Plus: Swimming silver for Ellie Challis, Great Britain’s youngest Paralympian in Tokyo
Great Britain beat favourites the United States to take the gold medal in their first Paralympic wheelchair rugby final, despite being stripped of funding after the Rio Games.
The thrilling 54-49 victory marked a significant moment for British Paralympic team sport.
It was the first team gold medal in the modern era since the Olympics and Paralympics became aligned under one organising committee.
The result pivoted on a crucial steal with three minutes remaining, Stuart Robinson going over for a try to put his team 47-44 up, after GB had led for almost the entire match.
The three-try advantage would be one they would not relinquish. Robinson, a former RAF patrol commander, lost his legs when his military vehicle was blown up by a Taliban roadside bomb on a perilous ammunition run in Helmand.
Jim Roberts top-scored with 24 tries while Robinson crossed the line 14 times as Britain produced a faultless tactical victory.
But the Welshman insisted it had been a team effort, adding: “Both of our 3.5s absolutely performed today. They took the load off my shoulders completely.
“Ryan Cowling had an absolutely phenomenal game. Jonny Coggan has been probably the best 0.5 in the world now, for the best part of 20 years probably, and it’s so nice to see him get some reward.
“I really enjoy the tactics of the game. You have to really slow it down, make it a thinking man’s game – that’s why USA are so good; they are one of the smartest teams.
“We knew they had a strong defence and our main goal was to try to stop them using that, because they would get turnovers against us using that.”
On the lack of funding after Rio, Roberts added: “UK Sport funding is amazing. But it was heartbreaking. I didn’t disagree with the funding cut.
“Why would you fund 12 athletes to win one medal when you could fund one swimmer who could win five medals? To me, it makes financial sense so I was annoyed but I didn’t disagree with it.”
He added: “I’m just glad that all of our sponsors and supporters back home were able to keep it going. We have an amazing chief executive, David Pond, who’s retiring.
“The amount of work that he put in to get the funding, to all the sponsors we’ve had along the way, they’ve ensured that we’ve had a programme that has been competitive and got us to tournaments, got us to camps, and paid for equipment. It’s not a cheap sport and it’s so good to see that all that hard work that everyone behind the scenes [put in] has paid off.”
Chris Ryan, the team captain, added on funding being cut since Rio: “It was tough, I’m not going to lie. We had to cut back on a few things. We’ve got a brilliant team of staff around us, some work in formidable pay and they were brilliant throughout it all.
“Then we did get some funding back towards the cycle, and that just really helped us make that final push. The quality was always there. We managed to get through it and to win gold through the journey we’ve been through is just incredible.
“In some ways, it made us grow. We grew as a team, grew as players, grew as staff, and we realised what we had to do to work. It’s not all about money, performing well at sport, but my god, it helps.”
Back on court, the team enjoyed an emotional, thrilling end to a long journey to gold. “We knew there would be some amazing teams here,” explained Roberts. “The USA are a class act, and it was just amazing to meet them in the final.
“They always beat us in the major tournaments and it was nice to put a nail in that one.”
On claiming a first team gold medal, Ryan added: “We knew we were good, but we had never got over that hurdle in a major event. We were chatting last night – our game against Japan, that was the best we ever played and it was probably on our biggest ever stage.
“It’s unbelievable – they’re getting better. As we’re going out through these games, they were just getting better and better.”
It really is quite incredible. Great Britain have always finished outside the medals at the Paralympic Games, losing bronze-medal play-offs in 2004 and 2008.
Here, Great Britain’s heroes in the sport known darkly as ‘murderball’, for its collisions, truly rolling mauls, and athletes literally tackling disability, pulled off a huge triumph of tactics, will and skill, against a lack of funding. That will all change now.
Relaxed approach pays dividends with swimming silver for Challis
Great Britain’s youngest Paralympian in Tokyo Ellie Challis won a sublime silver medal, on a night of mixed fortunes for her team in the pool on Sunday.
Challis’s podium place in the S3 50m backstroke, with a personal best time of 55.11seconds, was a shock even to her. She has made a habit of “coming from nowhere” though. In her international debut in 2019 – aged just 15 – she also clinched a podium place at the World Championships with a bronze, and after this silver medal, she will never be able to fall under the radar again. She said her success was testament to how relaxed she has been in Tokyo.
“I’m the youngest, the lowest class, it’s been fun and there’s no pressure on me,” Challis, who lost all her limbs to meningitis aged five, said. “I didn’t really expect anything, making my international debut at 15 and now making my Paralympic debut at 17 was quite a shock. I always said Tokyo was the goal, but everyone told me Paris. To make it here at 17 was a really happy moment, let alone go home with a silver medal.”
Challis’s performance was a bright light on a difficult night for some of the British team at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. The 34pt 4x100m freestyle quartet were disqualified for a takeover infringement, after finishing in fourth, while Friday’s gold medallist Hannah Russell could only manage sixth in the S13 50m freestyle, after being put into a higher classification than in Rio, where she won the title.
But there were other medals, Louise Fiddes claiming silver in the SB14 100m breaststroke, and Scott Quinn taking bronze in the men’s equivalent event, for athletes with intellectual impairments. Though a downgrade on his silver in Rio, the 31-year-old revealed afterwards the unimaginably difficult fortnight of preparations he had endured.
Firstly, he was forced to isolate during the holding camp in Suzuka, missing 12 training sessions, when a member of the swimming squad’s support team tested positive after arriving in Japan. He also got the unfortunate news that his father back home had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I’ll be honest, the last two weeks have been hard,” he said. “Emotionally, it has been a hard journey. Isolation puts things into perspective, My grandmother is 97 and she has been in hospital, and my dad was told he has got cancer which is so hard to take.
“If I had 12 sessions consistently in the pool, like I have been all season, I probably would have been quicker. I am gutted not getting a personal best. But it puts life into perspective and I am so humble to race here.”
Gold medallist Skelley: ‘Judo saved me from the darkest part of my life’
By Oliver Brown in Tokyo
Chris Skelley burst into tears as he absorbed the emotion of a judo gold 11 years on from losing his eyesight. The 28-year-old, whose vision has deteriorated due to ocular albinism, found his ambitions of becoming a car mechanic dashed but turned his passion for the martial art into his life’s work, finally achieving the Paralympic title he had long craved.
“I was in the darkest part of my life, because everything left me, and the only thing that remained was my judo,” he said, after victory over American Ben Goodrich in the -100kg final at the Nippon Budokan. “It was a dogged, horrible fight. But what I love about this sport is that it’s ruthless. You’ve got another man trying to rip your head off.”
Elliott Stewart, a former teacher whose father Dennis had claimed judo bronze at the Seoul Olympics, took silver in the -90kg category.