I feel incredibly privileged to count a Paralympian as a good friend of mine. She has opened up a whole world to me that I was unaware of and she has taught me so much not only about myself but also about disability and how people treat people with disabilities. My life is so much richer for her friendship.
As a result of this I have since interviewed many Paralympians, featured them on the cover of the magazine and I have the greatest of respect for what they do and what they have achieved. The more I listen and learn the more it becomes obvious that there is a huge gap in understanding and perception in the public eye towards Paraplympians. In part it is because people are scared to ask questions for fear of offending and so when I had the opportunity to spend time with two Paralympians with such great status I thought what better an opportunity to spend time talking with them about the myths, frustrations and amusing things that the general public wouldn’t know.
Hannah Cockcroft is amongst other things a multi record holding gold medal Paralympian wheel chair racer and Hannah Russell is one of the brightest stars
in swimming, with multiple world records to her name at 18. We covered so much ground in our chat as well as during the photo shoot for the cover that
I decided to list key subjects and write about them instead of a standard article.
Types of Paralympian
There are two types of Paralympians according to Hannah Cockcroft: “ones with a massive chip on their shoulder and second are those that aren’t bothered.”
For her it isn’t about those who were born disabled and those who have become disabled; interestingly, it’s about a mind set within each person and
athlete. There are those, like Hannah who compete because they enjoy it and because they want to do it - as she says, “the winning is a nice positive,
but I would still do it.” And then as she continues to explain, there are those who are ‘tortured souls’ who are doing it to prove a point and gain
something. As Hannah explains, “...they want people to feel sorry for them or they have the attitude that they are going to win gold because it’s their
payment for being disabled”.
This is a side to Paralympics you don’t hear of, but one that is a familiar one to me: approaches and mindsets in Paralympics that are poles apart with
very little middle ground - but very interestingly, not one based on whether you are born with a disability or not, which would seem to be the obvious
conclusion.For Hannah and nearly all of the Paralympians I have spoken with, it is about their mindset, their approach to life and how they view themselves.
What sums it up best for me is Hannah Cockcroft’s opening comment to me when we started our chat: “People think Paralympians are inspirational, but
we are just people who decided to get up and do something with our lives.” And Hannah Russell’s, “I don’t think of it as a disadvantage and that makes
me a stronger person.”
Both athletes have the view that they are athletes who happen to have a disability and they find a way of working around it, to them there is no baggage
and no excuses. This makes them remarkable people to be around and dominant in their fields.
Common misunderstandings and treatment
It seems that the biggest frustration with able bodied people is that so often their desire to help over takes logic and all normal social etiquette.
Hannah Cockcroft’s biggest bug bear is people asking if she needs a push and when she declines still pushing her. As she amusingly explains, “no one
asks if you need help walking and then picks you up and walks along carrying you!” We all laughed at the absurdity of this potential situation and
yet this is how she feels.
This is the thing for so many Paralympians, they just want to be treated normally and given the same level of assumed intelligence - which leads to the
next and possibly the most important and yet frustrating of all issues. “People sometimes don’t realise that it’s my legs that don’t work, not my brain,”
says Hannah Cockcroft. A fine example would be previous cover star Sophie Christensen, who is a triple gold Paralympian with a first class Masters
The list of examples and frustrations is long and somewhat embarrassing to listen to - yet it seems that so many people are doing things like this, not
with malice but from a complete lack of understanding. “People talking to you in a child-like voice”! “I am an adult, I am normal, I just need to sit
down a lot,” explains Hannah Cockroft.
The interesting thing in all these conversations is that none of the athletes are angry, there is a sense of frustration at times but by far the overwhelming
sense and desire is to be understood and respected as people and athletes. Paralympians want to do things themselves, they don’t always need help,
they live full lives and enjoy them, on occasions they may need help and for the most part they will ask.
Hannah Russell (who is partially sighted) explains how she loves her independence, going to university and living on her own, but at times she is aware
she needs to ask for guidance and this seems to be the balance. They are very capable and if they need help they know it and will ask, for the rest
of the time they are just normal athletes and people.
Joking about disability
One thing everyone around the world is aware of is that joking about people who are disabled or joking about disability is a no go area, however behind
the scenes at training camps and in Paralympic venues athletes joke with and about each other and their disabilities. When I first heard about this
I was quite surprised, but as I spend more time with Paralympians it has become one of the common threads.
Both Hannahs laugh as we talk about this aspect of the Paralympic scene. “You have to do it!” exclaims Hannah Cockcroft. She continues to explain that
for able bodied people to do it and even disabled people who you don’t know to do it would be offensive, but among friends and fellow athletes it’s
funny and part of the glue that brings them together. It brings a light hearted sense to something that maybe isn’t in everyday life and provides them
with a way of getting on with it. “It’s a way of accepting who we are,” Hannah says.
A more serious side to it is that often this connection and sense of community provides a security that then allows the athletes to talk to each other
about their personal tragedies, struggles, etc. with people who fully understand. “Surrounded by disabled people you are no longer different, it’s
like therapy,” Hannah explained about the environment that can be so helpful for Paralympians.
I have been involved in women’s sport and championed it for more than ten years now and I am fully aware of the challenges for the athletes, the teams
and womens sport around the world and yet it pails into insignificance when you listen to the stories of female Paralympians.
I have not met one Paralympian that doesn’t train as hard, work as hard or sacrifice as much as their able bodied female or male counterparts and yet the
gap between female able bodied and their disabled counterparts is huge and the gap between them and the men is an ocean of difference. Sometimes pictures
say a thousand words and other times numbers do, so here are some numbers:
Hannah Cockcroft MBE, double gold Paralympian, multi-world champion, multi-world record holder last year competed in 54 races around the world, winning
all 54 of them and yet was only paid for winning 3 of those races! In so doing she ‘earned’ £6,000, with all her other income having to come from sponsorship
and other activities that take her away from training. By contrast, top male Paralympians can earn £5,000 just to race in events, so the gap is huge.
“The perception is that because I have won gold medals there is money, the reality is there isn’t,” Hannah says of her dual frustration of having to
train and try and find a way to bring money in - but then also having to convince people that actually she really does need money.
The thing I find interesting is that both the Hannah’s agree when I ask what the solution is: they say “come watch us compete”, buy a ticket, because ticket
sales boost income, more publicity brings sponsors, sponsors share with their customers, which means more fans and people realising what a great sport
it is - and the circle is complete. What’s important to them is people being involved more than cold hard cash. Yes, it would help them, but that isn’t
their motivation. Getting people involved and raising the profile of Paralympics is - and that says a lot about them as people and athletes.
Message for fans and people from ‘the Hannahs’
At the end of the interviews and photo shoot I asked both ‘Hannahs’ if there was a message to give to readers and their response was this:
“Please see us as the athlete not the disability. Look at me and think, ‘wow she must train hard to move so quickly’, and don’t pity or feel sorry for
us. Come and support us,” said Hannah Cockroft.
“Ability, not disability is what I live by and I want others to see that and appreciate it,” said Hannah Russell.
I love spending time with athletes like this, they bring challenge to my life and show me how to look at things differently. They are hard working and
committed people with the funniest sense of humour ever! Take the time to watch an event, go to an event and chat to them, you will see what an incredible
aspect to a sport that is ‘underground’. Let’s make it mainstream.