Panathletes, teachers, leaders and supporters alike had a day to remember at Panathlon’s two Olympic Park finals in recent weeks.
Two London 2012 venues provided a wonderful stage for Panathlon’s end-of-season finals, with the Copper Box Arena hosting its second Panathlon London final in June, before the first ever Panathlon south east swim finals took place at the Aquatics Centre in July.
“Being at the Copper Box is awe-inspiring,” said 15-year-old Rebecca Cavanagh (pictured left), a member of the Newham team who finished second in the plate final.
“It’s amazing. The whole team was really excited to come here and it’s just spurred us on to enjoy it. I didn’t really expect it to be this big, or as amazing as everybody said it was, but it is. It gives me even more of a reason to want to be in the Paralympics.”
The London Aquatics Centre, venue for the swimming and diving at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was equally inspiring for the competitors in Panathlon’s first regional swim finals.
Alex Smyth, aged 14, who swam for Doucecroft School in the East of England final, said: “It’s been an amazing day and it’s an honour to be here in the Olympic swimming stadium. It’s my first time here and it’s been one of my dreams to come here. Not every kid gets the chance to do this.”
A total of 229 disabled young people – many of whom we hear from below – competed at the two finals, the culmination of competitions involving over 1,800 students with a range of special educational needs across London and the south east.
Paralympic swimming champion and Panathlon ambassador Liz Johnson, who encouraged competitors and handed out medals at both finals, said: “I love Panathlon because it gives everybody the chance to compete in sport, not just participate.
“Having the finals here at the Olympic Park gives the pupils something extra to aim for. I’m sure it stirred the emotions in them as it did for us making it to the Olympics and Paralympics.”
The Panathlon swim finals took place on the tenth anniversary of London winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and, with Olympic legacy the debating point of the day, Liz Johnson got out of the pool at the Aquatics Centre, where she was encouraging competitors, to speak live on air to BBC Radio 5 Live.
When asked about the legacy by the BBC’s Adrian Chiles, Liz said: “The timing couldn’t have been better, because I’m actually at the Aquatics Centre in Olympic Park right now for the first ever Panathlon Challenge swimming final. I’ve seen the charity grow from 1995 so, even though it existed before the London 2012 legacy, the numbers have gone up massively since.
“Initially it was a multi-sport competition for disabled children at schools, but we’ve added so many sports to it. We started with maybe 200 children all over Britain and now we’re up to over 6,000 so, from my perspective, I’ve definitely seen the legacy do some good work on many different levels.”
Whilst much of the legacy debate has focused on the government’s failure to use the Olympics to inspire a generation to play sport – former Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell said it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered” – Panathlon has bucked the trend seen in many areas, as evidenced by that growth from 200 competitors to over 6,000 in the 10 years since the London 2012 bid was won.
As well as providing the opportunity to thousands of disabled youngsters to play sport, many of whom would otherwise not get the chance, Panathlon has also been able to use another Olympic legacy – the fantastic stadia that were built for the Games – to give its finalists a once-in-a-lifetime experience of competing in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
One person who had a sense of what the competitors were experiencing was Panathlon patron Steve Brown, who captained Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team in the Olympic Park at London 2012.
“It’s a privilege to come here to the home of the Paralympics and London 2012 and watch these people giving it all they’ve got,” said Steve, speaking at the London finals in the Copper Box. “Being here on the Olympic Park, for these kids to have the opportunity to compete in an environment like this, they’re buzzing! It’s such a great way for them to not just see the legacy but be part of the it.”
“If there’s anything that demonstrates an Olympic and Parlympic legacy, it’s this,” said Alex. “Some of the legacy has got a bit lost along the way, but not here. That’s why I love it so much.”
The Channel 4 Paralympics reporter, who won £25,000 for Panathlon on ITV’s ‘The Chase’ in September 2014, was at the Copper Box Arena for the London final, where he got involved with some of the action before presenting medals to competitors.
“No-one else is doing anything like this. There is no other organisation that puts on something this inclusive and this competitive. That’s why, when I got to do The Chase, I was happy to win a bit of money for Panathlon. It’s completely unique and I think they deserve as much funding as possible.”
Having witnessed the action at the Olympic Park finals, representatives from some of Panathlon’s key funders were in no doubt about the legacy that their support has helped to create.
After the swim finals, Stewart Goshawk, Chief Executive of the Wembley National Stadium Trust, said: “It’s been a brilliant day. The chance for these guys to not just come in here, not just to swim in here, but to compete in here, in the same venue that Tom Daley and Rebecca Adlington were in, is absolutely fantastic. They want proper competition and that’s what they’ve got here. You can see the enjoyment that everyone has. It’s just brilliant.”
Speaking at the Copper Box final, Ruth Scharvona, Managing Director at John Lewis Stratford City, said: “Every time I’m at Panathlon it’s so inspiring. Just seeing how young kids can grow and develop their confidence through sport is amazing. It’s incredible also to be here at the Olympic Park. Sport has regenerated this area and we’ve got to never forget that. This area was nothing before the Olympics and now these children are reaping the benefits.”
