This week will see the final event to be held in the Olympic Park before London 2012 begins in July, and four youngsters from a local sports club will be there representing Wales.
The Celtic Warriors Wheelchair Basketball team play in the Second Division North of the National League. This Saturday, as they trained at Darland Sports Centre, some of the younger players’ minds must surely have been on the exciting challenge the next week holds.
Jack Fermor-Worrell, Dylan Evans, George Gilligan and Liam Roberts, who plays for affiliated club the Rhyl Raptors, are all in the Wales squad for the Sainsbury’s 2012 Schools Games, which take place between the 6th and 9th of May.
“It’s a real honour to represent my country”, explains Fermor-Worrell. “It’s a huge event, and although I competed in the games last year in Sheffield, that was nothing compared to this! Competing in these venues, and especially now with all the Olympic preparation starting, is huge!” Evans is also thrilled the opportunity of competing at the massive ExCel Centre: “Playing at the actual Olympic venues just adds an extra level of excitement to it. “We’re spending three days down there, but I’m in Year Eleven and it’s near the exams so I’ll be taking some revision with me. I don’t want to be doing that.”
Around 35,000 spectators are expected to attend the event this year, and with wheelchair basketball one of the most high profile events, Anna Jackson, Warriors player, club secretary and a Paralympian in the 2000 games in Sydney, hopes the sport can take this opportunity to flourish. “The sport doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but in the build-up to London we’re getting a lot more. The beauty of having the Paralympics coming up is people are seeing it on the telly and so we’re moving away from this perception that it’s a funny little game that’s played by people at the weekend and it’s not serious, to being seen as a sport.”
“The work people like Ade Adepitan are doing on TV is brilliant and it’s seen as something cool now.”
With the Warriors always on the lookout for new players, Jackson was quick to dispel some of the misconceptions that surround wheelchair basketball. “There’s a massive lack of awareness that this is a sport you can come into. You don’t have to be a wheelchair user; I’ve got a dodgy knee from playing hockey. I went through years of physio and surgery and was told I would never play sport again, but a chance meeting with someone who played basketball got me into it. “This is a sport for everybody. The wheels and the chairs, they’re just the sports kit, like a pair of football boots. “When a team goes out for a game you can only have one able-bodied player on the court at a time so everyone else must have something which affects their ability to play the game on foot. “So you’ve got players like me with a dodgy knee or hip or foot who walk off the court, and people get confused by that, but every club will have able-bodied players.”
As you’d expect, getting the nod for the games was a rigorous, not to say tortuous affair, as Fermor-Worrell explains: “It was a tough selection process. Obviously the players are spread around the country so it was difficult to sort out dates for training sessions that fitted in for everybody. Then it was a really long wait to hear who had been selected. We were nervous the whole time, waiting to see who got picked. “It felt really, really good to hear I’d been selected, and it was a nice surprise too! Now I can’t wait to get down there. I started playing the sport four or five years ago, and it feels remarkable to be competing at the Olympic venue so soon after taking wheelchair basketball up.”
There was a palpable sense of warmth and excitement at the training session. Chatting with the players as they arrive, with a gaggle of proud parents watching their children from the sidelines, the overwhelming sensation is that the Celtic Warriors are considerably more than just a sports club. There’s a real sense of community, due in part to the generosity of character that permeated through everyone, and partly to the well-drilled nature of the session.
Soon I find I’m drawn into a touchlines discussion on whether the strict rules of the Olympic venue will permit supporters to bring flags to the games, as a massive Welsh Dragon has already been prepared! There’s a thrill of anticipation in the air.
The progress made by the youngsters is a source of great pride for the club. Jackson encapsulated just what it means to see the young Warriors make the grade. “I played for ten years for Team GB, and to put something back in and see the youngsters coming through the club is so gratifying. “We’re so proud of them. Jack has been at the club since he was eight or nine so to see him come through from being a little player who wasn’t too sure of himself and wasn’t taking part in much sport to becoming a national team player is just brilliant.
“The change in him, not just in his basketball skills but in his confidence is just incredible.”
Jack’s progress has seen him make the breakthrough into the senior Warriors side of late, as they have gone on a late season charge: “I’ve just started to play for the senior Warriors team this season. I’ve managed six or seven games, mostly at home, although I played my first away game in Liverpool last week. We seem to have been on a winning streak since I joined the team as well!”
Let’s hope his golden touch continues in London this week!
If you’re interested in playing wheelchair basketball, you can contact the Celtic Warriors on 07711356541 or firstname.lastname@example.org