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A quick guide to amputee sports

  • 14.04.2016
  • EmmaArnold
  • Opinion
  • amputation

Since 2012 and the London Olympic and Paralympic Games, disability sport has rightly become a big talking point and is firmly on the agenda of governments and councils across the country.

That year the world watched as Great Britain’s paralympic team finished third in the medals table with a remarkable 120 medals, with athletes such as Sarah Storey and David Weir leading the charge and becoming household names in the process.

According to a government report from 2013, in the year following the Games:

  • funding for elite disability sport increased by 45%
  • funding for the GB paralympic team increased through to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro
  • funding to support access and participation in sport at a community level increased
  • the Paralympic Legacy Advisory Group was established
  • most importantly, participation in sport increased among disabled people in Britain.

Figures from Sport England, which is investing over £170 million to make sport a practical and attractive lifestyle choice for disabled people, also show that some 1.58 million people aged 16 or over with a long-term limiting illness or disability now play sport once a week.

However, speaking to the Guardian, Alastair Hignell, who played rugby for England and now has multiple sclerosis, suggested disabled people are not encouraged enough to take up sport - even after London 2012. Instead, he thinks that the level of skill on display at the Paralympics could actually put people off, as those household names from the Games appear to be “superhuman” and “as far removed from us [...] as Usain Bolt is removed from ordinary human beings”. He said that this makes it seem that to take part in sport you have to have expensive, fancy equipment, and he added that “sport for all and sport for the elite have become further distanced from each other”.

So what is it that can make sport more of an attractive lifestyle choice for amputees in particular? And what are the options for amputees who want to take up sport without having to worry about being ‘superhuman’? Our quick guide reveals all...

Why is sport important?

Sport offers a wide range of benefits to amputees, including, but obviously not limited to:

  • improved gross motor skills
  • improved self esteem
  • reduced stress and anxiety
  • a platform to communicate and socialise
  • improved body image
  • overall health benefits

One person who feels strongly about the importance of sport to disabled people in Britain is Matt Kirby, who established the Arctic One Foundation in 2011. Back then, he thought “there was a lack of opportunities for disabled people to get involved in sport at grassroots level” and resolved to do something about it.

The organisation became a charity in 2012 and does a lot of admirable work, including:

  • Establishing and developing events and challenges for able-bodied and disabled athletes
  • Providing adaptive equipment and financial support to help individuals and groups achieve their sporting goals
  • Establishing open ‘tri-days’ to encourage people with disabilities to try a range of sports with training and coaching
  • Establishing the Forward Motion Grant System to allow people with disabilities to apply for a grant to help them get into, or remain in, sport. This could go towards expenses such as race entries and travel
  • Helping athletes raise money to purchase prosthetic limbs, which cost between £5,000 - £12,000 each

One of the beneficiaries of Arctic One’s work is Andy Lewis, paratriathlete on the GB Paratriathlon Squad. Andy is a through-knee amputee, having had his right leg amputated in 2005 at the age of 22, five years after being involved in a motorbike accident that left the leg badly disfigured.

At our recent ‘Back to the Future’ Rehabilitation Conference, Andy, an excellent cross country runner for Gloucestershire and an applicant for the Army’s Parachute regiment at the time of his accident, told us how he initially suffered from depression and stopped believing in himself.

However, he was determined to overcome any obstacles that came his way. He demonstrated this determination by earning his pilot’s licence in 2007 after successfully applying for a Disabled Flying Scholarship. He then decided he wanted to, and would be able to, get fit again. He started training and coaching at a local boxing gym, but set his heart on being able to run - a burning desire that was actually fuelled by the 2012 Paralympic Games. “Watching these inspirational athletes ignited a flame in my heart that for years had just been a small ember,” Andy says.

He also referenced the strong team ethics associated with sport as an influence in his decision to get fit. What’s more, his young daughter loved to run and he wanted to be able to share that experience with her.

