Top Paralympians hail impact of Toyota Parasport Fund

Phil Pratt, Karen Darke, Bethany Firth and Piers Gilliver support the Toyota Parasport Fund

If there’s one thing every para-athlete will agree on, it’s that there are a catalogue of different ways to get involved in disability sport. 

From school lessons to free taster sessions, there is no shortage of options for disabled people who want to get active.

With the launch of the Toyota Parasport Fund, we want to extend those options even further, helping more disabled participants find an activity they enjoy.

We spoke to four Paralympic medallists – Phil Pratt, Bethany Firth, Piers Gilliver and Karen Darke – to discuss their journey to becoming a Paralympic champion.

They all had one thing in common: they started out just for fun. Whether you’re aiming to become a Paralympian or not, there’s never a reason to regret getting involved in disability sport.

Attending a free taster session was all it took for Phil Pratt to fall in love with wheelchair basketball.

Aged 13, Pratt was attended a wheelchair sports taster session in Cardiff where he tried everything from tennis to sledge hockey before he decided he wanted to pursue basketball.

But he knows not everyone has had the same opportunities as him, something he is hoping the Toyota Parasport Fund will change.

“When I first started, there was barely any money involved in disability sport," said the world and European champion.

"It was always a case of having to step forward yourself to look for more opportunities.

Connect with life-changing sporting opportunities through the Parasport website

“I was lucky enough to have been involved from an early age, but I know some of my teammates stumbled across the sport they love later in life because they didn’t have the same opportunities – hopefully that’ll change now.”

For Bethany Firth, it was the support at her high school that inspired her to get involved. 

The 23-year-old discovered her passion for swimming at Longstone School in Belfast, a love affair which has spanned ten years and seen her being Great Britain’s most decorated athlete from the Rio Paralympics.

She was first put into a school gala at the age of 13 and a decade on, Firth celebrated winning double gold at this year’s World Para Swimming Championships, crediting sport for completely transforming her life.

“I loved doing sports because at school I really struggled with the work so anything that was active or had movement I would thrive at,” Firth said.

“Growing up through school, I was quite a nervous person and wasn’t very confident and didn’t really talk to people. It was through Longstone Special School pushing me to get involved that I got into swimming and I started to love it, it was an environment that I was good at.

“I was good at something and to be able to show that and have something which people can be proud at me for was great.”

It was never wheelchair fencer Piers Gilliver’s intention to play elite-level sport.

He only started wheelchair fencing in 2010 as a part-time hobby before unexpectedly falling in love with the sport aged 16.

And he says it was his experience of fencing at a grassroots level that ignited his passion, acknowledging the role of his mentors in stimulating his love for the sport.

“It was purely by chance that I found about wheelchair fencing online, and I just thought ‘I have to give it a go and see what it’s like," said the newly-crowned world champion and Paralympic silver medallist. 

“As soon I tried fencing, I loved it – I started going to my local Cotswold Fencing Club and I was the only wheelchair fencer there, but the coaches were really inclusive and made it possible for me to be involved.

“For me it was quite a strange one getting into the sport – I wasn’t competitive, and I was only really looking for something as a hobby, so I really couldn’t have imagined how the sport would progress for me.

“Whether you’re looking at elite level or not it all starts the same – you do sport because you enjoy it and it teaches you a lot about life.”

Sport has always played a huge role in Karen Darke’s life.

The para-triathlete was born with a true spirit of adventure but became paralysed from the chest down when she fell of a cliff in a climbing accident at the age of 21.

She knows that if it wasn’t for the encouragement of those around her when she was in hospital, she wouldn't have continued getting active. 

“When I was in hospital for six months, every Wednesday was dedicated to sport and one of the physios arranged for me to go sailing on a nearby lake,” said Darke.

“Thanks to her and that opportunity, I was able to get back into doing sport outdoors. 

“I was also involved with a charity called BackUp, who support people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. They run ski courses every year and that was another channel for me to get outdoors.

“If you’ve just started out in sport, it’s a big commitment but there are so many more opportunities, charities, clubs that help ease the process for people getting involved.”

Applications for the Toyota Parasport Fund close soon. To find out more & apply, click HERE