A tearful Alfie Hewett admitted his Paralympic future is “out of his hands” as a review into whether his disability qualifies him to play threatens to end his wheelchair tennis career aged just 23.
Hewett’s dreams of ever winning a Paralympic gold medal could well have ended on Friday, when he and doubles partner Gordon Reid were forced to settle for silver in a marathon final against France’s Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer.
Though Hewett faces Reid in the singles bronze medal match on Saturday, and will go on to compete at the US Open next week, these events could be the last he ever plays in the sport. Hewett has been on borrowed time since 2019, when the International Tennis Federation changed the rules, deeming his disability not severe enough to qualify. Hewett, who has Perthes disease, which affects his hips and pelvis, challenged the ruling and is awaiting the result, which is expected by the end of the season – delayed by a year because of the pandemic.
“I’ve always tried to put it to the back of my mind and just focus on the tennis,” he said after he and Reid’s 6-4 0-6 7-6(3) loss. “The thought of that right now gets me upset so I’m trying not to talk about it to be honest.
“I can try and be as positive as I can but it’s not in my hands at all. It’s up to the guys at the ITF, the IPC, whoever is sorting out the criteria, to do their thing. We will see.”
The current world No 2 and a five-time major singles champion, Hewett has established himself as a big-time player on the circuit. His partnership with Reid this season, winning all three grand slam doubles titles so far, has been a marker of their close bond too: “The fact that we’ve put in seven, eight years of work together, we’ve had a lot of highs and some lows as well, but it’s been an absolute pleasure to be on the court with Gordon – I couldn’t have asked for a better partnership.”
A gold medal in Tokyo would have kept them on course for a historic sweep of all doubles majors in 2021, but they were stopped short by the French pair. Reigning champions Houdet and Peifer also beat Reid and Hewett to gold in Rio, but this time it took an epic three-and-a-half hours for a winner to emerge.
Hewett and Reid were on top initially, taking an early break in the first set, but Houdet and Peifer fought back to take it 7-5. The momentum swiftly turned the Britons’ way in the second though, winning six consecutive games to even things up. The French duo were disjointed throughout that period, at one point Houdet’s wayward shot even hit Peifer in the face, sparking a heated exchange between the team-mates.
Meanwhile Hewett and Reid were unplayable at times, evidenced in Hewett careening into the advertising hoardings to chase down a ball, before blasting a cross-court winner over the net. He held his arms aloft to the empty stands in celebration, but the joy was short-lived. Despite hurtling to a 3-0 lead in the decider – the Brits winning their ninth game in a row – their opponents found a way to claw back to 4-4.
Peifer and 50-year-old Houdet, who has won a doubles medal at every Games since Beijing 2008, pushed the match to a tiebreak, which they were by far the better players in, to eventually seal the victory. Hewett and Reid were disconsolate after the match, tears flowing as they both covered their faces with their towels. “Right now, we’re so devastated and flat, and emotional as well,” Reid said. “It’s pretty much the only title we haven’t won together and we both wanted it so badly. We fought to the last point and it’s not easy to take now.”
British player Jordanne Whiley had more joy though in her own epic match, winning her first Paralympic medal in singles. Her hard-fought bronze medal came at the expense of Holland’s Aniek van Koot, who she beat 6-4 6-7 6-4 over two-and-a-half hours.
‘We need more races – it’s a token event of the year’
By Oliver Brown, Chief Sports Writer
Nathan Maguire, the anchorman of Britain’s silver medallists in the universal 4×100 metres relay, made an impassioned plea on Friday night for Paralympians to receive more than tokenistic treatment in athletics’ global programme.
As he led home the British quartet to third place in a compelling final, upgraded to second when the Chinese were disqualified for an illegal baton exchange, the wheelchair racer urged World Athletics to elevate disability sport beyond novelty status. “We need more races,” Maguire said. “I’m lucky that when I get home, I will compete in Zurich. But it’s a token event of the year. Other than that, I don’t get any competitions around Europe. Everything else is domestic.”
The relay marked an invigorating addition to these Tokyo Games, incorporating athletes with all types of disability, from limb deficiency to visual impairment. Jonnie Peacock, celebrating a second medal here after his individual bronze in the T64 100m, echoed Maguire’s appeal.
“At the London Paralympics, we showed that there was louder noise in the stadium than for the Olympics,” he said. “‘Thriller Thursday’ was louder than for Mo Farah’s last lap in the 5,000m. If that doesn’t tell you that the public love para-sports, nothing will. But meeting organisers don’t seem to agree. I hope one day they will.”
This relay, a first in Paralympic history, also signalled the retirement of Libby Clegg, whose deteriorating eye condition has left her with only peripheral vision. “I’m going to take some time out, but this is my last running competition, unless I dabble in a sports day when my son is at primary school,” she confirmed. “I’m privileged to be a part of this team. I won two Paralympics in Rio, and it didn’t make me happy. This, right now, is my proudest moment.” Paying tribute to her long-time guide, Chris Clarke, she said: “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to run. He’s shy, but he’s phenomenal – people don’t give him as much credit as he deserves.”
