Naturally much of our summing up of the London 2012 Games will focus on the Gold Medal winners and the below is no exception. But there are also others who have been winners whilst not sealing the top spot on the podium or even leaving the games empty handed.
If Jessica Ennis was the face of the Olympic Games, Ellie Simmonds was undoubtedly the face of the Paralympics.
Long before most of us were practising our “Weirwolf” howls or learning how close Sarah Storey came to competing in the Olympic Games, Ellie Simmonds was the name to which most British Paralympic viewers turned for recognition.
Whereas in 2008 we had watched open-mouthed when a 13 year old girl announced herself on the scene as a new star, in 2012 we looked to a 17 year old veteran to bring home British success. And didn’t she just do it?
For many, yours truly included, one of the highlights of the Games will surely be the sight of Simmonds overhauling Victoria Arlen in the final 100m of the S6 400m freestyle to storm home and achieve gold on the first Saturday of the Games.
Her tears when interviewed afterwards helped to bring home, again, just how much these London 2012 Games have meant to those talented and driven enough to compete; that those same tears were mirrored in living rooms up and down the country and then in no evidence at all as Simmonds congratulated Arlen on her own return victory in the S6 100m is to be of no surprise at all.
That is the measure of the girl; the woman; the country’s youngest ever MBE. That is why Ellie Simmonds is the one we all turned to. This is the face of the Paralympic Games.
Steph Houghton began July 25th 2012 as a relatively unknown quantity in the Great British Olympic Team. Though her Games may have ended a short time after 9.00pm on Friday 3rd August, denied even a shot at the Bronze medal by a Canadian team who would go on to provide the greatest game of football an Olympic tournament has ever seen, Houghton burned her image into the memories of all who enjoyed a breakthrough in women’s football in the UK.
A forward thinking left-back, the very model of a modern attacking full back, Houghton ended the tournament with three goals from four games played, including match-winning strikes against New Zealand and Brazil in the tournament’s Group stages. Moreover, she emerged as one of the clear stars of a Team GB side who had perhaps gone into the tournament as footnotes before becoming one of the biggest draws of the early stages of the Games.
Others amongst her teammates may be equally deserving of mention, but it was Houghton that helped provide them with a platform and Houghton whose gleeful goal celebrations remain a key memory for in the Team GB collective.
There are many, many things that could be said about Beth Tweddle’s achievement in securing a bronze medal in the Gymnastics at London 2012, but this is one of those rare situations where some statistics really do tell the story. The eldest podium placed athlete for 50 years on the uneven bars (at 27 she was a full decade older than the gold medal winner), her first medal in three Olympic Games; Great Britain’s most decorated gymnast of all time.
Since breaking onto the Gymnastics scene as a 16 year old in the 2001 World Championships, Tweddle has been an ever present in international competition. Despite World Cup, World Championship, European Championship and Commonwealth Games successes, Olympic glory had eluded her entirely with a fourth placed finish in 2008 at the Beijing Games an agonising step away from the medal haul. For her to remain at the height of the sport, despite her near veteran status (a ridiculous thought when one considers she is still well shy of her 30th birthday) to finally claim a crowning medal in the home country Games is a remarkable achievement and well worthy of recognition.
London 2012, in both its Olympic and Paralympic flavours, has provided tales of inspiration, heartbreak and narrative perfection like no other sporting event in recent memory. It gave us iconic moments from day one. Gemma Gibbons gave the Games perhaps their most heart wrenching and memorable of these moments, while battling her way to a hard-fought silver medal.
Competing in the -78kg Judo event, Gibbons entered the tournament ranked 42nd in the world and – realistically – looking to put on a credible performance, perhaps not much more. Below weight for her category and entering the Games post-surgery, very few would have identified Gibbons as a medal prospect going into the tournament, yet her dedication, preparation and near-perfect execution allowed her to battle through to a semi-final against French judoka Audrey Tcheumeo, a bout she would have been expected to lose. Having forced extra time, Gibbons produced a sensational golden score ippon throw to clear her path to the final before sinking to her knees and mouthing ‘I love you, mum’ – who died of leukaemia in 2004. Gibbons would go on to lose in the final to America’s Kayla Harrison, yet the nature of her medal and the pathos generated amongst those that watched her will live far longer in the memory than the distinction between two shades of the shiny round trophy.
And finally to another Paralympic hero. The truth is, the decision between Cockroft and Sophie Christiansen was staggeringly difficult; both displayed tremendous courage, humour, charisma and a clear demonstration of everything that is amazing about the London 2012 Games. Cockroft just shades it, perhaps, for the manner in which her exuberance has characterised the wonder of London 2012 to so many people.
As with so many Paralympians, Cockroft was not supposed to be here. A victim of multiple cardiac arrests at birth, her parents were informed that she would never talk, nor even live beyond her teenage years. Yet now a charming, media-friendly and unabashedly engaging 20 year old, Hannah Cockroft is the winner of two gold medals in the T34 100m and 200m sprint races.
Like the greatest number of the British squad – and, indeed, Paralympians of all nations – Hannah Cockroft has helped to open public eyes not only to the way disabled athletes can be astonishing sportspeople, but the way in which they can be astonishing people too. If these Paralympics were about opening our eyes to disability in a new way, perhaps Hannah Cockroft best displayed the greatest achievement of all – it is the point we stopped looking at Paralympians as outstanding athletes considering their disability and began seeing them as outstanding athletes.
Images from 1) http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/olympics 2)http://www.sportinglife.com/london-2012 3)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/article-2182687 4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/article-2182687 5) http://www.thefa.com/News/team-gb/