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Records fall, excitement soars – and Games are on

From Velodrome to Aquatics Centre, the Olympic Park comes alive again as Paralympians raise the bar and crowds raise the roofs

Tom Peck
Friday 31 August 2012 12:00 BST

One might imagine having no arms to be an insurmountable setback, in a backstroke race against opponents that do have them. Not so, it turns out.

London had its first taste of Paralympic competition yesterday, and it proved a compelling appetiser of what is to follow in the next 10 days.

Even before many Paralympians who attended Wednesday night's Opening Ceremony had made it out of bed, we had records.

The near shrieking roar was back at the Aquatics Centre, rising and swooping between the steep banks of seats as it did during the Olympics, almost like a skateboarder in a half pipe.

That roar was never louder than when Chinese swimmers Zheng Tao and Lu Dong had won the men's and women's 100-metre S6 backstroke golds in world record times.

It is a category for people who, be it through missing limbs, achondroplasia (dwarfism) or various other conditions, find it difficult to maintain a consistent direction of travel through the water. But Tao and Dong seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever, despite their missing arms, butterfly leg-kicking down the pool before banging their heads straight on to the finishing pad to both break the world records.

The Aquatics Centre was not a happy hunting ground for Team GB at the Olympics, but if yesterday was anything to go by, this Games will be a different story. Britain's Jonathan Fox claimed our first gold there last night, having earlier broken the world record in his men's S7 100m backstroke heat, while Hannah Russell, a 16-year-old debutant from Chertsey in Surrey set a new world best in the S12 400m freestyle swimming before claiming silver in the final.

Russell, whose visual impairment means that all she can make out are the flags above the pool and the markings at the bottom, described the moment as "a dream come true".

Fox's victory was not the first British gold of the day. He was pipped to that honour by cyclist Sarah Storey who, 20 years after winning her first Paralympic medal as a swimmer in Barcelona, smashed the 3000m pursuit world record in the heats. In the final, she overtook her opponent with more than a third of the race remaining, which according to the rules, ends the contest.

Storey was herself beaten to the title of first British medallist of these Paralympic Games by her cycling team-mate Mark Colbourne, who claimed silver in the 1km time trial having been roared all the way round a velodrome every bit as packed as when Hoy, Pendleton and the rest were riding round it not so long ago.

Colborne's first British medal came later in the day than many had expected. Di Coates, competing in her eighth games in the 10m rifle shooting competition, has won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze before now, but yesterday finished in ninth place in qualifying, just missing out on a place in the final. "It's a disappointment," the 58-year-old said. "I was trying to keep it together, but it just didn't work for me today."

Coates has the distinction of being the only athlete to have previously competed at a Paralympic Games on British soil, after the 1984 Paralympics were moved to Stoke Mandeville Hospital when the University of Illinois pulled out at the last minute. She added: "It was nice that my friends and family could all come, but it would have been nice to have done better for them."

Elsewhere British crowds got their first look at yet more of the Paralympic Games's lesser known but intriguing sports. In the Copper Box, the very first action of the Games saw Great Britain take on the world champions Lithuania at goalball. It was never going to be easy, and the home team lost 11-1, but the crowd quickly picked up on the intricacies of a sport in which blind and visually impaired competitors attempt to bowl, ten pin style, a ball containing a bell past their opponents at the other end of the court. "We'll come back stronger," said 21-year-old British player Niall Graham.

Meanwhile there was shock at the Excel Centre, where visually impaired judo world champion Ben Quilter lost his first round match, but came back to win bronze in the repechage.

The wheelchair basketball competitions began at the North Greenwich Arena. Great Britain's women were heavily beaten by the Netherlands, but the bigger shock for the viewing audience, at least, was the sheer number of times the players were knocked over and clean out of their seats. The non-disabled game is nominally a non-contact sport. That is not the case here. "It was a big occasion for the girls in such a big arena," said Great Britain's Head Coach Garry Peel. "We knew that it was going to be a really tough game, the Dutch are never an easy opposition, but now we have to pick ourselves up for tomorrow's game." They are far from eliminated yet, but the wheelchair basketball is a popular competition, and most ticket holders will be wanting to watch Great Britain play. Last night, the men's team were beaten in a group match by Germany 77-72.

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