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Len Ironside: Disability no barrier for sporting stars

Neil Fachie and Matthew Rotherham celebrating after the Mixed Para 200m Flying Start Time Trial in 2019.
Neil Fachie and Matthew Rotherham celebrating after the Mixed Para 200m Flying Start Time Trial in 2019.

I’ve been a campaigner for people with disabilities all my life.

As well as fighting for recognition of their rights, I also used to coach athletics and swimming for Special Olympics and those with special needs.

In recent years we have won many battles for parity of media coverage for the Paralympics.

I admire the way these Paralympians cope and get on with their lives. There are three sports people I’ve come across who particularly stand out for me as inspirational.

I first met Karen Darke when she came along to our Special Olympics Athletics Club which used to meet every Thursday in the Chris Anderson Stadium.

But it soon became clear right from the start Karen was not content to simply race round the track in her wheelchair. If I asked her for three repetitions of the track, she did six. If I asked for six, she would give me 12. Always pushing herself to the very limit. Karen had been a keen athlete used to running, climbing and orienteering. But while climbing in Cove, she fell off a cliff and at the age of only 21 found herself paralysed from the chest down.

Karen Darke

With remarkable determination, and long months in hospital beds, she found creative ways to continue her ambitions as an athlete.

Karen was a silver medallist in the London 2012 Paralympics and Paralympic champion in Rio in 2016. And that’s not all. Karen’s adventurous streak has seen her climb Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

When she launched her book at Aberdeen University, my scariest memory is of a picture of Karen’s bed, a hammock-type construction hanging over the side of a mountain. It was frightening to look at – let alone sleep in!

As well as this Karen went hand biking from Canada to Mexico on the pacific coastal trail, and many other adventures. A truly wonderful positive lady who decided to take life by the scruff of the neck, showing resilience and determination which would shame us all.

Billy Monger was born on May 5 1999 in Charlwood, Surrey. His family had always had a connection with motor racing. It was natural for young Billy to take up the sport at a very early age of six. By the time he was 10 years old he was crowned British champion, and gained the nickname “Billy Whiz”.

However, tragedy struck on April 16 2017 when at the Formula Four race at Donington, Billy hit an unsighted stationary car at a speed of 120 miles per hour.

This accident resulted in Billy having amputations of both his legs at only 17 years of age.

Many people would have given up on life following that but not Billy. He wasted no time in mastering the ability to move around on two artificial legs or a wheelchair. An amazing strength of character.

As soon as possible Billy returned to competitive car racing. At the same time, he fought for, and won, inclusion in regular motor racing.

Lewis Hamilton is one of his great supporters and has dedicated one of his races to him.

Billy is a young man who is seldom seen without a broad smile on his face. Recently he raised more than £3 millon for Comic Relief. A tremendous guy who suffered a huge trauma and won through with grit and determination.

Aberdeen’s Neil Fachie is another of life’s wonderful characters. Visually impaired, at the age of 24 he ran for team GB in Beijing 2008, then successfully switched to the cycling track for the 2012 games in London winning both gold and silver medals.

Between 2009 and 2020 Neil has won 14 gold medals at the Union Cyclist International paracycling championships. In 2014 he broke the one-minute barrier for the 1k time trial to beat his own personal best clocking up a time of 59.64 and is currently the world champion.

Neil has a degree in physics and as well as competing, he gives motivational talks to various groups. He penned a book on the subject called “Earn your stripes” – well worth a read.

The interesting thing about all these inspirational sports people is that they face barriers every day of their lives which few people can even begin to imagine.

But they are undaunted and made up their minds that any disability would have to live with them, in the lifestyle they choose, rather than the other way round.

The world loves and admires these truly inspirational people and all our lives are richer for knowing them.

Len Ironside is a former champion wrestler who served as an Aberdeen councillor for 35 years, four of them as council leader

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