Paralympics: Josie having a ball in a man's world

First woman to play wheelchair rugby for Britain carries our hopes for more gold in Beijing. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

There will be endless examples of heart-rending courage, bloody-minded conquests of adversity and the ultimate uplifting of the human spirit when the world's Paralympians follow their able-bodied counterparts in the same Olympic arena here in Beijing a fortnight from today. Among them will be a young British woman whose presence here represents a groundbreaking gamble for gold.

Josie Pearson, from a small hamlet in Herefordshire, is very much a girl in a man's world, the first female ever to force her way into the hitherto all-male domain of wheelchair rugby. This has been therapy through which she has pieced her life and her body together again after a head-on road smash in North Wales five years ago in which her boyfriend was killed and she was left a tetraplegic, her neck broken and paralysed from the chest down. She was just 17 years old.

It was while she lay in hospital pondering what to do with the rest of her life that she got chatting to an out-patient who played wheelchair rugby. "That conversation changed everything for me," she says. "Before my accident I was a competitive horserider and I wanted to stay in sport in some way. Wheelchair rugby sounded so good. Horses had been my life, my passion, but the level of my disability doesn't allow me to compete in disabled equestrian events. I have no trunk muscles or feeling in the lower half of my body and no mobility from the top of the chest downwards.

"I was doing my A-levels at the time at Hereford Sixth Form College, so my main priority was to get home and back to normality, to get my independence back. You lose everything, totally relying on other people. So I completed my A-levels and went on to university in Cardiff and decided that was the time to get back into sport. My body could not do what my brain tells me to do, so I made up my mind I would rather live with all the good memories of horseriding. I started playing wheelchair rugby and fell in love with it. I've never regretted my decision to try something different."

And how different. For this is the full-on, blood-and-thunder sport Paralympians call "Murderball". Crash, bang, wallop on wheels. In reality it has little in common with the sport seenat Twickenham – it is played with a round ball and it is more an amalgam of wheelchair basketball and the dodgems.

But for this slim, vivacious blonde it is a dream-team sport. "It gives you an adrenalin rush, there's a lot of stop, start and speed involved. It's the same sort of buzz I used to get when riding horses. I really enjoy it. For me, it ticks all the boxes. I have been doing it now for three years and never looked back. Now it occupies all of my time."

Pearson, who lives with her parents in Brilley near Whitney-on-Wye, travels to play for her club team, the Cardiff Pirates. She also has three gym sessions a week as well as attending the camp in Norfolk where the international squad have had two or three sessions a day as they prepare for the eight-team competition at Beijing's University of Science and Technology.

Her historic selection for Team GB came in June, when being named for the 12-strong squad made her not just the only woman in the team, but also in the Paralympic competition. So, is it difficult being a female in what is essentially a male sport? "Physically it is harder for me, as you are classified on your muscle function. At the moment, gender doesn't come into it, though I have to train that much harder to keep up with the guys.

"There's a lot of aggression involved, but it is a controlled aggression. You use your chair to stop the opposition, but it's also very tactical. You have to be switched on upstairs as well as being fit, it's a sort of woman-to-man marking. It's a very male-dominated sport and I hope my presence in Beijing will make more women aware of it."

In the team she does not do much ball-handling. Her job really is to stop the other players getting the ball. The boys call her their Dallaglio. "I get in the way of the opposition so the other guys can do their stuff. Off court there's a bit of banter, but on it I am just another player with a job to do. The great thing is that I am totally accepted."

Wheelchair rugby was a demonstration sport in Atlanta in 1996 and introduced into the Paralympics in Sydney. There are four or five teams out of the eight who will compete in Beijing who could come away with gold, including GB. Chief rivals are the US, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

It is played four-a-side on a basketball court, with tactical substitutions. Full wheelchair contact is allowed but no body contact. The ball has to be bounced every 10 seconds beforebeing passed and there is a touchdown when it is carried over a line between two cones.

The sport is designed for those who have broken necks and are tetraplegic. It has a rather complicated handicap points system, similar to polo, depending on the degree of disability. There are about 90 players in the country and Pearson is one of only four women. Team manager Mark Fosbrook, who has been playing wheelchair rugby since 1993, is a double below-the-knee amputee, born without feet or ankles and with only two fingers on each hand. He says of Pearson: "She has worked well and trained hard and proved she is worth her place. In a comparatively short time she has become a very capable player who has committed herself totally to the sport. We are really proud of her.

"In Athens we finished fourth and we still have eight members of that team in Beijing. So we have high hopes – the top teams are so close you could flip a coin."

Pearson has also been showing some Tanni Grey-Thompson- like speed as a track athlete, working in Wales with the former Paralympic ace Chris Hallam, and has recorded the world's sixth-fastest times in the 100m and 200m. "Maybe this is something I can explore more in the future, but right now rugby is my priority. Beijing wasn't really a goal for me, my focus was 2012, so all this is a bit of a bonus."

Message from an icon: Chris Hallam

Josie is a remarkable young woman. She came to me when I was running a wheelchair racing group in Cardiff. She has fought hard to make her mark in rugby and I'm so pleased for her. Josie is a terrific girl, as a person and an athlete, and I have tremendous admiration for the guts and determination she has shown after her accident to get where she is after a comparatively short time. She is the only athlete I've encountered recently who I had to stop training. She tends to do too much. She'd even have a weight-training session before coming to me and I'd have to bawl her out. Most athletes you have to drag along to three or four sessions a week but Josie wants to be there every day, even though I'd tell her before the session, 'I'm going to hurt you'. She's only been doing wheelchair sport for three years after two years in rehab so what she has achieved at 22 is remarkable. I'd love to see her and the team get a medal in Beijing but what a prospect for 2012.

Chris Hallam is one of the UK's leading disability sports coaches.

Brits eye second gold rush

A total of 3,998 athletes from 145 countries are scheduled to compete in 471 events at the Paralympics in Beijing from 6-17 September.

Great Britain were even more successful in the 2004 Athens Paralympics than the able-bodied team have been in Beijing, finishing second in the medals table to China with 35 golds, 30 silvers and 29 bronzes.

Team GB's squad for Beijing comprises 206 athletes across 18 of the 20 Paralympic sports, the biggest of all time. Britain will field two football teams, in seven-a-side and, for the first time, five-a-side. This will be the first time Britain has rowers, as the sport makes its Paralympic debut.

South African amputee long-distance swimmer Natalie du Toit and her sprint athlete compatriot Oscar Pistorius will be the top international focus of the Games. Pistorious failed in his bid to compete in the able-bodied Games in Beijing but Du Toit took part in the open-water race.

Several British multi-medallists return to the Paralympics to defend titles. Dave Roberts (swimming) has seven golds, Lee Pearson (equestrianism) has six golds from two Games and multi-medal-winning ex-swimmer Sarah Storey (née Bailey) makes her Paralympic cycling debut in Beijing.

Other Britons to watch:

David Weir: after Tanni Grey-Thompson, Britain's most successful wheelchair athlete. He won three golds and a silver in the 2006 World Championships and is also a London Marathon winner.

Darren Kenny: Two golds on the cycling track and a silver on the road in Athens.

Jordanne Whiley: The 16-year-old wheelchair tennis player's father competed in four sports in the 1984 Games.

Ian Rose: Britain's only judo medallist in Athens, competing at his fifth Paralympics.

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver elite-level support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information: