Thursday, 14 September 2017

Rio a year on..

It's exactly a year since that incredible day when I won the 100th gold medal of the Rio Paralympics and the 600th medal since funding began.

Lagoa Lake 15th September 2016
Anniversaries are often a time for reflection, and as the 15th of September approaches I find myself thinking about the Rio Paralympics and the promised impact of wining gold medals.
The term “Olympic and Paralympic legacy” gets banded around a lot and people seem to be focused on working out tangible benefits of funding elite sport- more specifically winning gold medals. As useful and important as this might be, I'm not sure if it’s possible to quantify all of the wider positive impacts.
winning the 100th gold medal
Mine was such a close race. I have never focused so hard or hurt so much as in those final meters paddling towards the finish. I crossed the line a mere 300ths of a second in front. But a win is a win and standing on the podium having won gold for your country is an incredible experience. 
Giving everything to my race
It still gives me goose bumps whenever I think about it.  My memory of that day on Lagoa lake is still vivid. I can feel ribbon pressing on to my neck from the weight of the medal, I can hear the National anthem playing and I can see my family standing there behind the barrier just in front of me. The Union flag reaches the top of the mast and Christ-the-Redeemer on the mountain behind forms a perfect backdrop.
The happiness I felt at that moment was in part pride, knowing that I had worked incredibly hard for this, but that feeling was easily eclipsed by seeing the infectious happiness of my family in front of me. My typically monosyllabic (ie grunty) teenage son Will was showing uncharacteristic excitement and emotion by punching the air while cheering loudly.  My normally chatty, smiley 20-year-old daughter Jess was speechless for the first time ever. She had tears rolling down her face making red, white and blue streaks out of her patriotic face paints.
Will and Simon watching my medal ceremony
 My amazing mum who hadn't been able to travel for 20 years due to poor health had trained hard as well to get strong enough to be able to make it to Rio. I watched as she hoisted herself out of her wheel chair, flanked by my amazing nieces who had come out to look after her, and she clung onto the barrier to steady her self while enthusiastically waving a small Union flag.
My Mum having the time of her life xx
 I locked eyes with my husband Simon and the world seemed to pause for a second. We smiled at each other.  I could feel how proud of me he was and also massively relieved that my journey had ended this way.  It could so easily have been silver, or nothing at all (as we feared after I contracted a virus just months earlier)…
Happiness is...
But the initial impact of me winning that medal wasn't just confined to those at the lake in Rio.  Channel 4 had managed to pull together last-minute coverage of the kayak finals and it was amazing to hear later about how people went to extraordinary efforts to watch my race.  My sister whose wifi went down just before the race ran into the department store next to her office.  She managed to persuade the shop assistants to turn on the entire departments demo TVs to enable her and the whole top floor of John Lewis to watch and cheer together. One friend insisted that the professional photo shoot for the spring catalogue of a well-known retailer should pause so that she and the models and photographers could be part of my support.
Supporters back home
Another friend who runs a hair salon dressed up in patriotic colours and served Prosecco to the slightly bemused clients, who thought they had just come in for a normal trim. Many of my friends and family said that following my journey for four years and watching that race had inspired them to believe they could also achieve their own goals, or it simply made them feel happy. And this is just the people I know, and just from my one medal.
Happiness is known to activate more happiness. I sometimes wonder how far this un-recordable ripple of happiness generated by all the medal success at the Rio Paralympics travelled?
The year since Rio has flown by and while I follow the progress of my ex-paracanoe team carrying on training for Tokyo, I have moved on and with the spare time created from not training I have said yes to all sorts of requests for inspire appearances and professional speaking opportunities.  I’m not convinced that gold medals on their own “inspire” people but a gold medal does open many doors. An athlete with a medal and a compelling back story seems to be a powerful combination and makes people want to listen. 
All the AMAZING gold medal winners at Rio paralympics
Since that day on Lagoa lake I have genuinely lost count of the number of people who I have done a talk to and who asked afterwards "could I hold your medal".  I don’t believe I will ever tire of watching peoples’ faces as I hand it to them.  Their eyes light up as I pass it across and again as they feel it's weight in their hands and hear the rattle of the para-specific medal audible beads. The gold appears to reflect up onto their faces causing a warm glow and everyone no matter how cynical or even socially awkward looks up and smiles ... 
The magic of holding a gold  medal
I have now had quite a few people approach me long after to tell how they have changed their lives since my talk, and this gives me a massive buzz  – probably more so than winning a race ever did.  
So although I doubt we will ever be able to measure the true “impact” of that investment in gold medals, at least I know in my own little world mine is spreading a little happiness.

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