Ideal return to Atlanta

One man's journey epitomises the Olympic spirit which will flourish at this week's Paralympics.
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The Independent Online
Not For the first time, Mark Ding could see his life flash before his eyes. "It's a bit weird," he said, "a bit Twilight Zone-ish, to think four years ago I was guiding Andy round that top bend, doing our fastest- ever 300-metre repetition, 39 seconds. And now we're going to be in the Olympic Stadium together, competing for Great Britain."

Ding was the Humberside county 3,000m steeplechase champion four years ago. He also devoted part of his training time at Hull's Costello Stadium to acting as a guide runner for Andy Curtis, a blind sprinter who was preparing for the Paralympics in Barcelona.

Curtis is in the British team for this year's Games, which open in Atlanta's Centennial Stadium on Wednesday. So is Mark Ding.

The Paralympics has earned a niche in the global sporting scheme of things because of the tales of inspiration it brings to public attention every four years. Ding's is just one of many that could be told by the 250 British competitors who are about to follow Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent on the hunt for gold in Georgia.

It was while Curtis was in Barcelona, winning silver medals in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, that Ding's running days came to an abrupt end. His life almost did too, as he recalled, almost matter-of-factly, while limbering up for a training session at Costello Stadium.

"I was just getting back to form," he said, "hoping to break nine minutes for the steeplechase and I hit the back of a stationary milk van on my motorbike on my way to work. It was a horrible, miserable day on the bank of the Humber. The wind blew me into the van, apparently. My left leg was severely damaged and my left arm was paralysed. I can bend my fingers a little, but everything else is wasted. I spent 12 weeks in Hull Royal Infirmary and Andy came to see me with his medals. I can remember him saying: 'In four years you'll be in Atlanta'.

"At that time I was thinking I'd be lucky to get out of the hospital in one piece. The surgeon came to the end of the bed, kicked my mother and father out, kicked my wife's parents out and I'll never forget his words: 'I hear you were a good runner. Those days are over.' And he gave the worst scenario: 'You're lucky to keep your leg. And there's a possibility you'll have a limp for the rest of your life.' I thought, 'Okay. I'm still here. I'm still breathing.' I was just glad to be alive.

"Then they told me about my arm. Well, that was a disaster. I felt like throwing myself off the third floor. At least I could hobble around. Without the use of my left arm I thought: 'What can I do with one arm?' But you sort of learn to live with it."

Ding did not just learn to live with it. He learned to live a new, and successful, sporting life with it. He spent a year as the team manager of the City of Hull athletics club before one of the coaches suggested he should chance his good arm at the throwing events. It was no minor departure for someone who, as a sleek 11st runner, rivalled Peter Elliott for one of the fastest times in the northern road relay championships in 1990. Within a year, though, he finished among the top 20 in the world championships for the disabled in Berlin. His target in Atlanta is to challenge for a discus medal, though he has also earned selection for the pentathlon, which comprises discus, shot, javelin, high jump and long jump.

"The high jump is a bit of a problem for me," he said, "but I managed 1.25m in training last week, which is progress. The discus is the main event. I've thrown 36m and I'm in the top six in my category now. I think I've got a very good chance of coming back with, I wouldn't say gold, but some sort of medal.

"As long as I can go out there and say I've done my best and I've given everything I'll be happy. It was a thrill I never thought I would experience just opening the kit when it arrived in the post. The tracksuit and the vest and the shorts are just the same as the British team have worn in the Olympics.

"I'm trying not to think about it too much because I get excited. But it really would be lovely to come back with a medal."

It would be a fitting reward, too, for countless hours of training at the Costello track, under the shadow of the Humber Bridge. Ding, 29, heads there most nights from the British Steel plant in Scunthorpe, where he works as an engineering manager. Then, with his second shift of the day over, he returns to the home in Barton he shares with his wife, Karen, and their daughters, Jessica, four, and seven-week-old Victoria.

Ding is one of the thousands who have put us able-bodied under-achievers to shame as sportsmen and women whose horizons have not been narrowed by physical handicap.

The concept of sport for the disabled was pioneered in 1948 by Sir Ludwig Guttman, director of the national spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, as a means of fostering self-esteem and physical therapy. Since 1960 there has been an Olympics of the disabled every four years. In Seoul in 1988 and in Barcelona four years ago, as the Paralympics, it followed the traditional Olympics, drawing huge crowds to the Games sites.

There will be more than 4,000 competitors in Atlanta, drawn from 120 countries and participating in 19 sports over 10 days. Ding, from the perspective of his former athletics life, can appreciate the inspirational power generated by these often unsung heroes and heroines.

"I've always taken a lot of inspiration from Andy Curtis," he said. "I mean, if you've ever tried running and shutting your eyes, it's eerie. The speed he goes at is quite unbelievable. He's run 11.8 seconds for 100m. Him just saying: 'Well, you'll be there in four years time' has been a spur. At first I thought: 'Who are you kidding?' But then, when I started throwing, I thought: 'Yeah! I have got a chance'."

As he stepped towards the discus circle at Costello Stadium, you knew Ding himself would perpetuate the Paralympic cycle of inspiration. "If anyone who has taken a knock can look at me," he said: "and see there is life after trauma, then it will make it all worthwhile."

Five Britons to brighten up the Games

Tanni Grey (27) Wheelchair athlete from Cardiff. Born with spina bifida. Voted Welsh sports personality of the year after her gold medal sweep of the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m in Barcelona.

Simon Jackson (24) Judo player from Littleborough, Lancs. Visually impaired. Has maintained an astonishing unbeaten record since 1987. Needless to say, the man to beat in the Under- 78kg division.

Chris Holmes (24) Swimmer from Kidderminster. Visually impaired. Fell one medal short of doing a Mark Spitz in Barcelona. Has the chance to add to his six golds, having been picked for five individual events.

Andy Curtis (26) Sprinter from Bridlington. Blind. Was a 400m hurdler when he was visually impaired. Won silver medals in the 4 x 100m relay and 4 x 400m relay in Barcelona. Competes in 100m and 200m in Atlanta.

Ken Churchill (21) Javelin and discus thrower from Normanby, Middlesbrough. Has cerebral palsy. Struck double gold at the 1994 world championships. Finished third in the Notts open decathlon last year.