In the T64 high jump, Jonathan Broom-Edwards sealed gold for the British track and field team, while Owen Miller also won in the T20 1,500m with a superbly-judged final lap, describing the sensation as the “best day of my life”. His victory was achieved against a stacked field, including the world record-holder from the US, Michael Brannigan, despite this being his debut Paralympics and only his second international competition.
After a battle of the generations in the T61 200m, Richard Whitehead, the champion in London and Rio, had to settle for silver behind South Africa’s Ntando Mahlangu, 26 years his junior. “He’s 19, I’m 45 – age is but a number, right? Paralympic sport isn’t about classification, it’s about legacy.”
Hollie Arnold similarly failed to back up her gold five years ago in the F46 women’s javelin, taking bronze under driving rain at the National Stadium. Having acquired the dubious distinction of being the first contestant voted off last year’s series of *I’m a Celebrity*, she denied that her involvement in the reality series had affected her training. “It isn’t a regret,” she said. “I don’t want people on TV to shy away from disability. Mentally, I came out better than I thought I would.”
Rookie Beth Munro marks early Paralympic chance with historic para-taekwondo silver
By Gareth A Davies
Taekwondo rookie Beth Munro claimed a silver medal in just her fifth competitive international match. Despite a valiant challenge, she lost out on the Paralympic title to four-time world champion Lisa Gjessing, of Denmark, 32-14 in the women’s K44 -58kg final.
Yet what a rise for Munro, 28, from Liverpool, born missing her left hand, who was scouted in 2019 and admitted it was “amazing and life-affirming” to make it through to the Paralympic final.
As Munro faced world champion Gjessing, the gulf in experience was telling as the 43-year-old, with thousands of bouts under her belt from 20 years in the sport as an able-bodied and now Paralympic competitor, outthought and outgunned the plucky Briton.
Gjessing was a member of Denmark’s able-bodied taekwondo squad but developed cancer and had her left hand amputated in 2012. Thereafter the athlete, who also does legal work for the Danish police directorate, had to relearn her sport. “I was doing taekwondo when I was younger, then I stopped due to work and kids. Getting back into it, there was some adapting, because you use your whole body in taekwondo. But because it’s mostly about kicking, I can do most of what other people doing the sport can do.”
Munro was only brought into the squad as a candidate for the 2024 Games in Paris. The extra year’s delay due to the coronavirus pandemic saw the British fighter come on in the sport. Yet the gulf in class showed in the final.
Munro was 12-4 down after the first round, 21-8 after the second, and then Gjessing finished the bout after the third with an overall score of 32-14 for the historic medal, the first time women’s taekwondo has been a Paralympic sport.
Earlier, sweating but beaming after her 34-22 victory over Yujie Li of China in the semi-final, Munro explained: “Prior to 2019, I had never punched or kicked anyone in my life. I was scouted by Anthony Hughes of Disability Sport Wales, and from there, I joined the GB programme,” explained the former able-bodied netball player, who has a twin, Faye.
“Then I was recruited by British Taekwondo and I moved to Manchester. It has been a brilliant experience, I will be aiming for Paris in 2024 now but the next thing on my mind is to face-time with my twin and my family. My parents have had a marquee in the garden and everyone has been messaging, supporting and watching. It has been a brilliant experience, and although it is an individual sport, it was a team effort which got me here.”
From losing his leg in a horror football tackle to Paralympic bronze for Robert Oliver
By Gareth A Davies
Having lost his leg after “scoring a worldie in football” that required 17 surgeries, Robert Oliver can now call himself a Paralympic canoeing medallist after bronze in the men’s KL3 200m behind Ukrainian Paralympic champion Serhii Yemelianov.
A footballer during his teenage years, Oliver broke his leg in a match in 2008 and 17 operations and nine months later he had his leg amputated due to medical negligence. On his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016, he finished fifth in the men’s KL3 and the podium place on Friday, having finished +0.913 behind the gold medallist, was vindication of the work he has put in for these Games.
“Thirteen years later I can’t believe it, I never thought I would do this – I never thought I would be in a boat, let alone win a Paralympic medal, it’s crazy,” said the father of two. “A series of unfortunate events led to it but, from that moment, I’ve just gone from strength to strength. The first few months in hospital were tough. I was talking to the wall I’d been there so long. I didn’t want to admit I’d never play football again.”
Oliver also suffered an abdominal strain ahead of Friday’s race, a consequence of his operations when some of his stomach muscles were removed to help reconstruct his leg. He recounted: “I came up for a corner, which I had no right to do as a right-back, the ball popped out to the edge of the box and I volleyed it, it was the best goal I ever scored in my career,” he said, recalling his initial injury.
“As I contacted the ball, I was tackled and his studs went straight through my tibia and fibula, it was a clean break. I went to stand up and my leg turned around the wrong way. I didn’t expect nine months later I wouldn’t have a leg any more.”
Emma Wiggs sprinted to gold in the women’s KL2 200m canoe race to add to the same colour medal the 41-year-old claimed in Rio five years ago. Jeanette Chippington, ten years her senior and competing in her seventh Games having made her debut as a swimmer in Seoul in 1988, finished third behind Wiggs.