Even for a man who has trekked unsupported to the North Pole and climbed Alaska’s Mount Denali, both since losing his left arm, Jaco van Gass did not hesitate in naming a maiden Paralympic cycling gold as the pinnacle of his life’s work. “At this very moment, it’s right at the top,” he said, having swept all before him in the C3 3,000m individual pursuit, for his first of a potential five titles at these Tokyo Games. “I have done some amazing things, and all have had their difficulties, but this was very tough.”
The rarity of his feat, borne of a performance so dominant that he eclipsed the world record by nine seconds in qualifying, should not be underestimated. Born and raised in South Africa, before moving to the UK at 20 with the sole intention of joining the Armed Forces, Van Gass is just the second British serviceman or woman injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to win a Paralympic event. Emulating the inaugural gold by fellow track cyclist Jon-Allan Butterworth at Rio 2016, he channelled the fitness perfected through his downhill skiing and his multiple marathons to beat compatriot Fin Graham in a compelling final.
This was a glory framed not just by the wounds he sustained in a Taliban rocket attack in 2009, deeply fraught though his convalescence proved. Besides seeing his left arm blown off at the elbow, Van Gass suffered a collapsed lung, shrapnel injuries, punctured internal organs and a fractured knee, ultimately requiring 11 operations. But his challenge for Tokyo was heightened by a decision made just 48 hours before competition, when he was ordered to change his arm prosthesis out of concerns that it did not fall within regulations set by the UCI, cycling’s global governing body.
“Things always happen to me that mean I have to push harder,” Van Gass said. “I had a prosthetic that was cleared by the UCI back in March. We arrived here and with two days to go, for some reason they didn’t allow me to ride it. It makes quite a big difference.”
The setback made little dent in his supremacy at Izu Velodrome. No sooner had he demolished the longest-standing world record in Para-cycling, set by Russia’s Alexey Obydennov nine years earlier, than he held Graham at bay for every one of 12 laps to seize gold. As he dismounted, he could not help but look overwhelmed. This marked the fulfilment of a quest that began at the London Paralympics, a spectacle that restored his sense of purpose.
“I was amazed by it and I wanted to be part of it, so I started my journey,” he reflected. “I was initially on the team for Rio, but I didn’t make the final cut, so there has been a lot of disappointment, too. I left British Cycling, knowing that I needed to reset. I came back a few years later – and here we are.”
Help for Heroes, the charity providing lifelong support to service personnel wounded in the line of duty, including Van Gass, described his triumph as a “hugely positive counterpoint to current news headlines” about Afghanistan. Van Gass, who was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade with just two weeks left of his second, 5½-month tour of Afghanistan left, was cautious in articulating his feelings about the Taliban takeover.
“It’s sad to see what’s going on, but I’m not disappointed or regretful about what happened to me,” he said. “I had to go out and do my job. My thoughts go out to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and I think I’ll just leave it there.”
The incident that recast Van Gass’ life coincided with the elections that delivered Hamid Karzai to the Afghan presidency 12 years ago. “We got intelligence that somebody with improvised explosive devices was planning to disrupt the elections,” he explained. “We went after this guy and caught him, the potential suicide bombers and their equipment. On the way back into the desert, where the helicopter was to pick us up, a call came over the radio that the pilot wasn’t happy with the landing site, and so he gave us coordinates for a new pick-up point. The first was on a proven route, but the second wasn’t.”
In the early hours of his 23rd birthday, Van Gass found himself carrying a set of telescopic ladders on his back in pitch darkness, when a fierce firefight erupted near a Taliban stronghold. “Two RPGs were fired,” he recalled. “The first exploded in the distance but the second ricocheted off the ground and hit me. I knew instantly that I had lost my arm.”
