Our Paralympic Adventure Part 4 – Swimming

Four events in three days with 2 four and a half year olds. Insane? Definitely.

We were all feeling quite droopy when the alarm went off on Sunday morning. The girls were perky enough but, on severely reduced sleep, we wondered how long that would last. We needed to get to the Olympic Park slightly early as I had tickets to give to my Mum and sister, but in typical Aunty J style she was running late so I sent Dh and girls through security while I waited for the others.

The Aquatics Centre had become a home from home for me during the Olympics as I had picked up last-minute tickets for swimming and diving events in really decent seats. I had looked up at the upper tiers from my press seats (really) and wondered what the view was like from way up there. On Sunday I found out. We weren’t right at the back but there were an awful lot of stairs to climb before we reached our seats. Every time the girls announced that they needed the toilet we groaned inwardly as they were about a zillion steps away.

Like the Velodrome, the Aquatics Centre is really warm and it was packed, so we were all a bit red-faced by the end of the morning session. I think it was the least interesting event for the girls, partly because they were tired and because there was very little for them to get a handle on, aside from the appearance of a Paralympics GB (“COME ON GREAT BRITAIN!!”) competitor every so often. The fact that we were so far away from the action may not have helped either.

The grown-ups enjoyed it though and it gave me a chance to reflect on the differences in the way that we appreciated the sport and the girls’ approach to para-sport. Beforehand, I had expected to field lots of questions from the girls with regards to the disabilities of the competitor. I had visions of them asking at the tops of their voices WHERE IS THAT MAN’S LEG? WHERE HAVE HIS ARMS GONE? WHY DOES HE WALK WITH A STICK? WHY IS SHE IN A WHEELCHAIR? but actually, I don’t think they asked anything like that all weekend.

We had explained the differences between the Olympics and Paralympics in the days leading up to the events. R and G were aware that the Paralympics were for athletes whose bodies didn’t work in quite the same way as those in the Olympics did. They knew that some people had been born that way and others had acquired their para-status through life events, accidents, wars, etc. They were, quite simply, unbothered by the whole notion of para-sport as distinct from any other. G was more interested in the colour of their outfits and the flag of their country and R was only bothered if someone from Paralympics GB won a gold medal.

I approach everything with a research mind (and basic sheer bloody nosiness) so I wanted to know why the person was a para-athlete and what had led to them competing in the 2012 Games. At the Equestrian the announcer explained each rider’s disability before they entered the arena (many of them acquired their disability through an accident whilst horse riding and I was amazed it hadn’t put them off horses for life.) I think Dh and I now have a pretty good understanding of the classification system (cat and class is bread and butter to me anyway) and the subtleties therein.

It’s hard not to talk about it in a way that doesn’t sound massively patronising but there were moments over the weekend where I watched a competitor do something completely amazing with their body (or what was left of it) with my mouth wide open in shock and awe. The human body – and mind – are extraordinarily adaptable. We watched men in wheelchairs wheeled out by their trainers to the side of the swimming pool, lifted gently into the water by two helpers to compete with a variety of legs and arms (and often both) missing. The athletes in the 150 metre medley weren’t able to do Lochte-style turns (or the back bending butterfly stroke) so they simply stopped swimming at each end, gently manoeuvred their bodies around in the water and set off again.

It sounds like a cliché (and it is) but 95% time I was watching sport, not para-sport. It was only when the cyclists got off their bikes, for example, I realised that they weren’t moving around quite as easily as Chris Hoy or Laura Trott after a race. I can’t even ride a bloody bike!

God, I loved the cycling. I did. I joked with a friend that they should take a leaf out of the divers’ handbook and just wear speedos when they compete but I guess they wouldn’t be quite as aerodynamic then. Also, if they were topless (I have put some thought into this) they would have to shave their chests and I get the impression that a lot of the cyclists are hairy, manly men and I wouldn’t want them to lose that.

I’m digressing hugely here. The main thing to take away from this is that we took the girls to the Paralympics and we survived. More importantly, so did they. Also, I now like cyclists more than divers.

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R and G go to the Olympics

We tried in every ballot to get child-priced seats for various Olympic events. We failed miserably. When Olympic tickets were put on general sale at the end of May I snapped up four Olympic Park tickets for the first Wednesday of the Games. We wouldn’t be able to get into any venues but we could take the girls and soak up the atmosphere. Dh was working, so the girls and I went with my Mum.

It was a hard concept to explain to R and G. We were going to the place where the Olympics was happening, but we weren’t seeing anything ‘live’. The weather in the morning was decidedly iffy and I wondered what on earth I had let myself in for as we huddled under umbrellas (it’s only the Union Jack when it’s at sea) eating McDonalds (the girls’ first Happy Meals – I’m not sure they were terribly impressed) and gazing up at the big screen in Park Live.

Things brightened up considerably when, courtesy of the women’s rowing team, we won our first Gold medal. The atmosphere grew and it was electric as we watch Bradley Wiggins (Mum’s a big fan) win the road time trial. At that point the girls finally ‘got it’ and G stopped asking when we were going home. Actually, she remained spectacularly unbothered by it all. R got into the spirit of things and started cheering while G played games on my iPad.

