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Disability sport for fun, not gold medals

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Confession time. Before the Paralympics this summer, I had never witnessed any disabled people playing sport. Though my first experience was of an elite competition, few of us will make it to that level so I was keen to find out where your average person might go to compete for fun. I found out at a recent disability sport event in London.

Though unlikely ever to feature in the Paralympics, stick ball, bagatelle, darts and New-age kurling are perfectt for an afternoon of pan-disability fun.

As I enter the packed and noisy Aspire sports hall on a Sunday lunchtime in Stanmore, Middlesex, I immediately detect the atmosphere is charged with fun. I also sense a strong competitive undercurrent running through each of the seven sport zones.

There are around 60 disabled people from four London-based disability sports clubs who have been brought together through a Rotary Club initiative, for a few hours and, as well as the games mentioned above, table tennis, boccia, bowls, swimming and wheelchair slalom are on offer too.

I meet Chris Brown playing bowls. For long-time disability sports participants like Chris, this type of event is the equivalent of a weekend kick about in the park. Although pride is the only thing at stake, he is through to the second round of the bowls tournament and his competitive streak is firmly on show.

As he awaits his turn, he tells me that he is manager of the Aylesbury sports club. His wife is a wheelchair user and Chris himself is mobility impaired due to arthritis. They both compete at various sports with the club, which he says has a busy calendar of events: "We go nearly all over the country now, playing table tennis and bowls. We were in Durham last weekend but usually we compete in Buckingham, Berkshire and Hampshire."

Chris says there is no central organising body to help, the individual groups just arrange these meets themselves.

"There are about 14 or 15 clubs who get together regularly", he continues. "We meet up and have a bit of a laugh. There are three more events left this season and then we start again in May next year".

Although there are many Olympic and Paralympic T-shirts on show in the very warm sports hall, Chris's club has never produced a Paralympian. He tells me that this is not their priority, it's all about staying active and having a good time.

Not everyone here is used to playing sports regularly, though. I briefly chat to One young man, who was dragged along by his mum, in an effort to encourage him to spend less time on the computer. Next I meet the more sporty Buja who was invited today as a member of the Kingfisher club in Harrow.

Buja, who is totally blind, usually likes swimming, but today she is about to give stick ball a go. This is a game where each player throws Velcro covered tennis balls at a wall of sticky circles. Each circle has a different points value attached to it and your score is written down. At the end of the day, the person with the highest recorded score is the winner. Simple but fun.

Buja has tried most of the throwing sports on offer today, including darts. She says: "They put the board down for me, because I'm not very tall and couldn't get any of them in. I just hit the side of the board once or twice. I think they were nice to me and gave me a few extra chances."

The idea for this event comes from Barnett Rotarian Scott McLaughlin. Inspired by his stint as a Games Maker at London 2012, he decided that he wanted to facilitate more disabled people to get active. Knowing that other Rotary Clubs around the country were already running disability sports events, he encouraged his local branch to do similar, and they got help from neighbouring clubs to sponsor and run the afternoon.

Scott says the biggest problem was finding a suitable venue in the area. "I spoke to half a dozen sports clubs before approaching Aspire". Some weren't big enough, some didn't have a lift and had changing rooms on the floor above. Obviously Aspire was ideal because disability is their expertise."

Aspire are a charity for people with spinal injuries. Their centre at Stanmore has a fully accessible gym, swimming pool, sports hall and dance studios which are also used by non-disabled people.

Being a fellow disabled person, I couldn't head home without trying some of the sports for myself. At bowls, my ball ended up in the adjoining lane and most of my shots at stick ball bounced off the wall either side of the target and landed on the floor. But it was fun. And six weeks after the Paralympics had given me an initial push to get sporty, this was the top-up I needed.

So, where do you start looking if you fancy a bit of sport just for fun, not gold medals. The Parasport club finder has a clever system where by entering your impairment, your town or city and the sports you are interested in, the tool brings up a list of suitable clubs to contact. It is free, so if you fancy trying your hand at anything from sailing to boccia, give it a shot.

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