Van Gass disclosed that his heart had stopped twice on the operating table, a thought that assailed him with renewed force as he clutched the gold he had coveted for almost a decade. “Having been where I’ve been, not knowing if I would walk again, let alone run, this feels amazing,” he said. “If I can inspire anyone else to do the same, that’s incredible.” For now, he has another four events to contest, starting with his speciality, the C1-3 1,000m time trial today. While these Paralympics are only two days old, the British team might already have discovered their poster-boy
ParalympicsGB’s Jody Cundy and Aileen McGlynn win silver in cycling
By Oliver Brown in Tokyo
Jody Cundy has made history as the first British man to win medals at seven different Paralympic Games, stretching back to Atlanta 1996, with a silver in the C4-5 1,000m time trial assuring him of his 11th appearance on the podium across two sports.
As with Dame Sarah Storey, Cundy, whose foot was amputated at the age of three, began his Paralympic career as a swimmer before switching to cycling. It was a transition that yielded further handsome reward at the age of 42 as he finished second in his signature event behind Spain’s Alfonso Cabello Llamas.
A relentless perfectionist, Cundy gained notoriety at London 2012, throwing an explosive tantrum when an alleged gate malfunction cost him the chance of gold. This time, he was magnanimous about his record-breaking silver, handing gold to Llamas himself. “It’s the medal I won in Rio and just to pass the medal on to him, it feels like passing the baton,” he said. “Nobody ever wants a silver, but I didn’t lose gold. I managed a personal best and was beaten by the better person.”
A second silver in Izu arrived courtesy of visually impaired rider Aileen McGlynn, with her pilot Helen Scott, in the women’s B time trial. A veteran on this stage, who took her first gold in Athens 17 years ago, she appeared staggered by her own achievement aged 48. After all, she had stopped training only 12 months earlier, following the retirement of Sophie Thornhill, which left Scott seeking another partner.
“To be here at another Paralympics, setting a lifetime best and coming away with silver, is just phenomenal,” McGlynn said. “I was just enjoying cycling last year, without any specific training. When Sophie retired, I was asked if I was still cycling, if I could come to try out at a testing day. I got my finger out and committed to training again. There were doubts – I believed it would be a tough call for anybody to return and be ready within a year. But I also thought that if I didn’t do it, I would always wonder. So, I gave it everything, and here I am.”
Maisie Summers-Newton picks up baton from Ellie Simmonds as brilliant gold helps take GB tally to six
By Molly McElwee in Tokyo
For three Paralympic cycles, Ellie Simmonds has been Great Britain’s superstar. It began when she captured the nation’s heart as a fresh-faced and formidably paced 13-year-old in Beijing, and culminated in her crowning moment as the team flag bearer at the opening ceremony of these Tokyo Games.
On Thursday though, the five-time Paralympic champion made way for the next generation of talent and, rather fittingly, passed on the baton to a teenager who she had inspired to take up the sport: Maisie Summers-Newton.
Simmonds’ widespread impact on para-sport takes very real shape in the figure of Summers-Newton, who won a stunning first Paralympic gold medal in a world record time, nine years after being awe-struck by her idol Simmonds triumphing in the event at London 2012. In a memorable evening in the pool, Tully Kearney also secured a world record gold for ParalympicsGB – her second medal in as many days – before the poignant changing of the guard between Summers-Newton and Simmonds.
“She’s inspiring that next generation now,” Simmonds, 26, said of Summers-Newton, after finishing outside the medals in fifth. “She’s following in my footsteps, now she’s the one. She’s the nicest girl in the world. I’m so happy for her. She got, I think, inspired by me and I’m sure so many people watching tonight are going to get inspired by her. She’s carrying that on and it’s amazing.”
In reality, this transition happened two years ago, when Summers-Newton took gold and a world record in the same event at the World Championships, ahead of Simmonds. Despite being a debutant in Tokyo, the 19-year-old was the overriding favourite and had every expectation on her shoulders.
The only surprise of the day came during the morning heats, when Ukraine’s Yelyzaveta Mereshko broke Summers-Newton’s 2019 world record to qualify for the final fastest. But as Summers-Newton watched her record tumble, it was Simmonds that was there to reassure her that she would take it back by the evening.
“We were getting interviewed when the other girl swam, and I was like oh no, my world record is gone,” Summers-Newton, who like Simmonds has achondroplasia, said. “And Ellie was like, ‘honestly you can do it’.
