Woods streets ahead of rivals for marathon gold

 

Shelly Woods has already made a name for herself at a major sporting event in England's capital city. It was in the 2005 London Marathon that the Lancastrian made her breakthrough as a wheelchair racer. She was just 18 and making her debut at the 26.2-mile distance. She finished a close second to Francesca Porcellato of Italy, claiming the prized scalp of Tanni Grey-Thompson, a six-time winner of the event and a national sporting institution.

"I know Tanni wasn't a true marathoner, but to beat such a great athlete with such a high- profile in British sport was a big breakthrough for me," Woods recalls.

Seven years on, the 26-year-old from Lytham St Annes is preparing for her second Paralympics as a track-and-road competitor following in Dame Tanni's treadmarks. In Beijing in 2008 she finished fifth in the 800m, second in the 1500m, third in the 5,000m and fourth in the marathon.

In London she tackles the same four events, the marathon just four months after a resounding victory on the streets of the capital. Woods crossed the finish line on The Mall in 1hr 49min 10sec – 3min 56sec clear of her closest pursuer, Wakako Tsuchida of Japan. "I'm really proud of that performance," she says. "I did win London once before, in 2007, but this one meant more because everybody was there and everyone was on top of their game. It was like a Paralympic marathon. Most marathons in the past few years have come down to sprint finishes, so to win by almost four minutes gives me confidence that my training has been going really well. I think a few people were shocked."

That training can amount to "up to 40 to 50km a day" in winter. "I have a 20km route down the beach to Blackpool and around the coast that I do most of my training on," Woods says. "I also train on the track at Kirkby Sports College in Liverpool three or four days a week.

"We train just as hard as our Olympic athletes. We are different. We've got a disability. I had a spinal-cord injury when I was 11 which put me in a wheelchair. But I like people to look and see that just because that girl's in a wheelchair doesn't stop her from being an athlete."

Sometimes the inspiration can be felt close to home. When the visually impaired sprinter Libby Clegg won 100m silver in 2008 her brother James was in Beijing soaking up the Paralympic experience. Four years on, at 18, he has made the selection grade too – as a swimmer.

"That will make the Games even more exciting for me this time," Libby says. "James has always been into sport anyway but I think going to Beijing to follow me in 2008 has inspired him to get more involved in swimming and train harder for it. Unfortunately, our schedules clash a little bit. I hope my family have been keeping fit because they might have a bit of running to do between the two venues. I think my brother competes about half an hour before me on most of the days, so it's a tight schedule."

Like James, Libby suffers from the deteriorating eye condition Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy disease. She has only slight peripheral vision in her left eye and is registered blind. The reigning 100m world champion in the T12 category, the 22-year-old will be competing in the 100m and 200m in London with the help of a guide Mikail Huggins, the stepson of the former British international sprinter Lincoln Asquith.

Jonnie Peacock's late grandfather, John Roberts, played football for Everton and Liverpool. Peacock himself tried out for wheelchair tennis and pistol shooting before his potential as a sprinter was spotted at a British Paralympic Association talent-identification day.

Four years on, the 19-year-old from Cambridge is the fastest-ever amputee. Running as a guest at the US Paralympic Trials at the University of Indiana in June, Peacock clocked 10.85sec for 100m. His time broke the world record for the T44 single-amputee category, held by Marlon Shirley of the US, and was 0.06sec quicker than the T43 double-amputee world record held by Oscar Pistorius. The British and South African blade runners are scheduled to meet in what promises to be one of the highlights of the Paralympics, the combined T43 and T44 100m.

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