12 for 2012: No 6: Shelly Woods, Paralympian

Our monthly series presenting potential medal-winners at the London Games in six years' time turns to a powerhouse on wheels - and hears how her mentor prepared for the greatest show on earth
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The Independent Online

The trouble with icons is that they are such a hard act to follow. None more so than Tanni Grey-Thompson, who will be 37 next month, and has been wheelchairwoman of the board for some 20 years. She is not sure she will be in Beijing, and if she is in evidence at London 2012 one hopes it will be as something like chair of UK Sport or Sport England, though one doubts the powers that be have the bottle to appoint anyone quite as accomplished or forthright.

Tanni has always said that her successor would be found, if not by accident, then probably because of one. Such may well prove to be the case. By 2012 - if not before - Shelly Woods seems likely to be the name similarly synonymous with Paralympic sport in this country. This year she beat Grey-Thompson when finishing second in the London Marathon, has broken her seven-year-old course record in the Great North Run, and last month also erased Grey-Thompson's 1500m track record. Yes, this is the new kid on the blocks, or rather spinning the wheels she knows will not lead to a fortune.

As she unloaded her £3,000 racing model from her specially adapted Peugeot, in which she drives herself to training six days a week at Blackpool's Stanley Park athletic track, a bystanding youngster looked admiringly at the sleek yellow machine: "Cor, that's well nice. Cool."

Cool indeed, and so is its bubbly blonde owner who, on a good day and on a bit of slope, can zip along at around 72kph. In 1997, as an 11-year-old, she fell out of a tree while "messing around" with friends in a park near her Blackpool home. "It was just kids being kids," she says. The result was a broken back and paralysis from the waist down. "Up to then I had always been active at almost any sport, especially netball and cross-country running. Whatever was going, I wanted to do it."

She was in hospital and a spinal rehab unit for five months and was encouraged by friends and family to take up wheelchair basketball and table tennis at a local sports centre. "What surprised me was that there was no one going into schools and finding kids like me to be the next generation of paraplegic athletes. Getting into it is by chance or through someone you know."

She then entered the Junior National Wheelchair Athletics Championships, held every year in Blackpool, and it was there that she was "scouted" for British training weekends, where she met her present coach, Jason Gill, himself a disabled competitor as a pentathlete.

Gill had also been injured in an accident, falling when climbing a cliff. Most wheelchair athletes are competing as a result of some sort of accident, unlike Tanni, who was born with spina bifida. "He let me have a go in his racing chair, and really I never looked back after that," Woods recalls. "I bought a second-hand chair and concentrated on the track from the age of about 15 onwards, even though before I had been a field-event athlete.

"I've always had a positive outlook. I was only 11 when it happened so it probably didn't hit me as much as it might someone later in life, because they know what they've done before and realise they can't do it again. The thing is, you come to terms with it. You've got to get on with it and make the best of the situation, because there is nothing else you can do."

It was watching the Sydney Paralympics on TV that persuaded her to concentrate on sport as a full-time career. "Up till then I suppose I had been playing at it." She has progressed via the London Mini-Marathon to the full event (twice finishing second), the New York Marathon (third) to winning the Great North Run and taking the bronze medal in last year's European Championships in Finland.

Shelly, who was 20 earlier this month, believes she has a realistic chance of medals, particularly now she has Lottery funding. "Me and my coach have different opinions. He obviously thinks I am capable of doing more than I am doing now. He sets goals, and when he set them for last season I thought, 'Oh my God!', but I did achieve them. He probably thinks I can medal in Beijing and so do I, though I am not sure at which event. It could be the 1500m or the marathon." Or maybe both?

Naturally, Tanni is her inspiration. "I am a great admirer, she has won so many golds, set so many records. I would love just to have a fraction of them. She has bought disability sport up from way down there, and although there is still a long way to go it is really great what she has done.

"She has always encouraged me but she doesn't give me advice as such because, after all, we are competitors. But it is just so good being around her, like at the European Championships, when she had done it all before and I hadn't. She certainly helped calm my nerves and made it a lot easier for me."

Shelly, who lives at home with her supportive parents - father Carl is a joiner - works part-time for Blackpool Borough Council as a "Sporting Champion", visiting schools and clubs to give talks. Paralympic sport these days is becoming more professional in every sense of the word as more nations, especially those in the Far East such as China, introduce disability programmes. Shelly races on what she says is more or less a professional circuit, though the money hardly bears comparison with able- bodied sport. "You can earn a bit, but it's pin money really."

Next month she will be racing in the United States and Canada in the America Series, taking in Toronto, New York and Atlanta. This is a self-funded trip with a little help from sponsorship. She says she needs more. "For one thing, I would like to get a new car."

Kathryn Periac, an Aussie who is the newly appointed UK Athletics performance manager for wheelchair racing, says: "Shelly is a delightful, very talented young athlete, one of the best prospects we have in Britain. She is moving forward very quickly but we mustn't overload her with expectations just yet. She is improving every time she competes, with a succession of personal bests, and is now in the top five in the world. I think she will race very well in Beijing but her true potential should be seen in 2012, because by then not only her strength but her speed and technique will have developed."

One of the other sports Shelly follows is cycling - "I suppose because it is the closest to the training we do. I'd also like to find a sport I can do on a level playing field with my two brothers, like kayaking, perhaps." Which is also pretty cool.


My advice to Shelly would be to get as much race practice in as possible over the next few years. The London Games in 2012 will be huge for British competitors, and by aiming to qualify for the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008 in the short term, Shelly will be able to experience the competition, and hopefully she will be aiming to medal.

My first medal came at the 1988 Paralympic Games, which was a great learning curve for me and meant that four years later I knew what it would take to win.

As a Paralympic athlete, it is also crucial to listen to your body when racing and training and to act accordingly if injury problems do persist. I have done so throughout my career and will now face the biggest test of all - knowing when my body is telling me to retire from the sport altogether.

There are many competitions in the international calendar now - certainly many more than when I was first competing - and one of these that Shelly should take advantage of is the Visa Paralympic World Cup, which is held in Britain each year.

This is growing into a major competition that is pulling in the world's leading Paralympic athletes, and what is so good about the event is that spectators now come down to cheer us on, rather than simply watching it on the television.

This is a good indication that the great British public will come out in force in six years' time, and hopefully Shelly will be one of those athletes they will be cheering on the top of the podium.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson is Great Britain's most successful Paralympic athlete, having won 16 Paralympic medals during a 20-year career