Ek’ve just dropped Sarah Storey off at the airport. On the way, we had a really good chat in the back of the taxi. I’ve known Dame Sarah for 20 jare; we competed at the Sydney Paralympics together and what she’s achieved since has been incredible. It was nice to have that time together as the Games heads towards the final stages, to get some nuggets of wisdom from her and see how much she’s absorbed of what has happened in the past two weeks.
When we were in the taxi, and everything was all done, Sarah was relaxed. She was giving me the latest on her family, her son, Charlie, en haar man, Barney, and her eyes lit up as she talked. Sarah is the warmest, kindest nicest person you’ll ever meet. But when we flew in to Tokyo on the same flight, the mood was different. I had a chat with her then too, but her guard was up. She was in sport mode.
People sometimes say that Sarah is a bit cold and a bit steely, and I get it. But that’s actually her defence mechanism. I understand it because I’ve been there too. Our sport is so much about mental capacity and mental energy affects you far more than your physicality. You can always dig down and find that little bit extra physically, and you know if you’re tired your opponents are tired. But if you’re worn down mentally by expectation or questions and that starts gnawing, activating that chimp on your shoulder, it will affect your chances. As gevolg daarvan, you have to protect yourself.
I feel as if we’ve seen great mental strength from so many British athletes at these Paralympics. The performances have really been great. Ja, there’s been the odd anomaly here and there: the women’s wheelchair basketball team would have liked to have done better, Alfie Hewitt and Gordon Reid in the wheelchair tennis singles went out at the semi-final stage and lost the doubles final. They would have been disappointed because they’re up there as the best in the world. This is sport though. These things can happen on the day.
Putting those moments to one side, egter, there’s lots to be excited about with so many medals in so many sports. Looking at the swimming, I think we’ve done fantastically well there. In werklikheid, my highlight of the Games so far was at the Aquatic Centre, but it didn’t come in competition. It was the interview Ellie Robinson gave after the women’s S6 50m butterfly final. It was how she talked about her pride in finishing fifth and how tough a year it had been for her; it was the emotion that came out when she said she would have crawled to the pool if she had to, because she wanted to finish the Games on her terms.
Ellie’s message resonated with me. It reminded me why I competed. I didn’t do it for the medals, or for the glory; I did it because of the independence it gave me and the fact that it allowed me to compete in life. I think that’s why the Paralympics are so important for people with disabilities. We live in a world where so many of us are passengers; sport gives us this opportunity to be the driver.
Often in our lives, we’re dictated to. We’re told what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do things. Sport is the one thing where you can do things on your own terms and Ellie encapsulated it in that interview. I thought it was incredible and the fact that the clip has gone viral is no surprise. What’s outstanding is that she’s only 20: to be able to communicate such a complex message is fantastic.
Sometimes it feels as if sport gives disabled people a superpower. But that masks how fragile and vulnerable we can all be because of our disabilities. I think Ellie shared that message, but we’ve all had to manage it. Those of us with respiratory illnesses from a disability, or underlying conditions, are vulnerable; getting ill is the end of the chance to compete and can be a lot more severe than that. So it must have been a huge worry mentally in a lot of these athletes’ heads and I respect the fact they’ve been willing to talk about it.
As Tokyo heads to its conclusion and we get ready for that journey to the airport, I feel as if we’re seeing the evolution of the Paralympics. These Games have been a new beginning for me. We’ve shown that even with Covid, even without crowds, Paralympic sport is more relevant than ever. In werklikheid, it’s needed and we’ve only started to tap into the impact it can have. The beautiful thing is we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential the Paralympics have to change the world.
Ade Adepitan presents the Tokyo Today Paralympics Highlights show at 5pm on Channel 4