medal podium that keeps you going and validates those choices.
Departure day is the first time that you put on your kit and signifies that you are part of ParalympicsGB; the wait to show the world what you can do is nearly over. You’ve reached the home straight, so to speak. The excitement and honour that are associated with being part of a unique group become a reality and every athlete wears a smile that radiates the pride that they feel. The time has come.
The journey to the Games itself is always one of the most enjoyable that you will ever do, because everybody is filled with the buzz and excitement of representing their country at the greatest sporting show on Earth, and your arrival at the athletes’ village is the final piece of the puzzle. This is the moment that you realise that you are not just at your local swimming gala and that it is everything that you’d dreamt it to be and more. You are entering a bubble of the world’s very best sports performers and have an opportunity to etch your name in history, surrounded by the support of your team-mates. This provides the final boost that you need to ensure that you remain focussed and to fine-tune your race preparation. You are in ‘Games mode’.
Since the flame was extinguished at the closing ceremony of London 2012, every prospective Rio 2016 Paralympian will have been focussed on 7th September 2016 and their specific event dates. The opening ceremony elicits the feeling of pride, passion and readiness amongst athletes and all involved in the Paralympics, and I, for one, cannot wait to witness the Paralympic flame being lit in the Maracana Stadium tonight.
Paralympics will continue to inspire
Team GB are returning home after an incredibly successful Olympic Games that really lifted the spirit of the country after what many would say has been a difficult period recently. I love how sport has the power to do that – unite and inspire a multitude of people regardless of generation, class, culture or ability.
Now the Paralympic Games are upon us and we’ll get to witness more history being written. I, for one, cannot wait and am extremely fortunate to be attending the Games as part of Channel 4’s broadcasting team.
There’s been much controversy surrounding these Paralympics in Rio, most recently the shortfall in funding and the banning of the Russian Paralympic team which, strangely, is a sign of just how much the Paralympic Movement has developed over the last 20 years.
The fact that the Paralympic Games is making mainstream news and generating controversial debates outside of the fortnight itself is testament to the athletes, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and all other stakeholders who have worked diligently to ensure that the Paralympics is recognised for being a showcase of world-class sporting competition amongst elite athletes with disabilities.
When I was a young athlete, I remember watching three 40-minute highlights shows of the Atlanta Paralympics. With each of the three Games I attended, the magnitude of the experience, the amount of public interest and the understanding of the sports grew.
Para athletes in Brazil are highly regarded and extremely successful, so I’m confident that the organising committee will work with the IPC to minimise the impact that the financial strains will have on the athletes’ ‘Games experience’.
The IPC have taken a very strong stance in issuing a blanket ban for the entire Russian team at Rio 2016 and I have a massive amount of sympathy for those clean athletes who are now denied the opportunity to compete, having trained specifically with this as their goal.
That said, the IPC have a duty to maintain the integrity of the sport and we have to hope that this decisive move will discourage anyone who might have considered any form of cheating from doing so in the future.
I struggle to comprehend what people get from cheating, because, for me, the satisfaction of winning my medals, whether it was the gold in Beijing, silver in Athens or bronze in London, came from the blood, sweat, tears and hard work that had got me to that performance and the lessons that I learned along the way.
There’s no question that my career in Paralympic sport has enhanced every aspect of my life and had a positive influence on my character. This fuels my belief that every single child should have the opportunity to access competitive sport. That’s why I’m an Ambassador for Panathlon Challenge, as they provide students of all ages and impairment types with chances to take part in competitive sport that they may otherwise be denied.
Athletes and others involved in working with the Paralympic Movement are used to encountering obstacles and overcoming adversity on a daily basis.
This sheer resilience that’s within their nature will be responsible for them embracing whatever situations they encounter throughout the Paralympic Games and ensuring that they deliver their best performances. This is what they’ve been preparing to do ever since the flame was extinguished at the closing ceremony of London 2012.
I am confident that we are set to witness an impressive display of highly competitive world-class sport that will build on what was witnessed in London and will continue to inspire!