My name is Lizzie Tench and I am a Paratriathlete competing internationally with the GB Paratriathlon Squad. I sustained a spinal cord injury in 2012 whilst cycling when I was hit by a trailer from an overtaking car resulting in a broken back, several other injuries and paralysis from the waist down.
In my pre-injury days, I was very active and, amongst other things, enjoyed swimming, cycling and running, but had never competed in a triathlon, although it had always been my intention to do so. I attended a Talent ID Day with British Paratriathlon in March 2014 and was selected for the GB Paratriathlon Talent Squad. I made my international debut in Madrid in September 2014 and won a Silver medal. I went on to win British titles in Paratriathlon and Paraduathlon, a Bronze medal at World Championships in 2015, the European title in 2016 and a Silver medal at the 2016 World Championships. I am currently ranked No. 1 in the World in my class (PT1 women).
Although Paratriathlon made its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, the crushing announcement that PT1 women (wheelchair athletes) were not one of the classifications who had been selected to compete at the Games came in October 2014. I thought then that the Rio dream was over, until British Triathlon asked me to participate in the Paralympic Inspiration Programme (PIP).
PIP is part of a partnership between the British Paralympic Association (BPA), Help for Heroes and the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) for various Paralympic sports. It is jointly funded by the BPA, Help for Heroes, the Cadbury Foundation and Boshier-Hinton. It was first launched at London 2012 and in Rio this year, 21 athletes and seven coaches across thirteen Paralympic sports were given an experience of several days at the Games with the aim of providing developing athletes with knowledge that will prepare us for a future Paralympic Games. It also gave an experience of a multi-sport environment, and exposure to some of the unique aspects of a Paralympic Games, including the Athletes’ Village, media spotlight and mixed zone and transport systems. Additionally, there was a rigorous curriculum with lessons about nutrition, media, anti-doping, competition planning and goal setting. Athletes were nominated by their NGBs based on a number of criteria, including being on a development pathway with an anticipated performance trajectory for the 2018 or 2020 Paralympic Games.
My PIP experience started on the aeroplane, when I had the good fortune to be upgraded to Premium Economy and sat next to three times Paralympic Swimmer, Graham Edmunds. He was full of great advice about how I could improve my technique in the water and I bumped into him again at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium and he had even more advice for me there.
My ‘roomie’ for the week was Menna Fitzpatrick, an 18-year-old visually impaired alpine skier who, luckily for me, was highly organised and had plug adaptors that actually fitted the Brazilian sockets (unlike me!) She was also the kind of roommate that I would choose to share with at a Games, since she was positive, fun to be around and, most importantly, emotionally stable!
We started the week with a visit to British House, where British athletes can meet with their Nearest and Dearest, and we met Penny Morden (Minister for Disabled People). It was then on to the Opening Ceremony, which was a spectacular show of light, colour, sound and visuals, with some very touching moments involving some of the athletes and children in the ceremony. On the downside, it was long and exhausting (especially after a long-haul flight and an early start). I decided that, as an athlete, I would probably not want to attend the Opening Ceremony as it would impact on my performance, but I would definitely be up for the celebrations at the Closing Ceremony after the work had been done.
The next day, we went to the Olympic Park and watched some of the swimming heats. Later that night, Ollie Hynd (GB) went on to set a new World Record in the S8 400m Freestyle final. Gold medals were also won on the first evening by Bethany Firth in the S14 Women’s 100m Backstroke (World Record), with fellow Brit Jessica-Jane Applegate winning Bronze in the same race, and the Brazilian poster boy, Daniel Dias winning Gold in the Men’s S5 200m Freestyle with Andrew Mullen from GB taking the Bronze. We caught the last part of GB’s first basketball match against Algeria, in which GB dominated. We wandered around the Olympic Park and were surprised how many of the people of Rio de Janeiro, known affectionately as ‘Carioca’ wanted their photograph taken with us since we were wearing the GB PIP kit.
The highlight of my day was track cycling at the Velodrome and witnessing Megan Giglia (GB) win Gold in the Women’s C1-2-3 3000m Individual Pursuit, Dame Sarah Storey winning the Gold medal in dominant fashion in the Women’s C5 3000m Individual Pursuit and Crystal Lane taking Silver. The drama was not over though, as Steve Bate and his pilot, Adam Duggleby, won Gold in the Men’s B (visually impaired) 4000m Individual Pursuit. The Velodrome was a spectacular venue, as you get a great view of the action wherever you sit. I was fortunate that my mentor for the week, Rik Waddon, two times Paralympic cyclist at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, was with us as he was able to explain the minutiae of what was happening and to point out technical details. We were also privileged to be allowed to sit in the Paralympic Family viewing areas, with hospitality. The free drinks were great, but the carb overload of canapés and sandwiches for lunch and dinner every day for a week does nothing for your energy levels!