“Having her there is really supportive and comforting in a way, knowing she’s done it for such a long time. She’s such a staple in para sport.”
The pep talk worked, and Summers-Newton’s 2minutes 56.68seconds beat Mereshko’s world record from that morning by over two tenths of a second, and officially announced herself as the new face of British Paralympic swimming.
Mereshko picked up silver and Germany’s Verena Schott took bronze, while fellow Briton Grace Harvey finished behind Simmonds, in sixth.
Both Simmonds and Summers-Newton will compete in the 400m freestyle and 100m breaststroke – the latter this Saturday – with the veteran looking to go out in style ahead of her expected retirement.
“I’m completely happy,” Simmonds said of Thursday’s race. “This championships for me I’ve been working really hard with my psychologist, been having a few low points and stuff, [and it’s] been really helpful and got me here all fit and happy. I want to enjoy this competition and make the most of it.”
Meanwhile, Paralympic debutant Kearney added gold to her medal tally in Tokyo, winning the S5 100m freestyle in a blistering time of 1min 16.36seconds. It was an upgrade on her silver the previous day in the 200m, and continued her comeback story after being told by doctors on two occasions that she would never swim again.
After her race, Kearney credited her mother Amanda with getting her back in the pool after a progression in her dystonia condition left her with very little mobility in her legs.
“After I had to withdraw from Rio I had about a year out of the pool,” Kearney, 24, said. “I thought my career was over. I just focused on uni and re-learning how to live independently with my impairment, but my mum encouraged me to get back in the pool because she had faith that I would find a way back. I didn’t at that time.
“If it wasn’t for her I would never have got back in the pool – I never dreamt of getting back to this level. It took her a good six months, but my old coach created a masters swimming club, so my mum started training with them. That’s really how she got me back – getting me to go and watch.”
The gold, she said, was made all the more sweet after missing out on London 2012 and Rio 2016 through injury: “It’s made everything worth it.”
It was heartbreaking deja vu for team-mate Suzanna Hext though, who was pipped to a bronze medal at the touch to finish the race in fourth – as she had been the previous night. She revealed on Thursday though that her preparations had been hampered, after she had to be rushed off in an ambulance after competing on Wednesday when she suffered a serious asthma attack.
Lee Pearson delivers again for ParalympicsGB to claim 12th equestrian gold medal
By Gareth A Davies in Tokyo
“Love has to prevail,” declared Sir Lee Pearson after winning his 12th Paralympic equestrian gold medal and his first here in Japan in what proved a majestic ride in the individual test grade II.
Pearson, knighted in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to equestrianism, showed why he has become not only a superstar in the sport but far beyond, with the Paralympic pioneer underlining why he has carved out a reputation as a bold, open and inspirational representative of societal change since his Paralympics debut at Sydney 2000.
“I’m the most abnormal, normal person,” he explained, the new father revealing he had “cried in the arena” after his performance. One of the first sports people to be openly gay, Pearson rode Breezer (as in Bacardi, he explained) a prancing home-bred 10-year-old gelding to post a score of 76.265 in the individual dressage to add to his significant and growing number of gongs. Two more medals are on the radar here for the 47-year-old, who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita – a condition which twists limbs and prevents tissue growing – and who was carried up the steps of 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980 after being awarded a ‘Children of Courage’ medal.
Any disability, physical, perceived or otherwise, has never affected the driven horseman – who is engaging and humorous company – from achieving anything he has set his ambition on and his victory on Thursday was a statement of triumph for the amazing stables he runs, leaping from his crutches to his quad bike, surrounded by a pack of yapping, noisy small dogs in Leek, Staffordshire.
“It was soft, harmonious but also as powerful as you can make it,” Pearson described of his gold-medal winning ride with Breezer. “We had a little jog in there, which I will have words with him about in the stables before the next event. But it is a bit like figure skating and gymnastics; it is power – but controlled power. If a figure skater added more power, they would be on their backside. If I added more power, I might be on mine.”
