Athletics: David Weir is hailed as 'best wheelchair racer of all time' after fourth gold


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The Independent Online

It was a marathon but it might as well have been just a sprint. Apart from the start and a couple of fixed-camera shots on each of the four laps, all Channel Four showed of the final race on the Paralympic athletics programme yesterday was the 350m dash for the finish line.

Those of us gathered on the Mall saw even less – just the 31 wheelchair racers in the T54 men's marathon flash by once every 10km lap.

At least we could see "The Weirwolf of south London" emerging from the leading pack to claim his fourth gold medal of the Games. Not that David Weir was aware of his latest golden moment. Not precisely, anyway. There was no celebration from the 33-year-old as he crossed the line on his chariot of fire, to howls of delight from the crowds massed in the shadow of Buckingham Palace.

"I didn't know where the finishing line was," Weir confessed. "That's why I looked a bit moody.

"I didn't know if it was the first line or the second line. Then I saw the lead car stop down the end of the Mall, so I thought, 'Maybe it's down there,' because there was no tape. That's why I carried on pushing. I just didn't know."

As if the Forrest Gump of wheelchair racing hadn't done enough pushing at these Games. Winner of the 5,000m the previous Sunday, of the 1,500m on Wednesday and of the 800m on Friday, his literal and metaphorical marathon effort yesterday actually took him across the line in 1hr 30min 21sec – one second ahead of Switzerland's Marcel Hug, the silver medallist, and Australian Kurt Fearnley, who took bronze.

In doing so, Weir joined Tanni Grey-Thompson in the record books. The grand Dame is the only other British track and field athlete to have won four gold medals at a Paralympic Games, a feat she achieved in Barcelona in 1992 and in Sydney in 2000. Lord Weirwolf, anyone?

In seven races (including heats) in nine unforgettable days, the self-effacing, quietly spoken Paralympian from the Roundshaw Estate on the site of the old Croydon Aerodrome (from whence Amy Johnson made her historic flight to Australia in 1930) has wheeled his way into the nation's affections as a great British sporting phenomenon.

Peter Eriksson, head coach of the British athletics team that finished the Games with 11 golds and 29 medals in all, comfortably inside their target, said: "David is the best wheelchair racer in history."

And Eriksson should know. He happens to be the most successful Paralympic coach of all time.

"It was tough, the toughest race I've ever had in my life," Weir said. "In the first five miles I was absolutely dying. I didn't think I was going to manage to cope, with the heat and everything.

"I felt flat. I had to just dig deep and have another energy shot that I took with me just to get me going. The crowd kept me going too. They just give you such a lift. My whole body was tingling."

After a week of disappointment on the track, Shelly Woods also finished with a tingling medal-winning feeling yesterday.

The 26-year-old from Lytham St Annes took silver in the T54 women's marathon, finishing a second down on Shirley Reilly of the United States in 1hr 46min 34sec.

As for the Weirwolf, though, what might his golden haul do for his sport in Britain? "I'm just honoured to see that Paralympic sport has got the recognition it deserves," he said. "I've been banging on about it for years.

"It's about time that we got some recognition because we're superhumans and we're phenomenal athletes." No one will argue with that.