Be the best you can be


Three successful Paralympic athletes tell SEN Magazine how they use sport to inspire pupils with special needs

Sport has a remarkable power to engage pupils of all abilities, backgrounds and ages, and to help them build confidence, social and life skills. Sky Sports Living for Sport, an initiative delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, manages a team of Athlete Mentors who visit secondary schools nationwide with the aim of encouraging the next generation to improve their lives. The team includes five-time World Championship gold medallist swimmer Fran Williamson, Paralympic cycling sensation Rik Waddon, and up-and-coming Para-athletics star Sam Ruddock, all of whom suffer from cerebral palsy. Through their work with the initiative, these athletes are determined to use their own experiences of the condition and the power of sport to inspire pupils to be the best they can be, and prove that people with cerebral palsy and other SEN need not be restricted by their condition.

Here, these three outstanding athletes share their stories with SEN Magazine.

Fran Williamson.Fran Williamson: swimmer

“I was born with cerebral palsy, but wasn’t too emotionally affected by my condition until I was eight or nine years old. I knew I was different but that didn’t stop me. I think this was because until the age of eight I lived in Africa, where there was very little focus on my differences and I was encouraged to get on with things – something I did quite happily.

“Coming back to the UK, there was more focus on my impairment and I was treated differently by my peers. My parents reacted by nurturing my independence. They encouraged me to try everything and if I fell over, they would teach me how to get myself up.

“I believe that the hardest part of my impairment is other people’s preconceptions of me. It’s the thing I’ve struggled with most in life. I often get patronised or laughed at because of the way I sound or move, which is an extremely tough challenge to overcome. However, I just remind myself of what I’ve achieved in life.

“Through my role as an Athlete Mentor, I get to share my story on a daily basis. Doing this means that, not only am I helping to inspire people, but I am increasing awareness of disability on a wider scale.

“When I was young, I didn’t really have any role models. If I had had the opportunity to work with a mentor when growing up, I think it would have made the world of difference to me.

“Sometimes it can be hard to see beyond your own circumstances and personal limitations. I hope that through my work with students with SEN, I am able to open their eyes to a wider world of possibilities.

“The British Athletes Commission’s ‘six keys to success’ (see box below) are tools that I use on a daily basis, not just in sport. ‘Mental toughness’ and ‘breaking barriers’ really come into their own when facing challenges caused by my cerebral palsy. This is reflected in my work with students with SEN.  Often I meet students who don’t have the confidence to plan for the future or develop their people skills. If you can increase your confidence levels, that’s half of the battle won.

“Finding sport genuinely increased my confidence in whatever I did. The better I got at swimming, the more I wanted to try and improve everything else.  I often wonder whether it is just a major coincidence that the year I became 50m backstroke World Champion was the year I decided to go to university. Prior to this, my education record was pretty much non-existent. Yet, I flourished at university, gaining a first class degree followed by a Master’s degree.

“Obviously, not everyone can become a world champion, but I wholeheartedly advocate sporting activity as a way of gaining confidence and dealing with disability.”

Fran’s sporting achievements

  • 3x silver medals and 2x bronze medals from Paralympic Games ( 2004, 2008).
  • 5x gold medals, 4x silver medals and 2x bronze medals from World Championships (2002, 2006, 2010).
  • 4x bronze medals at European Championships (2001 to 2011).

Rik Waddon.Rik Waddon: cyclist

“I developed cerebral palsy after being knocked off my bike by a car, aged five. To begin with, I had no movement in my arms or legs and no speech; I could only use my eyes and was totally unable to communicate. Slowly, my movement and speaking ability returned, but I had developed a stutter.

“My parents had the option to send me to a school for disabled children, but they chose to send me back to the school I was already at. I think that had a huge impact on the speed and depth of my recovery and rehabilitation. I had to get on with things and received no special treatment.

“At secondary school, there was a marked change in people’s attitudes to me, suddenly I was aware that I was very different to everyone else – it made me a target to be picked on. As a result, I never really got into lessons; instead, I would stare out the window.

“When I was 14, I watched a video of the Tour de France and felt hugely motivated. For the first time, I wanted to succeed. I got a bike and started training in secret; only my parents knew that I was getting into cycling – it was something that I could do for myself, something I was good at.

