At the end of the miracle Games, there was one more miracle medal for Great Britain – even if it wasn’t the colour the men’s wheelchair basketball team were targeting.
For the sixth straight Paralympics they played for bronze and for the fourth time they won it, with a 68-58 victory against Spain on the final day in Tokyo.
Considering they’re also the reigning world champions, this might appear an underwhelming result akin to another pair of socks at the bottom of a Christmas stocking.
But after the tumultuous build-up to the Games, which saw their head coach test positive for Covid just days before the squad were due to fly to Tokyo, this bronze means so much more.
The 2020 Paralympics have had to adapt to Covid and it was far from certain they were going ahead amid local protests and rising case numbers in early summer. Basketball head coach Haj Bhania had to adapt too and conducted his orchestra from afar but there is only so much one can achieve on Zoom.
So, step forward Gaz Choudhry, who at 36 is one of many veterans in this squad. He was chucked into the deep end and promoted to player-coach and was not far away from choreographing one of sport’s great heists.
“We didn’t come here to win bronze, we came to make the final but if people knew what we’d been through I think they may understand,” said Terry Bywater – who was part of the squads that also finished third in Athens, Beijing and Rio.
“Losing your head coach just a few days before we arrived was just crazy. It felt a constant uphill battle and this means a lot more than a bronze.
“Gaz knows basketball, he lives and dies for it. He’s been playing a long time and he’s got so much respect from all of us. What a job he did, he’s a legend.”
The tangled emotions in the British team are difficult to unravel. This was supposed to be their time. In 2018, they ruled the world and comfortably beat the USA in the World Championship final but just two hours after finishing off Spain, they had to sit and watch that same USA side celebrate Paralympic gold.
Bhania had also put together a perfect squad, one packed with the experience of Bywater, Choudhry and other veterans like 38-year-old Abdi Jama and captain Ian Sagar, along with Games debutants like Lewis Edwards and Ben Fox.
It’s three years until their opportunity at the Paris Games – or 1,088 days and counting – but this squad will evolve and look vastly different then.
Some will move on and some will stay. Some have already changed their plans as they chase an elusive Paralympic title.
“I’ve been on a losing semi-final team five times, that hurt,” Bywater added.
“I didn’t shed a tear and I wasn’t angry; this was just a massive game to focus on and we’re here again with a Paralympic medal. I’ve seen my wife and son for a week in just four months but I knew they were with me. This wasn’t about us, it’s about those at home. I thought this would be my last Paralympics but it’s only three years to Paris, my heart is set now. I want to go out on a high and just play in a Paralympic final, that’s still my greatest dream.”
It was a cagey first half at the Ariake Arena and Spain had the slightly better of it, leading 30-28 at the mid-way stage.
Choudhry’s half-time team talk clearly had an effect, as Britain outscored Spain 22-10 in the third quarter, and that proved decisive as they held on to clinch third.
“All we’ve done with this medal is validate this team to the outside. But for us internally, we were validated already,” he said.
“This bronze medal is for everyone else. We know where we were, but now we’ve won it, it definitely feels more than a bronze.”
Sainsbury’s is a proud supporter of ParalympicsGB and a champion of inclusive sport for all. Sainsbury’s commitment to helping customers to eat better has been at the heart of what we do since 1869. For more information on Sainsbury’s visit www.sainsburys.co.uk/ and https://paralympics.org.uk/
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