The following day, we went to the Athletes’ Village for a tour, including a tour of the British Athletes’ block. It was strange seeing athletes who I had never met but had been inspired by, such as Richard Whitehead MBE, a double amputee blade runner. We had our photo taken with Crystal Lane and I got the opportunity to handle her Silver medal from the track cycling as well as the Paralympic mascot, Tom, who is “a fusion of Brazil’s diverse plants, and was created from the energy unleashed following the massive explosion of joy when Rio was selected for the Paralympic Games.” “Tom’s leafy mane is tropical foliage with delicate antennae that express emotion, and he is constantly transforming, just as nature is always striving for light as it grows and overcomes obstacles.” He was named after the legendary bossa nova musician, Tom Jobim, following a national vote.
We ate in the giant food hall and I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit star-struck as I witnessed Tatyana McFadden (five times Paralympian for USA) eating her lunch. I wouldn’t describe the food as ‘haute cuisine’, but it would be OK if you kept it simple, as there was plenty of choice.
The next two days were taken up with watching Paratriathlon make its debut; firstly, the men, followed by the women. Out of the British athletes, Andy Lewis (PT2) took Gold for the men and Alison Patrick (PT5) and her guide, Hazel Smith, took Silver with Melissa Reid (PT5) and her guide, Nicole Waters, sprinting for Bronze in a very impressive and exciting finish as the US athlete, Elizabeth Baker, faded close to the finish line due to the heat. Both days, the athletes had to race in searing heat, with some needing medical attention at the finish. Lauren Steadman won an impressive Silver in the PT4 class, being pipped to the post on the run by Grace Norman (USA).
Watching the Paratriathlon and, indeed, being a part of the Games was a double-edged sword. I couldn’t help feeling that, if only PT1 women had been selected, I could’ve had the opportunity to be selected and a shot at winning a Paralympic medal. I am 42 now and I am acutely aware that I am not getting any younger! PIP is all about preparing the next cohort of Paralympians and getting us on track for Tokyo 2020. I take my inspiration, as ever, from Karen Darke, twice Paralympian and explorer who, at 45-years-old, continues to be a great force in handcycling and a shining light out in the World. Karen has competed internationally in Paratriathlon and has even completed an Ironman distance race! I didn’t see Karen’s race unfortunately, as she raced after we left Rio, but she won a Gold medal in the H1-2-3 Time Trial despite having to stop due to her chain falling off and having a shoulder injury. She never ceases to amaze me. Karen also competed in the H1-2-3 Road Race, but had to pull out after a competitor bumped her draft bar too hard, resulting in it falling off, so she was not allowed to continue.
Over the two days of the Paratriathlon, we were also lucky enough to catch the Men’s 65kg Powerlifting in which Paul Kehinde from Nigeria smashed the World Record twice and lifted 220kg! He made it look easy and I believe he could’ve lifted even more! All of us ‘PIPers’ were enthralled and for most people it was one of the surprise highlights. I, for one, had never expected to be so captivated by Powerlifting. The showmanship and focus of the athletes was a sight to behold and to be inspired by. We also caught Kadeena Cox (GB) winning Gold in the Women’s C4-5 500m Time Trial, setting a new World Record, and even more swimming. We saw some of Jordanne Whiley’s Second Round wheelchair tennis match against the Brazilian, Natalia Mayara. Whiley won 2-0, but it was interesting to observe how the pressure of a home crowd supporting Mayara very loudly and enthusiastically affected play. The athletics highlight came in the form of Richard Whitehead winning the men’s T42 200m and fellow Brit, David Henson MBE taking the Bronze medal. David Henson had his right leg amputated above the knee and his left leg through the knee after stepping on a hidden improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in 2011.
The final day of the Paralympic Inspiration Programme saw us thinking about performing under pressure and Ben Quilter (two-times Paralympic Judoka) giving a talk about mental preparation before competing. We considered how PIP will impact on our future performances as athletes. Personally, I will have a more robust plan for mental and emotional readiness to meet the demands of performing under pressure.
I realised that the Paralympics is the culmination of all of an athlete’s training and preparation so, by the time they get there, they should feel fully ready to compete at the highest level and have left no stone unturned.
As a programme, I would sum up PIP as experiential, informative and a massive privilege.
And as a final word, Steve Crowley (PT4 – Paratriathlon), Diccon Edwards (former professional rugby player turned coach) and I have come up with 10 tips for performing under pressure…
1) Have a race/competition plan
2) Have strategies in place for managing the environment
3) Find out as much as possible about the competition environment beforehand
4) Control the ‘controllables’
5) Keep your routine as close to your normal routine as possible
6) Mentally rehearse your performance
7) Do the course ‘recces’
8) Stick to your processes
9) Focus on your own performance
10) Believe in yourself