We actually managed to have a really good day, thanks to the strategic use of food, ice cream, temporary tattoos, golden Wenlock’s (don’t ask) and electronic devices. Sunshine and success also helped. By the end of the day the girls were strutting through the Olympic Park wearing the Union Flag as a cape and moaned when I said it was time to go home. We’d been there from 10am and finally left at 5.30pm so we made the most of our day passes.

On our way out of the Olympic Park we passed a man doing live interviews for radio. He finished his piece, stuck the microphone in front of me and asked me a series of questions about our day, the Olympic experience, the effect on London, etc. I think I managed to babble convincingly and some poor saps somewhere were subjected to me saying the word amazing 37 times and sounding like I’d been brainwashed by LOCOG.

Next day, the girls told everyone at nursery about their day at the Olympics with Mummy and Nanny. They are really looking forward to going to the Paralympics and R keeps pointing out that we’re going to be seeing stuff ‘For real’ this time.

On a side note, the success of the Team GB women was wonderful to see and, as someone with two daughters it was great that they got to watch hours of women being really good at sport on TV. The sport that we watch tends to be male-dominated (being rugby and cricket fans doesn’t help) and I don’t think there are many healthy, inspirational female role models for girls outside the sporting realm. At certain points the girls demanded to watch sport with girls in and I was happy to let them. I’d much rather they wanted to be Jessica Ennis than Jessica Simpson.

The girls can’t make up their minds which Olympic sport they’d like to take up. On Friday afternoon G declared, while riding her bike around the garden that she’d like to do indoor cycling. The next Laura Trott or Victoria Pendleton? Maybe when she takes the stabilisers off. They are both into gymnastics at the moment, thanks in no small part to the gym classes they are attending in lieu of ballet over the summer. R quite fancies having a go at diving and she and R are already looking forward to starting swimming lessons in September. I reckon the identical twin thing would give them a nice advantage when it came to synchronised diving.  There has been a lot of talk about legacy and ‘Inspiring a generation’ I’m not sure that R trying to triple-jump across the dining room was quite what Seb Coe had in mind, but it’s a start.

The girls may not fully appreciate their Olympic experience now, but I hope when they grow up they look back on it fondly and realise that they were part of a once in a lifetime event.

Down the Olympic rabbit hole

I didn’t ever doubt that London could pull the Olympics off. As a nation, we’re pretty great at doing large events and pageantry. I wasn’t quite prepared for how amazing the Opening Ceremony was going to be. Danny Boyle produced a take on British social history of which my 17 year old self would have been proud, featuring Brunel, the Industrial Revolution, the Suffragettes, the NHS, Windrush and a tour through popular music that only lacked a burst of Pulp to make it complete. The torch lighting ceremony made me weepy with joy and the night was only tainted by Paul McCartney’s inability to sing his own songs any more.

I was already in love and the sport hadn’t even started….

LOCOG started releasing extra tickets at very short notice and I became addicted to the London 2012 ticket website. At 10.30pm each evening they release returned tickets and unwanted Olympic Family and Press seats. Dh had selflessly got everyone Paralympic tickets but didn’t manage to get himself any Olympic tickets. I decided that he had to go to something and picked up two single tickets for the swimming on the fourth day of competition as a wedding anniversary gift. As we approached the Stratford Gate of the Olympic Park I felt quite overwhelmed and we didn’t stop smiling the whole time we were there. We only watched a few heats but the atmosphere in the Aquatics Centre was fantastic and whenever a Team GB competitor appeared the whole place went bananas.

Dh’s Olympic sojourn ended there: mine was only just beginning. My Mum and I took the girls to the Olympic Park for the day – our adventures will appear in a separate post. After two heady days at the epicentre of the Games I took myself off to Lord’s for the Archery. It was the Olympics, clearly, but much more civilised – aside from one set of fans shouting MEHICO MEHICO and a whole gang of South Koreans chanting and banging sticks together whenever one of their countrywomen competed.

My late night forays on the ticketing website secured me three diving events in the second week. I had to go on my own, but that was not exactly a hardship. I went to the Men’ 3 metre springboard preliminary and was so into it all that the couple sitting next to me mistook me for the diving expert and started asking me about the nuances of the sport. I think I bluffed fairly well, largely thanks to listening to the expert commentary by Leon Taylor and Bob Ballard over the years. I have enjoyed watching diving for a while but I wasn’t expecting to become a fully-fledged groupie. My binoculars and the zoom on my camera were really put through their paces as I shamelessly peered at buff young (very young) men in tiny speedos. No need for Fifty Shades of Grey when you’ve spent a few hours in their company. In the interest of balance I also watched some women’s diving. I didn’t need to use my binoculars quite as much, but it was still really interesting. My second night of men’s diving gets a post to itself, too.

When I wasn’t at the Olympics I was watching them at home. We had access to a zillion channels of red button awesomeness so I set myself up with my work laptop on my lap, my home laptop to once side, my ipad on the other and the remote in east reach. I went into the office a couple of times for a few hours to get some bits and pieces done but I was largely based at home for the duration.