Pearson reflected on five Games, a knighthood, more than 20 world titles and now, a dozen gold Paralympic gongs. “I never, ever believed my life would be anywhere. Never believed my life would be where it was up to Sydney and afterwards. I always use this word, and I’m sorry I can’t think of another one, but it’s ‘surreal’. I never take anything for granted.”
On a triumphant day for British equestrianism here, Georgia Wilson, 25, took bronze on Sakura on her Paralympic debut, while in the evening session Sophie Wells riding Don Cara, a 12-year-old bay gelding, added a silver medal in the individual test grade V. “It’s brilliant having a superstar like Sir Lee around to compete against because he takes the pressure off you, you want to aspire to his level,” said Wilson. “And he is funny, too.”
But it was the serious stuff that proved the most inspiring. Pearson was asked by a local journalist about Japanese society not widely accepting or supporting LGBTQ rights, prompting a passionate response from the gold medal winner.
“I think anybody in any job, in any life situation, in any lifestyle, in the way that they feel, in this day and age, it’s a shame that people can’t be themselves. It’s a shame that people can’t accept their disability, can’t accept their sexuality and I think it’s sad that we still have countries that make people feel so awful about themselves.”
He added: “I’m not very political. I’ve made change just by being. Obviously me just being has made you realise my disability and my sexuality. But there are very important people out there who do chain themselves to gates and who do fight for rights and I wouldn’t be here if these people hadn’t fought. Sometimes society changes governments but sometimes also governments have to be brave and help change society.
“Whatever shape or form, I think love has to prevail. If you’re born with a disability, if you have a child with a disability, if you’re born with same-sex attraction, if your daughter comes out or your son, then just love them. Nobody wants to be different but we have to embrace different people because that’s society, that’s the world.”
Sir Lee will arise to compete for gold again tomorrow [Saturday], if selected in the team event, and on Monday.
Piers Gilliver beats Russian rival Maxim Shaburov to claim gold in wheelchair fencing
By Molly McElwee
Great Britain’s Piers Gilliver won a sensational gold medal in wheelchair fencing, upgrading from the silver he went home with in 2016. On a day where gold medals were flying across the Olympic park for ParalympicsGB, in swimming, cycling and equestrian, the 26-year-old added to the celebrations by bettering Russia’s Maxim Shaburov 15-11 in the Epee A class.
Gilliver, who has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (a genetic condition that affects the body’s connective tissue), won the world title two years ago in Cheongju, South Korea in the same event, but had begun his Tokyo 2020 with a sub-par last-16 elimination in the sabre on Day One. He bounced back in impressive fashion on Day 2 though, adding the Paralympic title to his repertoire.
“I’m a little overwhelmed but very happy,” he said. “Maxim has been a huge rival of mine for years, so I just focused on my own game plan and executed it as best I could.” It pushed Great Britain’s gold medal tally to six after two days of competition, and up to second in the overall medal standings behind China. Team-mate Dimitri Coutya also claimed a medal, with bronze in the men’s category B, beating Belarusian defending champion Andrei Pranevich in the third-placed decider, 15-11.
But there was disappointment for two-time bronze medallist Zoe Newson, who missed out the podium in the powerlifting, falling just short in fourth place. The 29-year-old came third at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, and had been in the bronze medal position going into the second lift in Tokyo with a successful 94kg opener. But she was pushed out of the medals after two failed attempts at 97kg. Newson, who has dwarfism and was competing in the -41kg classification, was far off her personal best of 102kg.
“I’m a bit disappointed in my performance but I have to move on and focus on the next competition now,” a tearful Newson said, adding that she “thought she had let everyone down”. As her first Games since having her son Duncan in 2019, Newson said she has found being away from him and her partner Dan difficult in Tokyo.
China’s Guo Lingling was the standout winner of the event, smashing the world record twice, with her 108kg and 109kg lifts – 11kg more than her closest competitor. Elsewhere hosts Japan claimed the first gold medal of the Paralympics, with swimmer Takayuki Suzuki winning the men’s S4 100m freestyle at the Aquatics Centre.