Of course, the most important people involved in Panathlon are the Panathletes themselves. We heard from so many competitors and teachers excited about competing at the Olympic Park, that we wanted to share as many quotes as possible from across both finals.
So here’s a selection of what our finalists, teachers, parents and young leaders had to say about their Olympic Park experience:
Fiona Bell, teacher at St Giles School, Croydon: “Panathlon gives us the opportunity to take part in competitive sport with children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. It’s one of the rare opportunities available where they can compete with people with similar abilities and disabilities to them. For most of them, this is the pinnacle of their careers really, so long live Panathlon!”
Toyin Fabusiwa (right), aged 15, student at St Giles School: “It feels amazing to be representing the borough. It’s an amazing experience to even be here. We’re so lucky to get this opportunity I think. I really enjoy being part of Panathlon and I think I’d like to be a young Panathlon coach in the future.”
Georgina Hart, aged 14, pupil at Jo Richardson School, Barking & Dagenham: “It’s amazing to be here at the Copper Box and it was amazing to read the Panathlon oath, alongside Liz.”
Lesley Montague, teacher at Jo Richardson School: “I’m really proud of all the students, especially Georgie reading the oath. It’s always a really lovely day and a fantastic competition. Panathlon provides an opportunity for students who otherwise wouldn’t shine in PE. The opportunity to compete at this level wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s a brilliant opportunity and it’s why our schools are willing to give so much time to Panathlon, because where else are you going to get this quality of event?”
Mike Danvers, Panathlon coach at Overton Grange School, Sutton: “It’s amazing to compete at the Copper Box. It’s a big opportunity for the kids to show what they can do. It’s very exciting. Panathlon is a fantastic event. We’re here to give it a good shot. They are extremely excited and everyone is enjoying themselves and having fun. That’s what it’s all about.”
Daniel Cayford, teacher at Parayhouse School, Hammersmith & Fulham: “To take part in an Olympic venue is great. The kids have been ecstatic since we got here. I’m pretty jealous myself! The confidence that Panathlon gives the kids is unbelievable. They go home happy and they want to do more sport in school as a result. It helps socially too. It’s fantastic.”
Jonathan Bath, teacher at The Village School, part of the plate-winning Brent team: “It’s amazing. The kids couldn’t stop talking about it. They’ve been working really hard over the last term – practice, practice, practice. They’ve been really excited about today for a few weeks. Look at the venue. You couldn’t ask for anywhere better to compete – this really is the icing on the cake.”
Abdul Aziz Al-Sultan (left), aged 16, student at The Village School: “It’s been really good. We won a lot of gold medals. We done a lot of training in school, which has paid off. I’ve been waiting for today for a whole month, counting the days. I feel very happy to compete at the Copper Box.”
Leigh Stevens, teacher at St Angela’s Ursuline School, Newham: “The team have absolutely loved today. They’ve been looking forward to the events and they’ve been training for them. We’ve got five schools here and there’s a really nice community atmosphere.
“They’ve all been encouraging and supporting their team-mates, which is really nice to see. Normally we’re against each other within the borough, but today we’ve come together. It’s really great.”
Mercedes Jacdonmi, aged 12, pupil at St Angela’s: “It’s an honour to be here. It means everything to me to take part in an event like this. I told my whole family about this and they really hoped I’d perform well. I feel very proud [to be representing Newham] and I won’t let anybody down.”
Tim Richmond, teacher at Oak Lodge School, Wandsworth: “The venue is fantastic. It’s really inspiring for the kids to be here and to have Liz Johnson here, opening the final like she did at the Paralympics, it’s really inspiring. Panathlon enables more kids to participate in sport but it also introduces real competition for them, in an amazing environment. It marries the two together and is a really good introduction to competition.”
Jess Russell, sports coordinator at Paddock School, Wandsworth: “All our students have been so excited to come here, asking about what went on here at the Olympics. It’s been amazing, it’s brought them really together as a team, they’ve enjoyed working together, it’s a good lesson on sportsmanship and learning that it’s all about taking part. It means a lot for the school to be able to take part in a much bigger event, than just what the school can provide. It’s very special.”
Joshua Wilkins-Waldron (right), aged 9, pupil at Penwortham School, Wandsworth: “It’s brilliant. I’ve got three medals so it’s a really good result. It feels overwhelming to take part at a place like the Copper Box. I only began to play boccia last year, so it’s a bit weird in a way, but it’s really special. If there’s any other children in a wheelchair out there, this is what you can do. Don’t sit back at home thinking ‘I can’t do it’ because you actually can.”
Joshua won gold in the precision beanbag throw and silver in boccia and wheelchair slalom, making his mother, who was there to support him, very proud.