I watched more of this Olympics than any other. After a slow start, the gold medals started coming in and Team GB lived up to their pre-games billing of ‘Our Greatest Team’. One of my favourite moments was the first Thursday afternoon when we won Gold and Silver in the canoe slalom (who knew that canoeists – and kayackers for that matter – could be so charmingly geeky? They are an endearing counterpoint to the uber rah male rowers) and moments later won Gold in the shooting. Two more disparate events are hard to imagine. Alongside that I developed a fleeting love of judo or, more accurately of local girl Gemma Gibbons as she fought valiantly, with a broken thumb as it turned out, to win a silver medal and looked to the heavens to thank her mum. I, along with a million other women, did quite a bit of sobbing.

I became an armchair expert in a range of sports. I almost hurled my dinner at the screen when the men’s gymnastics team were demoted from silver to bronze thanks to a protest by the sulky Japanese team. Had I been in company I would have been arrested as I shouted expletives at the TV. Luckily the girls were fast asleep in bed and Dh was at work. The gymnasts (Max Whitlock for the teenies, Lewis Smith for the more discerning older lady like myself) were a million times more gracious about it all than I was.

I used to watch a lot of athletics as a kid but have fallen out of love with it in recent years. Too many whingers and too many druggies kept me away but on the magical Saturday night when we won three Gold medals courtesy of Jessica Ennis, Greg Ruthford and Mo Farah re-ignited my love of track and field. I sat with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and biscuits and marvelled as Mo’s wife, heavily pregnant with twin girls lumbered over to congratulate him. I didn’t leave the house in the last six weeks of my twin pregnancy and yet she was there cheering her man home despite being in obvious and entirely understandable discomfort. Richard Curtis could not have scripted it better.

The Team GB medal tally kept growing, thanks in large part to our amazing cycling programme. It’s always amusing to piss the French off and we are properly good at the two wheel stuff. I’m really hacked off that the events in the Velodrome have been reduced to make way for BMX and mountain biking. I could happily watch that old bloke with the cob-on expression trundle round on a Keirin bike for hours. I miss the individual pursuit and the madness of the Madison. I like the fact that the cyclists and their entourages all go out with each other and I fervently hope they all combine genes and create cycling babies.

I didn’t really watch the sailing but I do rather like Ben Ainslie. I bet I wasn’t the only one to go all wibbly when he did his ‘THEY HAVE MADE ME ANGRY AND YOU WOULDN’T LIKE ME WHEN I’M ANGRY’ speech. I half-expected him to wrestle a bear to the ground and invade Poland armed only with a teaspoon, just because he could.

As things started to wind down I felt overwhelmingly sad. London had been building up to this for 7 years and now it was nearly over. The Closing Ceremony was the epitome of a curates egg. One minute I was bouncing with excitement and the next I was groaning and sinking into the sofa with embarrassment. I watched the whole thing though and felt quite choked up when the Olympic flame was extinguished.

I knew I was going to be consumed by the Olympics. I didn’t quite realise how hard I would fall for it and how bereft I would feel afterwards. On Monday it felt like I had the worst hangover ever and I felt genuinely downhearted.

A butterfly-like phenomenon had, in my lifetime touched down in Russia, America (twice), Spain, Australia and China landed six miles from our doorstep and stayed for a very brief 17 days. It is now in its way to the more exotic climes of Brazil and I can’t imagine that it will come back in my lifetime. Maybe the girls will get to experience it again. I hope they do. I hope they take me out of my nursing home in my wheelchair and plonk me in front of the male divers so I can get one more use out of my ancient binoculars. I don’t want this to be the end of our real-life Olympic adventures*

*Actually it’s not. We’re going to the Paralympics in a couple of weeks.

Sporty tots

Identical schmidentical.

On Thursday afternoons at nursery R participates in Sporty Tots, which is a sports session designed specifically for pre-schoolers and run by Arsenal FC. Each week, she and a group of children learn about different sports and get to try them out. Today for example they did some rugby, which involved keeping hold of an oval ball whilst running about, from what we can work out. Last week they were catching balls in nets. You get the idea…

G has also been offered the opportunity to participate in Sporty Tots and point-blank refuses. Each Thursday morning we ask her if she wants to try it out (the first session is free; it’s £3 a week thereafter) and she says yes and by the afternoon she has changed her mind and stays indoors playing with her friends while R take part outside. At first glance G appears to be the more amenable of the two but when she decides she doesn’t want to do something she really won’t do it.

In the interests of fairness (if not my bank balance) I’d like her to get involved but I totally understand why she might not want to. I wasn’t particularly interested in playing sports as a child and was far happier in the company of adults or curled up with a good book. R is very good at throwing and catching balls and is a speedy little runner so I’m not surprised that she loves doing sports.

I’m now looking for an activity to G to do to even things up a bit. There are some local ballet classes that I need to investigate but, again in the interests of fairness I need to take both girls along to see if they like it. If R wants to take ballet classes as well I can hardly say no can I?

Winding forward a few years, I can see myself becoming a Saturday morning ‘Soccer Mom’, ferrying R to one activity and G to something else. The main thing is that we’re giving R and G equal opportunity to take part in activities and develop their interests. The rest is really up to them.