“Although I noticed a weakness in my body, I didn’t consider that I had a disability, so I began competing against able bodied riders and beating them. The 2000 Paralympics made me realise I had a quantifiable disability; I was then invited to compete for British Cycling as a paracyclist. I have since competed at two Paralympic Games and have my sights set on Rio in 2016.

“I hope that my successes can inspire the next generation of students to strive to excel. I refuse to accept the barriers posed by my disability and I think that’s a key message for students with cerebral palsy or SEN to acknowledge.

“When I visit schools as an Athlete Mentor, I really encourage pupils to engage with sport and its values. You don’t have to be an athlete to see how the skills learned through sport can translate into everyday life. When students succeed in a totally new activity, it drives them on and encourages them to look differently at the rest of their school work, just as cycling helped me discover my desire to succeed. This in turn develops pupils’ confidence; they become bolder, push themselves harder and young people with a disability begin to look beyond the limitations of their condition. School sport is of vital importance for cross-curricular development and also for helping students to reach their potential.”

Rik’s sporting achievements

  • 2x silver medals from Paralympic Games ( 2008, 2012).
  • First place team sprint and world record at Paralympic World Cup (2005) and World Championships (2007).
  • First place in many time trials, including National Paracycling Time Trial Championships (2010) and UCI World Road Cup Time Trial (2010).

Sam Ruddock.Sam Ruddock: sprinter

“I was born three months early, which caused my cerebral palsy – originally diagnosed as mild spastic quadriplegia. I was re-diagnosed with spastic diplegia when I was seven or eight.

“I don’t remember a lot from my early years, but I can recall painful physiotherapy, having special shin splints and being incredibly clumsy. I was determined to do everything myself; my mum tells the story of how I wanted to cross the road by myself, so I pulled my hand out of hers and within a few steps I was on my face, crying. It was important that she let that happen to me, so I could learn for myself.

“I played sport at school but when it came to playground football, I couldn’t kick a ball and run at the same time. Instead, I found comfort in sports like basketball and rugby that focussed on parts of my body that weren’t affected by my condition.

“It’s been an eye-opening few years for me since I started competing for Great Britain. I always behaved as if my cerebral palsy wasn’t there; I knew it hindered me but it wasn’t going to change, so I made do with what I had.

“Sprinting has forced me to ‘undo’ the ways my legs have naturally learnt to move, within the limitations of my disability. I have to deal with the challenge of cerebral palsy by challenging it back, so that I can improve as an athlete.

“Now, I’m able to go into schools and colleges, meet young people with disabilities and tell them I was just like them. Paralympians and Special Olympians need to be more than just ambassadors for their sport. They need to show young people that what we’ve achieved as people, not just as athletes, can be possible for them too.

“The ‘six keys to success’ are great tools for helping young people to achieve their personal goals. ‘Breaking barriers’ is the strongest key in my opinion. It helps young people to realise that their most important expectations should be of themselves; this provides great motivation to set and break their personal barriers and hopefully achieve great things.

“The Paralympics showed many people for the first time what a person with a disability can achieve. Everyone deserves to have that feeling of personal satisfaction. Nobody really has a disability; their ability just varies in relation to others. The majority of sports can be broken down into simple games, so people of any ability can play them. It’s a tough challenge to provide an inclusive sport programme in school but if the work is done, with the right attitude, I can guarantee you’ll see some surprising developments in the self-esteem and academic progress of your cohort.”

Sam’s sporting achievements

  • Selected for the IPC Athletics World Championships (2013).
  • Personal best of 28.75 in the T35 200m heats at the Paralympic Games (2012).
  • Senior international debut for Great Britain at London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Sport can be many things to many young people: a hobby, a release from the stress of daily life, a confidence boost, a way of making friends or something to excel at. The core principles of sport, the ‘six keys to success’, can translate across the curriculum and outside of the classroom too. For students with SEN, these skills can be a gateway to defying the limitations of their disability, making school sport invaluable.

British Athletes Commission’s six keys to success:

  • mental toughness
  • hunger to achieve
  • people skills
  • sports knowledge
  • breaking barriers
  • planning for success.

Further information

Fran Williamson, Rik Waddon and Sam Ruddock are Athlete Mentors for the free secondary schools initiative Sky Sports Living for Sport, delivered in partnership with national charity the Youth Sport Trust:

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