- 17 Oct 08, 02:05 PM
After the excitement of the Beijing Paralympics, London 2012 promises to surpass all expectations.
Although established athletes like Eleanor Simmonds, David Weir and Lee Pearson will be at the forefront of ParalympicsGB's plans, the need to identify and bring through new talent is becoming more and more important as the Games approaches.
Increased funding is allowing initiatives like ParalympicsGB's Parasport programme, which aims to increase participation in disabled sport, to take on a new significance.
With the memories of Beijing still fresh, hopefuls filled out an online form over the last few weeks on the ParalympicsGB website and were invited along to east London's Mile End Leisure Centre earlier this week to try out 19 Paralympic sports.
It gave the sports a chance to see where the potential talent lies and whether the hopefuls could go and develop their skills at a local club or, in the case of the more talented, be pointed in the direction of a high-performance programme and a possible Paralympic place.
Just down the road from the Olympic and Paralympic site in Stratford, the centre was a buzz of activity as just over 100 participants, mostly from London but some from further afield took their turns at the various sports.
At one end of the age spectrum were the likes of 11-year-old Liam Archer from Plaistow, who became blind at the age of six after suffering damaged optic nerves but refuses to let that stop him taking part in all sport, and 18-year-old Becky Coleman from the Isle of Wight, a keen wheelchair basketball player who harbours dreams of a place in 2012 and regularly travels two-and-a-half hours to Stoke Mandeville for training sessions.
Then there were people like 29-year-old Dan Biddle, who lost both of his legs in the London Tube bombings in July 2005 and Major Phil Packer, who broke his back in a roadside bombing in Basra, leaving him paralysed below the waist.
But what united all of the participants was their determination and willingness to give their chosen sports a try and see what they could achieve with the dream of a place at a Paralympics, maybe in London, maybe in 2016, spurring them on.
In one hall youngsters (and the not so young) were mesmerised by the thrills, spills and clashes of wheelchair rugby, demonstrated by Beijing Paralympians Andy Barrow, Justin Frishberg and Josie Pearson and were encouraged to see how they fared in the combat.
Elsewhere, under the watchful eye of Paralympic legend Caz Walton (the winner of 10 gold medals over her career), many hopefuls gave wheelchair fencing a go.
And, despite the cold weather, the wheelchair racers who were dreaming of becoming the next David Weir or Shelly Woods tried out their speed skills on the track.
British Cycling Paralympic coach Chris Furber put cycling hopefuls through a gruelling 200m sprint challenge as he sought out those who could make it onto his team's already successful programme, which yielded 17 golds in Beijing.
"Although we have a top-class performance squad, it is an aging squad and we don't have a development level below pushing them on," he explained.
"This sort of day gives us, and all of the other Paralympic sports, a great chance to identify talent and get it through the system and it is encouraging to see so many people trying out all of the different sports on offer.
"Because of our success in Beijing, we have had a lot of interest from people with disabilities who haven't done sport and also those who want to transfer from other sports and we now have the funding for a development squad, which can only benefit us as we build towards London."
Teenager Becky Coleman, already a keen wheelchair basketball player with the West Coast Tornados and Sussex Tigers, and a wheelchair tennis player too, took the chance to try out rowing and wheelchair fencing.
A medical condition left her using a wheelchair four years ago, when she was 14, but she still retained an interest in sport and is now hoping that her hard work will help her to be part of the GB women's basketball team.
"It was good to have the chance to try other sports and see where I fit into the system," she said.
"Seeing the likes of Ellie Simmonds in Beijing has really helped to spur me on. I have put in a lot of time and effort in and to be part of a Paralympics in London would be a dream come true."
Although there were some, like Becky, who have already experienced Paralympic sport, the day was still a new experience for some taking part.
Among those was 26-year-old Jon Wright from Manchester, who lost his left leg above the knee in a car accident just eight weeks ago.
He showed a stubborn determiness to come down to London with his mother and girlfriend to see what he could achieve.
"Before my accident I had been going to the gym four or five times a week and also doing a bit of boxing training," he told me.
He took the opportunity to try out powerlifting, throwing and fencing at the event, to get a taste of what he could pursue and he was enthused by the results.
"I've had a lot to take in since my accident and I really didn't know much about Paralympic sport but this has given me something to aim for," he added.
"It has shown me that there are still sports that I can take part in and competing in London is now a goal for me."
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