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Monday, 17 March 2014

Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics

So after nine action packed days the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympic Games finally came to an end, and was rounded off in style with the epic closing ceremony. It was a truly brilliant nine days and as Sir Philip Craven said it was,"a spectacular showcase of sport and the power of human spirit." 

Sochi's games were started off by the Winter Olympics Games, but I didn't watch much of it. Winter sports just aren't my thing, apart from Ice Hockey and I guess I just didn't make time to watch it. I wasn't sure if I was going to watch the Winter Paralympics Games either. I'm not the type of person that will watch something purely because it involves disability, at least in most cases. There has to be other reasons I'm interested too. Especially in relation to the Paralympics, for me watching it just because the athletes are disabled is a discredit to the athletes themselves and the sport. They may be disabled, but first and foremost they are amazing athletes. Of course most of them have been through a lot and they're all very inspirational, but I think anyone that dedicated and talented is inspirational. Personally for me when I first started watching the Paralympics back when it was in London, the different disabilities were at the forefront of my mind. Wondering what each athlete's disability or impairment was and completely missing the fact it wasn't important, but by the end that was very much the last thing I was thinking about. All that mattered was the athletes themselves and the sport, and that's how it should be.

The Winter Paralympics Games started off with the opening ceremony. Admittedly I didn't catch all of it, as again I wasn't planning to watch it. My dad put it on and it caught my eye. It was pretty amazing. I liked it a lot more than the opening ceremony of the Summer Paralympics in London. I really enjoyed Sir Philip Craven's speech, and was shocked when he mentioned how the Soviet Union had declined to host the 1980 Summer Paralympics in Moscow claiming that, "there are no invalids in the USSR." I'm not so sure if I was shocked that it happened, or the fact he was bold enough to bring it up. I guess we should be thankful that Russia has progressed in some way in the last 30 or so years. They put a lot into Russia's Paralympic team and reaped 80 medals in total in this winter games. There was a lot of talk about the lasting legacy for disabled people in Russia and of building a barrier free Russia, barrier free in both a physical sense and in relation to the attitudes of the people. As much as I think that would be amazing, I don't think we should get ahead of ourselves. As many people have pointed out, Sochi was a Paralympic bubble. Hopefully there will be a lasting legacy in Sochi and all being well that will touch on other parts of Russia, but it is a huge country and this kind of change takes generations. We only have to look at the UK or the USA and despite us supposedly being so much more advanced when it comes to inclusion and such, I doubt you'd find any disabled person that couldn't name a bunch of barriers they face every day. Both in the physical sense and the attitudes of people around them, whether those attitudes are discriminatory or patronising. I witnessed this just the other night when I had to sit and listen to my sister's friend mocking the athletes and saying how it wasn't real sport. I was so shocked that someone was saying this in front of me, a disabled person, that I couldn't even fathom anything to say in return. So whilst I hope there is a continued journey in Russia to change attitudes and better the lives of people with disabilities, we must realise that it won't happen over night. 

So on to the sport. The thing that got me hooked on the games was catching an Ice Sledge Hockey match. I used to be very into Ice Hockey, but I haven't watched it in a few years. I really do love the game though. If you're an Ice Hockey fan, it's hard not to be a fan of Sledge Hockey. It's basically exactly the same, apart from the fact they're sitting on a sledge. It's still the fast paced, contact sport that makes Ice Hockey fun to watch. Sledge Hockey is maybe even a little more brutal because they're attached to a metal sled, though there's an extra type of infraction called teeing which is charging someone using your sled. So you can't use them as a weapon too much. 

My two favourite teams were USA and Sweden, since the British team didn't qualify for Sochi. I guess Sweden was my underdog team, they ended up coming last. They only had eleven players, including their two goalies. Other than them being underdogs, one of their players also caught my eye. His name was Per Kasperi. He really stood out on their team, really dominating the ice when he was on it. Also he favourited one of my tweets, which is also nice and I totally fangirled. And I couldn't have meant it more, I really hope to see Sweden make it back for Pyeongchang 2018 and I hope with many more  young players just like Per Kasperi. 
I'm not quite sure what made me support USA, I was just feelin' it. I guess maybe it was seeing some of their players getting interviewed and I liked their playing style. Canada were playing really well at the start of the games and seemed like likely winners. This seemed even more likely when Russia beat USA to the top of their group and there was a USA vs Canada semi final rather than the final people had been hoping for. Canada for whatever reason seemed to fade throughout the competition though and in the end there was a USA vs Russia final. USA taking gold, Russia taking silver and Canada taking Bronze. 
USA celebrating winning gold. 

Singing the USA national anthem 
after receiving their gold medals.

Even though I got the outcome I wanted, it was a bittersweet ending. As much as I was glad I didn't have to get up early for any more matches (I'm not a morning person) I was sad I didn't have any more Sledge Hockey to watch. I followed some of the guys on Twitter and the British Sledge Hockey Team etc, so I'm hoping to stay in the loop and follow them. Still, I can't wait for Pyeongchang and I'm hoping with the popularity of the sport this time round and the great coverage it got on Channel 4 that British Sledge Hockey will get more funding and recognition and maybe by 2018 we'll be able to qualify. I really hope so.

Now, on to the sports we did have people taking part in. Well, this was a banner year for the Paralympic GB team, especially seeing as we'd been empty handed at the end of 6 of the 10 Winter Paralympic games. We won our first gold medal ever in Winter Paralympic games, and this was particularly special to me because it was a girl from my very own town of Bangor N. Ireland who won it, Kelly Gallagher. She won it skiing with her guide Charlotte Evans in the visually impaired women's Super-G. I was so proud, she's definitely the best thing to come out of Bangor since Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. 

Jade Etherington won us a total of four medals skiing with her guide Caroline Powell, which is amazing. She won silver in the visually impaired women's Slalom, women's Downhill, and women's Combined and bronze in the women's Super-GAnd the GB's wheelchair curling team also took home a bronze medal. I think our target for the games was 2 to 6 medals, so we reached the top end of our target. Hopefully with all the buzz surrounding Paralympic sport now, there is only up from here and come 2018 we'll do even better. There was some young talent this year with Millie Knight (15), James Whitley (16) and Ben Sneesby (19). Although they didn't medal, it will be interesting and exciting to see how much they will have progressed by 2018, if all being well they compete again. 

And finally it all came to an end with the closing ceremony. Again, it was amazing. This time I watched from the beginning and as much as it was a celebration of a wonderful games, it was also sad to be saying goodbye. I remember feeling much the same when the summer games ended. Even without actually being there I definitely get a sense of being in a little Paralympic games bubble. I can't imagine how it must feel when it comes to and end for the athletes. I took some screen shots of my favourite parts of the closing ceremony.

Human Tetris
 Need I say more?

When Aleksey Chuvashev, a Summer
Paralympian climbed 15
metres to position the apostrophe that
changed Impossible to I'm Possible.

Putin during Sir Philip Craven's speech
looking considerably more happy than he
did at the opening ceremony, all tucked 
up under a blanket. The Crimea/Ukraine 
referendum taking place that day must not
have been weighing too much on his mind. 

And last but not least the big dance number 
at the very end, when the big boat came out
with all the dancers and the DJ played.

Roll on Pyeongchang 2018. 

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