After researching ‘blades’ for a new running leg, he found that they were not available on the NHS. His employer Airbus UK offered to help, contributing a significant portion of the cost of a new leg, while Andy fundraised the £8,000 left to buy his running blade.

From there, he found he was able to take his sporting prowess to the next level and his life hasn’t been the same since. “I was very focused on what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “If I had a piece of equipment I wanted to prove I could use it.”

Not long later Arctic One and Andy happened to be at the same charity event. According to Andy, the team at Arctic One asked him if he’d ever considered doing a triathlon, believing him to be the right physique for it. They said he should have a go. He agreed, and Arctic One taught him to swim.

Some 18 months ago Andy had never done a paratriathlon. Now he’s an Arctic One ambassador and is the running to go to the Rio Paralympic Games with the GB squad.

And that’s just one fantastic example of many of how sport can radically change the life of an amputee.

Popular amputee sports

Wheelchair tennis

According to the British Paralympic Association, wheelchair tennis is extremely popular and played by athletes in more than 100 countries around the world. It is one of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports and will feature in the Paralympics for the seventh time this year.

The game is tactical and technical and improves a player’s mobility, strength and cardiovascular ability. Tennis courts don’t need to be modified to allow for wheelchair players, while disabled players can play and train with or against able-bodied players with a slight adaptation in the rules.

If you want to find out more about wheelchair tennis or are interested in giving it a go, the Lawn Tennis Association and the Tennis Foundation have lots of great resources available. Find out more here.

Amputee Football

More people are playing amputee football than ever before, but despite its growing popularity, awareness of the sport remains quite low.

The England Amputee Football Association aims to “provide all amputees, people with congenital limb deficiencies and persons with restricted use of limbs with the opportunity to play football locally, nationally and internationally”.

The EAFA runs a Regional Amputee Football Development Program, so if you want to get involved you can get in touch with the organisation here.

Basketball

The history of wheelchair basketball stretches all the way back to 1946 in the USA, where injured servicemen from World War II developed the game with simple adaptations and rule changes from the original sport.

British Wheelchair Basketball’s website has a huge range of resources for those who want to take part, including details of clubs around the country, rules of the sport, volunteering opportunities and much more.

Golf

According to Bob Buck, executive director of the Eastern Amputee Golf Association, “golf is about as adaptable a sport as you can get. Just about anyone, regardless of ability level, can grab a set of golf clubs, head outside, and in no time be hitting golf balls where no one will ever find them again”.

You can find out more about where you can play by visiting the Get into Golf website. The website also suggests contacting Jamie Blair, England Golf Disability Officer, for more information.

Paratriathlon

The Rio Games will be the first time the paratriathlon will be included in the Paralympic Games.

The event consists of:

  • Swimming 750m
  • Cycling 20km
  • Running 5km

Why is it worth doing? Who better to ask than Andy Lewis? “I enjoyed the idea of putting three sports together. What a way to do a sport when you can piece some of your favourite sports together in one go.”

But if you’re looking at what is required for the event and think it looks easy, think again. “The paratriathlon is very, very, very demanding,” Andy says. “While training for a paratriathlon you can’t just train once and then recover, then think about your next session like you can with other disciplines. With the paratriathlon you have to run, come back and recover, then go out and do a swim session. Then you have to think about stretching, then you have to do a running session. At the elite level you have to do 3-4 training sessions a day on all of those disciplines.”

Are you interested in getting involved in paratriathlon? Arctic One Foundation is holding a beginner-friendly event on 30th May at Dorney Lake, in addition to a junior paratriathlon at Chesham Leisure Centre on 4th September.

In addition, British Triathlon has a lot of information for newcomers on its website.

It’s clear that more people than ever understand the benefits of sport for amputees, but work still needs to be done to make it an attractive lifestyle choice, as per Sport England’s objectives.

If you are an amputee considering trying sport for the first time, we know it can be a big leap into the unknown but everyone we’ve ever spoken to who has added sport to their lives at any level following a catastrophic injury has found that it has changed their life for the better.