Sharon Wilkins, Joshua’s mother: “Joshua is so competitive and so happy to be part of this. He has a goal in his head, he knows what he wants to do and I’ll keep on supporting him. Panathlon is hugely important for children like Joshua. He’s part of a mainstream school so, on sports day, out of seven events, he can only do one. This gives him the opportunity to do everything.”
Keith Hollidge, teacher at Parkwood Hall School, Kensington & Chelsea: “It’s been brilliant. The students have really had a good time. Panathlon is just wonderful for these students. Quite a few of them would be of the lesser ability in school, so it’s good for them to get a chance to come out and shine. You could have held it in the middle of a field and they’ve have loved today, but being here at the Copper Box has topped it.”
Oke Edevbie, aged 16, a pupil at Parkwood Hall: “It’s very special to be here. We were very happy we got through to the final. We were so excited to be coming here. My favourite part of Panathlon is meeting lots of new people and enjoying lots of new activities.”
Jane Chave, teacher at Priory School, Bury St Edmunds: “It’s awesome to be at an Olympic venue and for the children to get a chance to compete at the same venue as Olympians makes it so special. We came down early as we wanted to soak up the atmosphere and we even got to see Tom Daley practice his diving. You can’t get much better than that!”
Rhys Turnbull (right), a Year 10 student at Priory School: “It’s amazing. Not many people get to compete somewhere like this. It’s really good.”
Jade Horsfall, also a Year 10 student at Priory School: “It’s a great venue. It’s very big and it looks great. I think taking part in sport is all good. It’s a bit of fun, we all enjoy it and it’s healthy as well.”
Neil Golbold, swimming instructor at The Ashley School, Lowestoft: “It’s amazing, giving these kids an opportunity to come to this place and compete. It’s probably a lifetime achievement for them. This is going to stay with them for years. The kids have worked really hard. We’ve got a team of eight swimmers and, for all but a couple of them, this year’s Panathlon was their first time competing. It’s giving them an opportunity that is second to none and it’s giving them a life skill to be able to swim, which not everyone can do.”
Kuben Reddy, teacher at Doucecroft School, Colchester: “It’s brilliant. It’s a fantastic event and an ideal opportunity for our students. There are so many learning opportunities today: just to travel here, getting changed in a different environment, social skills, meeting different people, listening to instructions that they have to follow. They’ve done really well.”
Peter Dwight, teacher at Market Field School, Colchester: “The kids have been buzzing for weeks, to be honest. The venue and the opportunity to swim here is amazing. Very few people get the chance to compete at a place like this. It’s awesome.
Ryan Small (left), aged 14, pupil at Market Field School: “It’s fabulous to compete at a place like this, from where we started to being here, it’s great to be part of it. It’s very exciting, we were singing on the bus on the way here this morning.”
Sam Stevens, sports coach at Trinity School, Barking & Dagenham: “It’s the best event we’ve been to so far. It’s a brilliant atmosphere and a really good competition. If you’d seen where these kids have come from, it’s incredible, especially one of our boys, Alley. This time last year he was terrified of water and now he’s competed here. I’m really proud of him.”
“The kids were so excited about coming here, and I was as well. We explained how important it was to those who didn’t really understand where we were going. Events like this are such good days. The children are so proud of themselves, when they go back to school, there is such a big fuss made of them and their confidence is boosted so much by it.”
James Cole, aged 16, student at Trinity School: “It’s fantastic. We trained so hard throughout the year for this. I’m so happy. And Tom Daley won a bronze medal in this pool. It’s absolutely fantastic.”
Greg Wilgosh, teacher at Marlborough School, Bexley: “It’s been great. The kids have got involved and had a go at everything. We’ve loved it. Working at a special school is about trying to get everyone involved. Some of these children aren’t proficient swimmers but here they can still take part and do their bit. This is the sixth Panathlon event we’ve been to this year, including five-a-side and multi-sport, and they’re all fantastic. They were all very impressed when they walked into the venue today and so was I.”
Danny Board, aged 17, pupil at Marlborough School: “It’s been good. I’ve been swimming and using my skills. I like swimming underwater and collecting things, and I like taking part with all my friends. It’s enjoyable.”
Anna Kwasniak, teacher at Swiss Cottage School, Camden: “It’s a great opportunity for our children to take part in any competition, especially in this beautiful venue. Panathlon is very important to us at Swiss Cottage School.
“They feel like stars when they are taking part and the school is really proud of them. It gives them a lot of confidence and they start to believe in themselves. I think it’s a great experience for them.”
Aseal Biomy (right), aged 13, pupil at Swiss Cottage: “It’s excellent. I feel good. I like taking part in sport and I like Panathlon. I’ve won lots of medals.”
Steve Harrison, 17-year-old Panathlon young leader from Great Baddow School in Chelmsford: “It’s pretty surreal. Tom Daley was training in this pool just beforehand and then we get in. It’s incredible. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s harder to communicate in a pool, so you have to focus more on helping and encouraging the kids rather than coaching them. When they finish they are all pretty happy with themselves, and to do it all in a venue like this is pretty incredible.”