Great Britain’s ‘Tokyo gold medal-winning ‘murderball’ squad win inaugural National Lottery Paralympian of the Year award
Image: Shaun Botterill)
When Britain’s wheelchair rugby team was told it faced mission impossible, Aaron Phipps decided he would be the judge of that.
Stripped of funding after finishing fifth in Rio, the cash-strapped Brits were not expected to survive through to the Tokyo Paralympics.
As Phipps sized up the odds he thought of Kilimanjaro and the challenge he had undertaken months earlier.
How he trained for more than three years to scale Africa’s highest mountain unassisted in a wheelchair – only to find the chair could not cope.
He knew champions Australia, hosts Japan and perennial ‘murderball’ superpower USA were giant obstacles in their path to the podium.
But no bigger a deal, he thought, than abandoning his trike and climbing for four days on hands and knees to reach a summit 5,895 metres above sea level.
Phipps recalled the climb as he and his pals picked up the National Lottery Paralympian of the Year award in recognition of their historic Tokyo triumph.
He describes the gold medal as a “fairy tale” but actually it is just another real-life example – albeit the most celebrated – of a remarkable group of people overcoming adversity.
Here is a man who conquered Kilimanjaro without assistance, despite his lower legs and the tops of his fingers having been amputated when he contracted Meningitis C at the age of 15.
“Two days in it was apparent the wheelchair was never going to be able to cope,” recalled the husband and father of two. “They told me I’d have to be carried.
“I said in no uncertain terms, ‘No I’m not’. It got very heated.
“Eventually I duck-taped knee pads to my legs, jumped out of the wheelchair and crawled on my hands and knees for four days to get to the summit.”
Fast forward to wheelchair rugby’s loss of UK Sport funding and it becomes clear why Phipps and Co were not about to give up.
“Some of my team mates’ day starts two hours before those of other people because it takes them that long to get ready,” he said.
“Every training session in this sport you get the rubbish kicked out of you.
“But that helped us as a team because by the time we got to Tokyo we were rock hard from beating each other up.”
Phipps knew nothing about the sport when he first gave it a go in 2009.
Twelve years on a TV audience of 1.1 million tuned in to see GB beat the USA to gold.
Participation numbers are “through the roof” and there is funding of £2.6million in place for the Paris cycle.
His work is done – though he is unlikely to ever see it like that.
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise more than £30 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. For more information about The National Lottery Awards visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow the campaign on Twitter: @LottoGoodCauses #NLAwards