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Chris Hallam: Athlete whose wheelchair exploits made him an inspiration to thousands

Chris Hallam was a Paralympic champion and medal-winner in both wheelchair racing and in swimming, competing in three Paralympics. He went on to become an inspiration to thousands of disabled athletes, and the public, throughout the country. He was a pioneer at the forefront of promoting disability sport long before the internet and social media, at a time when its profile was still comparatively low. With his trademark sunglasses, which earned him the nickname "Shades", his long, blond locks and his bulging, tanned biceps, Hallam cut a dashing figure in the London Marathon, which he won twice, in 1985 and 1987, setting course records both times.

It was on one such occasion that the teenaged Tanni Grey, later Dame Tanni Grey and now Baroness Grey-Thompson, was inspired by his exploits, saying to her mother, "I'm going to do the London Marathon one day." She won it six times. She admired him, she said, as "the quintessential Paralympic rebel… a maverick, a cool dude, who just stuck two fingers up at the world, and challenged the image of disability. Apart from being a great racer, competing in his multi-coloured lycra, he partied, and was a wild child throughout his career."

Hallam was revered by many as one who had, as Grey-Thompson put it, "broken down all the barriers" that enabled others to go into wheelchair athletics. He was regarded as the first of the true professionals in Paralympic sport and was believed to be the first disabled athlete to receive sponsorship.

Hallam was a consummate athlete who prepared for every event down to the smallest detail. His illustrious career took him around the globe and saw him compete at the Stoke Mandeville Summer Games in 1984, and in three consecutive Paralympic Games, firstly in Seoul in 1988, which was a huge milestone for the Paralympic movement; it was here that the Paralympic Games were first held directly after the Olympic Summer Games, in the same host city and using the same facilities. This set a precedent for Games to come, and Hallam represented Britain in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. He also raced for Wales at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland and in 1994 in Victoria, Canada.

Early recognition was hard to come by. Grey-Thompson recalled how in 1990 in Auckland, while representing Wales, they had had trouble getting hold of a team tracksuit each. "The Welsh Commonwealth Games Association refused to give either of us any kit because their view was we were 'Mickey Mouse' athletes. We had no recognition but they eventually gave us one vest between the pair of us." Grey-Thompson wore the vest for her 800 metres race before handing it over, unwashed, for Hallam to use in his 1500 metre race the same day. "It was something from the Dark Ages," she said. They were both victorious.

Born in Cwmbran, South Wales, Christopher Hallam was mad on sport from an early age and liked to try everything available. His first love was swimming and he was a decent breaststroker. As a lifeguard at the local pool he would get up at 6am to go for a run before putting in a few hours training in the pool. But when he was 17 his life was thrown into turmoil following a motorcycle accident which left him paralysed from the chest down; the crash had snapped his spine two days before he was due to be selected for the Welsh swimming team.

Although now paraplegic, Hallam realised, he recalled, that he "wanted some independence – a hard thing to achieve in a wheelchair – but sport offered the best chance." He worked hard on his rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville hospital and became involved in swimming again. Within three months he was back training with the same coach – "only I was half the speed I had been." In 1982 he won the 50m breaststroke at the World Disabled Games and at the 1984 Paralympics took breaststroke gold; he was still breaking records in 1995.

After his swimming golds, however, Hallam was, underwhelmed. "Hardly anybody heard about it,"he recalled. "I hoped by achieving a gold I might get noticed and attract sponsorship." That was when he decided to become a marathon man, an unfamiliar notion in Britain at that time, but catching on in the United States. Over the years he spent a few months each year taking part in marathons across the Atlantic and earning good money, much needed for training and living expenses in the UK.

A thoroughbred among athletes, Hallam left nothing to chance with his meticulous planning and hard training. He spent long hours in his local pool, where a lane was cleared for him, and hours in the wheelchair on local hills and roads, or strapped to his chair on his treadmill at home. But, he said, "the treadmill can't really prepare you for the hills. Going uphill you can slow a wheelchair to 3mph as against 15mph on the flat. Downhill speeds can take you up to 30. Then there's the wind: you offer a lot more resistance in a chair than on foot." It was this attention to detail and single-mindedness that made him such a hugely inspirational hero to thousands.

His fellow Paralympian John Harris recalled that he got to know Hallam after his accident and called him the "ultimate hero" and the toughest man he had ever met. In 1986, he completed a 400-mile wheelchair ride in 11 days around Wales to raise money for a centre for the disabled at UWIC (now Cardiff Metropolitan University).

He became Disabled Sports Personality of the Year in 1986 and was appointed MBE in 1988 for his contribution to disability sport. He retired from competitive sport in 1996 and took up coaching, developing a number of wheelchair racers within the Disability Sport Wales academy system.

Jim Munkley, a fellow British team member in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta, said, "Chris will be remembered as a true legend... Not only was he was true competitor in every sense of the word, but he was also a great character to be around and to have known."

Hallam, who had a kidney transplant over a decade ago, had been suffering from cancer.

Christopher Hallam, athlete and coach: born Cwmbran 1964 or 1965; MBE 1998; died Pontypool 16 August 2013.