Newly-crowned North West Regional Boccia champions Sandfield Park School said Panathlon had given pupils “a new lease of life” since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. 

Sandfield Park were among 22 teams who competed in Thursday’s final (March 24) in Liverpool, for which most competing teams had battled through local and county events in order to qualify. 

Our building of this competitive pathway across Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cumbria and Cheshire has given pupils motivation, self-confidence and a huge sense of achievement. 

After proudly watching her pupils win 14-1 against Woodchurch High in the final of the physical disability competition, Sandfield Park teacher Sue Barry said: “Through Covid, they have been absolutely itching to get out of school and compete, which is why Panathlon has been like a new lease of life. 

“We are delighted to be North West champions. After we’d won, the first thing one of our pupils said to me is, ‘When is the next one?’ 

“We are very competitive and have great team spirit, but our ethos is to be gracious winners and good losers. We are determined and very keen to win, so we have put in a lot of practice.” 

Pupil John Bate, 15, added: “It feels extraordinary! We got to this event last year but it was cancelled due to Covid, so it’s amazing to be able to come back and win. The Panathlon events are brilliant. It’s great to be back out and not sitting at home.” 

On the other side of the vast sports hall at Greenbank Sports Academy, William Howard School from Brampton in Cumbria (who left at 6am and were first to arrive at the venue!) defeated West Houghton from Bolton 3-2 after a tie-break in a nail-biting pan-disability final. 

William Howard boasted none other than Scottish Open Under-18 boccia champion Connor Dixon in their line-up, who has been leading after-school practice sessions alongside Learning Support Assistant Tracey Croucher. 

“Panathlon has been the only provider offering boccia competitions this year and without them we would have had no outlet for all the practice we’ve put in. This is such a wonderful opportunity for them,” said Tracey. 

“Throughout lockdown we have tried to keep sporting competition going and Panathlon have helped us enormously with their Virtual programme. Some of our pupils even played in their own houses on their own.” 

Before the pandemic, our boccia event in Liverpool was William Howard School’s only involvement in Panathlon, but since taking part in our virtual activities in the last two years, they have entered our ten-pin bowling competitions in Cumbria and recently hosted an Xtend multisport competition. 

Beaten pan-disability finalists West Houghton had never played boccia before entering this year’s local qualifying event in Bolton. Amazingly, they won it and then won the Greater Manchester final to qualify for the North West regional showpiece, where they slipped to a slender defeat. Their head teacher had funded special t-shirts for the event with ‘Boccia Team’ emblazoned on the back.  Sadly only the front of their t-shirts are captured on the below photo!

The event also featured a team representing Derian House Children’s Hospice in Bolton for young people with life-limiting conditions. 

Captain Enola Halleran-Clarke, 18, said: “I was in isolation for almost a full year. I was stuck in my house and didn’t really see anyone at all – so you could say today is a very welcome change! Not many people talk to me in everyday life, so being here is great. I’m also very competitive – I don’t even like losing at Monopoly!” 

Derian House and Sandfield Park captain toss a coin to start the competition

Panathlon Events Officer Debbie Davies (above, right) has been integral to organising the competitive pathway from local, to county and regional finals in Bolton and Greater Manchester. 

“Kids just love that feeling of achievement when they have had to work really hard to get to the next level,” Debbie commented. “They know they are representing their school, their home town and their county. It means so much more.” 

Schools such as Redwood Secondary in Rochdale were given wildcards to the North West Finals for a specific purpose. In boroughs where Panathlon is not yet embedded, it is hoped their participation will stimulate further interest in their local area and will soon lead to all 10 Greater Manchester boroughs entering county competitions across all our sports and age groups. 

“We are aiming to build a structure so the boroughs hold their local qualifying events at the same time of year, so that will lead to county events then a regional event,” explained Debbie. 

Panathlon’s Merseyside Event Officer, Steve Sullivan, said: “It’s so important we keep staging these events in order to develop these young wheelchair users. This is the platform to ignite a passion and identify talent among kids who can go on and join boccia clubs. 

“Schools crave competitive opportunities and that’s how you achieve progression. Some teams get beaten but that is part of their personal development. Everyone goes home with a smile on their face, but they have got to be given the opportunity. Without that, they can put as much practice in as they like, but there’s no point unless they’re given the platform to compete.” 

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “We feel it is important to bring back event we held before the pandemic. With the help of Debbie and Steve, we have worked hard to re-create the pathway leading up to this big regional event. Schools have attended from long distances away and their positive reactions show they want to test themselves, create their own goals and to show renewed sporting ambition now the restrictions have been lifted.”