Sophia Warner: Feeding the passion for Paralympics
There'll be a novel integration of Paralympic and Olympic competition in the season's first indoor meet on Saturday. UK Athletics' Sophia Warner tells Simon Turnbull why it had to be this way to keep the London legacy alive
It is a quarter of a century now since the opening indoor international athletics meeting of the season was first staged in Glasgow, the long-legged Linford Christie showing the sprinting power that was to get him on to the medal podium at the Seoul Olympics later that year, 1988, with record-breaking performances in the 60 metres, 200m and 4x200m relay for Great Britain against France. That was at the old Kelvin Hall in the west end of town, where the Bridgeton boy Jim Watt famously floored Alfredo Pitalua to claim the world lightweight boxing title back in 1979.
Across the Clyde in Parkhead, opposite Celtic Park in the east end, the brand spanking new £113m Emirates Arena is getting ready to host its first big event this Saturday. The British Athletics International match will feature medal winners from the London Olympics, such as the Cambridgeshire high jumper Robbie Grabarz and the US sprinter Carmelita Jeter.
The knockout stuff for the sell-out crowd and the BBC television audience, however, will be the appearance of some of the Paralympians who captured the Great British public's imagination last September.
"It's going to be really exciting," Sophia Warner says. "There are four events for Paralympic athletes on the programme and for the first time ever, I think, the people coming along to watch will know who the Paralympic athletes are as well as the able-bodied athletes. That's incredible to think, for someone like myself, who has come right through from when the interest was non-existent."
Warner will be on the sidelines on Saturday, watching the likes of Stef Reid and Libby Clegg, both silver medal winners at London 2012, lead the way in this groundbreaking integration of Paralympic and Olympic competition; there have been one-off races for disabled athletes before but never a showcased series, as there will be in all three of Britain's televised indoor athletics meetings this winter. Warner could just as well be taking part in the action herself, though.
The 38-year-old mother of two has cerebral palsy and has been a member of the GB Paralympic team since 1998. She won two medals at the World Championships in Auckland two years ago – bronze in the T35 100m, silver in the 200m – and was one of the home Paralympians who wowed the 80,000 crowds at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford last September.
Tantalisingly, Warner failed to make it to the podium, finishing fourth in the 100m and 200m, but in her role as commercial director of UK Athletics she has ensured that the Paralympic flame has kept burning brightly in the aftermath of London 2012.
Warner took time out from her burgeoning marketing career to concentrate on her preparations for last year's Games before taking up her key appointment with the domestic governing body of track and field in October. It is due in no small part to her drive that her fellow Paralympians have been given a deserved platform in the indoor season – and that Britain has been chosen as the venue for two of eight meetings, including the final, in a Diamond League-style Paralympic track-and-field grand prix circuit this summer (the exact details of which have yet to be formally announced by the International Paralympic Committee).
"When UK Athletics took me in as commercial director my focus was obviously going to be across the board, but I think they were very aware that I was always going to have a soft spot for disability sport," Warner says. "Therefore, my impact on that side of things was always going to be significant. I wasn't going to sit back and not let it progress. I was going to very much pioneer it forwards.
"I've come in as commercial director and worked very closely with the events team and I want to see these events up and running. I can't stress enough how much Paralympic sport means to us as an organisation.
"It's going to be a big year. I think we'll just see increasingly more and more events. The demand is certainly there. There is no question about that. The Paralympics showed that.
"I remember a friend saying to me, 'Oh, I haven't got a ticket yet to watch your race but I'll get one on the day'. And I do remember thinking, 'I don't think that will be possible.' But there was also a nagging doubt in the back of my head thinking, 'I hope the stadium's not empty.'
"I didn't really think it would be. I always had faith. But I still was overwhelmed by the 80,000 people cheering while my name was called. I just never experienced anything like it. It was amazing. It really was amazing.
"When I won my first World Championship gold medal in 1998 I don't think anyone was there other than my dad and his friends and now 80,000 people have watched me run a PB [personal best] in the Olympic stadium. So, as one of the older Paralympic athletes, I can see how much we've come on. London 2012 has taken us a massive step forward. Never before has the public hunger been there for watching events. I think it is fair to say that UK Athletics has responded accordingly."
While settling into UK Athletics' offices on the north side of Birmingham, Warner has been taking the opportunity in her spare time to train at the high-performance indoor centre next door. She plans to have one final season in the fast lane, and a shot at gold at the IPC World Championships in Lyons in July, before hanging up her racing spikes.
In the meantime, the trailblazing sprinter is making her mark off the track. There have been reports of UK Athletics being close to landing a lucrative sponsorship deal with BT. "I wouldn't ever comment on anything until everything was completed," Warner says. "We're having some very positive conversations with a number of potential sponsors.
"We've had a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic Games and it's all about finding the right partners to work with. If you watch this space, I think it's going to be a fantastic year."
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