Image of Barcelona Olympic Stadium showing seating area and race track below the famous clock.

The Race Is Not Yet Lost And Won

How many times had I been in this position? It must have been thousands as my coaches and I practiced and prepared for this kind of ambition over the last four years. My arms braced, my feet angled in the blocks, my head down in concentration, and the pads of my fingers pressing into the rough, almost crumbly surface of the race track. My mind and every muscle in my body waiting in tense anticipation to pounce, waiting for the hard crack of the starter’s gun. This is my favourite part. The smallest of spaces between the set-up and the story. The script readying to write itself in a sprinter’s scrawl across time as it unfurls beneath every carefully choreographed and clipped step.

The year is 1992 – the year that changed history. Until then, the Paralympics had not been under the same organisational banner as the Olympics. Finally progress had stamped her approval, and for the first time, the Paralympic Games were run beside the Olympic Games, placing para sport on the mainstream map. I am one of 2,999 athletes (only 699 female) from 83 countries competing in The Barcelona Paralympic Games. Having just turned seventeen, I am one of the youngest on our team.

The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para”, meaning beside or alongside, signifying the Paralympics as parallel games to the Olympics, having nothing to do with paraplegia the way many assume.

What we now know as The Paralympic Games were started by Dr Guttmann alongside the 1948 London Olympics. Originally called the Stoke Mandeville Games, after the spinal injury centre Dr Guttmann founded in 1944, they were a response to and recognition of the potency of sport in the recovery and well-being of World War II veterans, just as the Invictus Games exemplify today. The Paralympics have evolved from an ensemble of 16 pioneering athletes in wheelchairs, gradually growing until in Rome 1960 they became the Paralympic Games, with 400 athletes representing 23 nations. Today it is a prestigious powerhouse of sporting excellence and inclusion, with approximately 4,350 athletes from over 160 countries competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, and even more setting their sights on Tokyo 2020.

Paralympic classification is formed on the foundations of a medical model of disability, ensuring a fair and equitable arena for athletes based on functional ability. People are divided into their respective disability groupings based on impairment, then subdivided based on their level of function within that disability, mitigating many of the variants between levels of disability and encouraging equality in competition.

In my case, as a blind or low vision athlete, there are three classifications. One is for complete blindness or no functional vision, which includes light perception – the ability to see between light and dark, but nothing else. Another is for extremely low vision, which translates as colours and shapes, which is what I have. The last is for those with a bit more vision, that can maybe read large print, but are still within the bounds of legal blindness. The lettering in front of each numbered disability classification is usually the initial of the event. In a T12 event, for example, the T stands for track, and the subsequent numbering of 11, 12 or 13 are the worldwide category identifiers.

The air is suddenly interrupted with a thunderbolt of sound from the starter’s gun. Automatically my feet begin to turn over, my arms drive, and my body lifts into the comforting poetry and rhythm of my stride. It is so beautifully effortless that I am surprised by my speed and motion. Everything feels so light. For the first time in what seems like forever, I am exactly where I need to be.

I am aware of the almost mythical entity in the lane next to me. She is the legendary, long standing current world and Paralympic champion. I wonder why I haven’t noticed her race past me on the inside. More to the point, how did I overtake the athletes on my outside so quickly? This is not how the script was written. In fact, according to the soothsayers of the sporting administration, I should not be at the Games at all, let alone in the much-coveted Women’s 200m T12 Final. In their eyes, it should be the team favourite, my now heart broken roommate whom I beat in the preliminary rounds. However, here I am, enjoying the roar of the stadium, with the wind in my hair, having the time of my life, thinking just maybe I could actually win this race.

I hear the crowd lift just as I reach my favourite section, where the bend meets the straight, but the crowd is telling me the queen of my classification has finally caught me. I can feel my legs begin to wobble with panic and exertion, and I wish I had done more squats. However, the race is not yet lost and won. There is still time, but I have no idea where each of us is in relation to the other, let alone the finish line. Time seems to stand still, and I feel as though I am going nowhere.

In training I ran the increments of distance ranging from ten metres up to hundreds time and time again. I know the track so well I can almost run it in my sleep, instinctively knowing where I am at any given moment based on feel alone. However, this is different. This is a Paralympic final, and I am at the pinnacle of my performance. Nothing before or since has ever matched these seconds. I simultaneously fight and fly on the wave of the crowd’s energy and excitement for the spectacle before them. They love this as much as I do, and I do not want to let them down. All I can do is keep relaxed, breathe, concentrate on good technique, and for the love of ice cream, stay in my lane. Lord knows it is easy enough to waver, and many an athlete before me had been disqualified for obstructing the lane of another. As an extremely low vision athlete, it is one of my greatest fears.

Like me, “the bat”, as we dubbed her, does not use a guide runner. In accordance with our specific classification and competition rules, we are allotted two lanes each – one for us, and one for our optional guide runners. While this effectively halves the number of athletes on the race track, making it statistically twice as hard to make a final, it gives us the option of running on, or using the immediate contrast of the red and white middle line as a guide instead. Most of us choose this, sacrificing the extra inches from running on the inside in favour of being confident and well within our lane boundaries.

However, without the sound of her potential guide commentating to her, and her footsteps being eaten up by the uninhibited and unabashed enthusiasm of an 80,000 strong crowd in the stadium, I cannot tell where she is, let alone what I have to do to catch her. All I can do is run my own race, and hope to God that someone will literally grab me at the end to indicate it is over.

Clip clip clip, say my spikes under foot. Scream cheer shout, say the audience in return. Metre after metre, I run to my heart’s content. I can hear my mother calling my name and encouraging me to finish strong. You almost have her, I hear her yell. Whether that was in my mind, or from the actual stand, I will never know.

I float over the finish line and a group of volunteers call for me to stop. No, No, I protest in my head. Just a few more metres and I will pass her. I had finally caught her footsteps in my ears and knew I could win with a little more time.

It seems an age until the announcement comes over the loud speaker that the current Paralympic champion, the bat of the track, has won, and I have come second. Both of us have broken her former world and Paralympic record for the Women’s 200m T12 event.

I guess you cannot ask for more than that. We exit the stadium to prepare for the medal ceremony, and I adjust to the secret shame of gaining silver. It was so close, and I was more desperate for Gold than I ever allowed myself to want or realise. Little did I know that in spite of my placement, the race that was supposed to make me, and set-up my long and lovely athletic career, was actually the race that broke me. However, that’s a story for another day.

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