Able and Willing
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Able and Willing

Able and Willing

By Stuart Weir

Guohua Zhou of China stands at the start of her run up, composes herself, and sets off at full speed down the runway before taking off and jumping into the sand, landing nearly five metres away. Oh, there is one small detail that I forgot to mention. Zhou is totally blind. Imagine the courage it must take to launch yourself without being able to see where you’re going – talk about a leap in the dark! Someone lines her up and tells her when it is safe to go. A coach or assistant typically stands behind the sandpit shouting so that she can direct herself towards the sound. That helps. But it still requires courage to execute. It can go badly wrong. I once saw a blind long jumper lose the direction, veer to the side and literally take out the no-jump judge as he sat on his chair!

Zhou won the F12 long jump with a leap of 4.92m at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. These took place last year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates with more than 1400 athletes from about 120 nations involved; 528 women competed, the largest number ever. Zhou can jump five metres because she trains hard and practises a lot – like any long jumper. But there is also an additional determination and courage that is not required of the sighted long jumper.

Another incredible event is the one-legged high jump. Rick Broadbent wrote in The Times: ‘We should not ask why the one-legged man decided to try the high jump; we should just be glad that he did.’ The T63/T42 high jump is arguably the most compelling event in the para athletics programme. It is for athletes with an above knee amputation or equivalent level of impairment. So you have a group of amputees and others with legs that don’t work normally doing the high jump. Some jump with a running blade. Some remove their prosthetic and hop to the bar and hurl themselves over. Those with two legs limp towards the bar and leap over it. Some go over the bar head first, effectively diving. Others use a more conventional approach.

The 2019 men’s World Champion was Sam Crewe (USA) who cleared 1.86m, with Sharad Kumar (India) second (1.83m). Crewe explained afterwards: ‘There are four or five different styles of jumping because it is so versatile and everyone has their own challenges and issues. So, everyone adapts to what they’re good at and works on what they struggle with. What attracted me was knowing that if something isn’t working, I can always change it. And I think people are just fascinated by the amputee high jump, seeing the running blades in action or people just hopping over but jumping effectively over a height as high as most people’s head. It just relates to everyone as inspiring.’

Silver medallist Kumar enthused: ‘The one-legged high jump is the best experience to do – or watch.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to catch up. For a person with one leg to be jumping nearly two metres is defying the human body.’

While Crewe, an amputee who jumps with a blade, referred to the four or five different styles of jumping, he has only used one: ‘I’ve never tried without my blade on because I wasn’t coached that way. I’ve always trained with athletes with two legs. I’m on the university track team and I am coached the same as any of those athletes. It works for me so I’ve never considered changing it but if it hadn’t worked for me, I would have chosen a different way.’ Kumar agreed: ‘When you start with one style you tend to carry on with it because that’s how you start eroding your fears. We all have certain restrictions and have to do what our body allows.’

The blind long-jump and the amputee high-jump are compelling spectacles, events which combine great skill and raw courage. They are the essence of para athletics.

Markus Rehm is one of the superstars of para athletics. The German amputee long-jumper, who lost his lower right leg in a wakeboarding accident as a 14-year-old, has a best ever jump of 8.48m – which would have given him second place in the 2019 IAAF (able-bodied) World Championship in Doha. Competing in the T64 (amputee) class in Dubai, he needed only the first of his six jumps (8.17) to accomplish a successful defence of his title.

Writing about disability sport is a challenge. You want to get the balance between doing justice to the achievements but yet not exaggerating. The slogan for the 2015 World (Disability) Athletics Championships in Doha was ‘Beyond incredible’, but that wording is in danger of making para athletics sound like a freak show. Arguably it is no more incredible for a para athlete to break a world record than for Usain Bolt to run 100 metres in 9.58. The Dubai description of the disabled as ‘people of determination’ acknowledges the hurdles that have to be overcome.

Serial wheelchair marathon winner, Jean Driscoll, once told me that a well-meaning person had said to her: ‘I think it’s just wonderful that you can do a marathon.’ Jean replied: ‘Not really. I’m sure you could do a marathon too if you trained four hours a day, six days a week, like me!’ The first point to understand when considering para athletics is that the reason that amputee, Irmgard Bensusan can run 200m in 26.93 or Lisa Adams (cerebral palsy) can throw a shot 14.80m or Omara Durand (blind) can run 400m in 52.85, attached to a guide – is that they all train really hard. They are magnificent athletes.