MILTON Keynes will be represented by three athletes at the London 2012 Paralympics – two competing in their first ever Games, and the other making an incredible sixth appearance.
Each of them has an incredible story to tell but the youngest of the trio, now counting down the days to the Opening Ceremony next Wednesday night, is Oakgrove schoolgirl Gabi Down.
At the age of 14 there will be just two Team GB members younger than her competing in London – one a swimmer and the other a volleyball player. But it is for that reason that Down will go into her wheelchair fencing team event with nothing to lose, and nothing to fear.
She admits to being nervous – not because of the competition she is set to face, but because of the occasion itself. Representing your country comes with a natural pressure for any athlete, and only a select few will truly be able to relate to what she is, and will be going through the night before the eyes of the world are upon her.
With her team-mates Gemma Collis and Justine Moore, Down’s big day in the women’s team epee competition comes on Friday, September 7 at the ExCel Arena.
Taking on Hungary in the first round, the British trio hope to do well against their older rivals, but Down – who has a condition called skeletal dysplasia – says that whatever happens, they will have fun.
At the age of 19 and 20 respectively, Gemma and Justine are Down’s friends as much as her team-mates, which will make the next two weeks an enjoyable experience, no matter what happens.
“I’ve known the girls for a while now and we have lots of fun together,” said Gabi. “We watched some of the fencing in the Olympics together and to know that our turn is coming is fantastic.
“We didn’t get the chance to go down to the ExCel, but I’ve competed there a couple of times before so I think I‘ve got a feel for the place. The atmosphere on the TV sounded fantastic and there are a couple of thousand extra seats for our event, so it should be even better!”
“I’ve competed against some of the women I’m likely to face before, so I’m not worried about that. It’s just difficult to get your head around it – I’m 14 and I’m going to the Paralympics!
“Some of the women on other teams have been fencing for longer than I have been alive, but that’s OK. I don’t mind.”
Not only will Gabi be cheered on by her family in London, but some of her closest friends from school will also be heading to the ExCel because her form tutor at Oakgrove, Mr Paxton, snapped up several tickets.
Balancing her schoolwork with her training and competitions hasn’t been easy for Gabi, who has hardly spent a full week in a classroom since she was selected to represent Team GB back in April.
But at just 14 she has an incredible ability to take everything in her stride, and regardless of whether she wins a medal or not, she is already adamant that this year’s Paralympics will be her first of many.
Aged 29, Alistair Patrick-Heselton is a relative newcomer when it comes to playing for his country, but now that he has been selected for the seven-a-side cerebral palsy football team, he doesn’t want to leave London without a medal.
Six years on from the car crash which nearly ended his life, Patrick-Heselton is a successful businessman, owning his own Totally Dynamic vehicle wrapping franchise in Newport Pagnell.
The former QPR and Oldham player loves football just as much as he loves cars, but his road to the Paralympics hasn’t been a particularly easy one, having been the subject of criticism from some quarters regarding his suitability to play.
Some people have accused him of being too good for the team, and the rules of the sport – which include no more than two class eight players being allowed on the pitch at a time – means he has found his game time limited.
Nevertheless, the time for talking has gone now, and Patrick-Heselton can’t wait to help Team GB try and win gold.
He said: “There are other good nations out there, but sometimes we can be our own opposition and all the preparation we have had is to try and iron out those mistakes, and I’m very confident.
“To be realistic, a medal is within our grasp and if we can perform well on the given days, don’t be too surprised if we do exceed expectations.
“We have progressed so much in a short space of time that our opponents might not anticipate the improvements we have made. There could be a lot of shocked faces.
“The jury may still be out on my best position, but I will play wherever the team needs me to. I’m just focused on going for gold and I will do whatever it takes.”
Simon Munn is something of a British Paralympic legend, but there is one thing missing from his already impressive medal haul – gold.
At 44, the three-time medallist is the oldest member of the wheelchair basketball squad, but he has no plans to retire after London 2012 – his sixth Paralympics.
The former Radcliffe School pupil won silver in Atlanta in 1996 and then bronze in both Athens and Beijing. It’s the gold that has eluded him, but he’s determined to make his dream come true this year.
“It would be nice to beat Canada and Australia,” he said. “For me, nothing less than gold will do.
“I’m still fit and love sport. It means so much to me to play. We’re all great players and play well together – that’s what matters.”
Munn was 22 when his life changed forever. Walking back from the pub one night he took a short cut, when his foot got stuck in some rail points and his left leg was severed by a passing train.
Since being introduced to wheelchair basketball by his physiotherapist, Munn has gone on to become one of the biggest names in the sport,
He received the British Wheelchair Sport Award in 2007, but gold at his home Games is what motivates him now, and with the competition tipping off on Thursday, August 30, the teams in Britain’s group had better watch out.