Looking back on Rio 2016
With only 12 places available in my event, to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games I had to either win direct qualifiers Zonal/World Championships or rank within the top 6 of the world rankings after the automatic and host nation places had been awarded. The qualifying period for this ran from Sept 2014 - May 2016 and I was thrilled to secure an early lead in the rankings, winning GB's first Wheelchair fencing World Cup Gold in the first event and going on to complete a hat-trick in the next two events.
In 2015 UK Sport put individual funding in place for me, supporting me till Rio, although my focus was always on epee, I continued to train and compete in foil, and eventually qualified in this second weapon too.
It was an incredibly stressful time for me as I was not only aiming for my first games but I also needed to establish a full time training programme, on limited funds, and a short period of time until the games, this meant a lot of change but the training program I was able to access in this time made a huge difference to my performance.
It took most of 2015 to get an established programme off the ground and with a change of lead staff in early 2016, all whilst trying to remain at the top of my game, it really did test me but it was worth it in the end.
I had the fantastic team of Performance director Piers Martin, Coach Pete Rome and nutritionist/lifestyle Renee McGregor, as well as Strength and conditioning, Physio and sports psychology supporting me from my base at Bath University, and so when I qualified ranked World No 1, I went out to the Games with my team feeling that I had put all of my preparations in place, knew what to expect and was ready to cope with anything.
Part of understanding what to expect at a Games is down to a lot of research and analysis, It came down to finite details, understanding all the venues, environment, timings, every detail both on and off piste. From a fencing perspective, we worked on fine tuning technique, tactics, scenarios of opponents and video analysis. Training became more intense and when the final qualifiers were announced, we were then able to focus on the eleven fencers that I was to meet. At this stage, It was important not to become complacent and to remember that although the number of competitors was small in comparison to other competitions, these fencers were the best of the best and putting in the same preparations this was where the hard work really began!
From the moment you receive notification of your selection to compete at the Games, you realise that you transition from being an athlete that represents GB in their chosen sport to a member of the bigger Paralympic movement and it was an amazing feeling to be part of the bigger picture that is Paralympics GB!
The flight to Rio was great, travelling together on 5th September, as a team and I am sure that there were many mixed emotions on that flight for me, it was a mix of excitement to be living my dream and not wanting to miss a thing & to enjoy every minute but also immense pressure, I had a job to do and needed to keep to the plan and not lose focus.
When we arrived at the village and had settled into our accommodation. Paralympics GB had done a great job of making everything as comfortable as possible, we were able to take in the sheer scale of the Athlete Village, it was huge! There was such a great buzz & energy about the place too, athletes from all over the World, together in one place, with exactly the same goal as me to win! I had a plan and I stuck to it. I found this essential, it would be too easy to lose focus and become distracted otherwise. I went into my competition day feeling well prepared and as ready as I could.
Tuesday 13th September – Men's Cat A Epee.
I knew what to expect, after researching and preparing both physically and psychologically for every aspect of the day, then finally, out onto the field of play but that moment, when I came out of the tunnel into the arena was amazing and it was at this stage that I was glad of my preparations!
As soon as the competition got underway, I felt in familiar territory, it was another competition and I treated it as such, but at the back of my mind I knew the Paralympic format is very unforgiving, I had a great start to my poules with some 5-0 victories and eventually winning all matches to be ranked No2 behind Sun Gang CHN.
I drew Matteo Betti ITA in my first D.E match, where I managed to keep the lead throughout and eventually finish the match 15 - 11 This saw me through to the Semi-Final where I met the strong opponent Al Madhkhoori IRQ he initially took the lead and at one point I was 7 – 4 down, but was able to keep my head and take back control of the match, going on to win 15-10 and so to the Final.
It was a daunting moment when I came out for the last time that day into the arena to fence for Gold and although it was an extremely close match with points going either way hit for hit, Sun was able to get two hits clear and took the victory 15-13 and Paralympic Gold. Sun is a formidable opponent and although I was gutted to lose, I gave my all and he was simply the better fencer on the day.
You don't get long to gather your thoughts before the Medal presentations but it was the proudest moment of my life, taking Silver at my first games and to know that I had brought home GB's first Paralympic Medal for 24 years took some getting used to it really did take a while to sink in! Also, I was surprised by the amazing support that I had from the crowd and people back home I still had a job to do, having qualified in Foil also, the following day saw me compete again. This was always going to be a difficult day, my training had been so focused on epee, as well as the inevitable struggles in focusing after such an eventful previous day. so it was no surprise when I did not have a good competition, losing in the early stages. Although It was not the result I had hoped for, I was proud to have qualified and participated in foil on the biggest stage. I was then able to enjoy the whole games experience, having some downtime but also using it as a learning experience for the next Paralympics in Tokyo 2020.
So to sum it up, the Games experience was unforgettable, the preparation was unbelievably hard at times but completely worth it! I have met some fantastic people, and worked with a talented and determined team. To win a Paralympic medal has long been a distant aim, so to achieve it really was dream come true and to be able to represent your country in a sport that you love on the biggest stage is certainly reward indeed!