The first ballot for Paralympic tickets closed at the end of September 2011. As we didn’t get tickets for athletics or swimming for the Olympics, we applied for tickets to get into the stadium and the Aquatic Centre. We selected the cheapest tickets for sessions that didn’t require us to take any time off work and a few weeks later it was confirmed that we had been successful.
Our swimming tickets were for the morning heats on day 3 of the Paralympics. When I looked at the schedule I was delighted to find that we would get to see Ellie Simmonds, one of the faces of the Paralympics, in her 400m freestyle heat. In total there were heats in 15 disciplines over two and a half hours. The finals took part in a separate session later the same day.
We arrived at the Olympic Park bright and early in good time for our 9.30am start and got through the usual security checks quickly. During our previous park visit we hadn’t noticed that the entrance to the Aquatic Centre was actually from the back of the building, rather than from the bridge at the Stratford entrance to the park. In an attempt to get a higher vantage point for a picture of the Aquatic Centre, I couldn’t resist to climb up an empty high chair. It didn’t improve the view of the building, but it made for a good picture in itself.
The IOC guidelines for swimming required seating for 17,500 spectators. To achieve this, two temporary stands were built along either side of the wave-like roof. The real beauty of the building, designed by Zaha Hadid, will only become clear following its post-Games transformation into a facility for the local community, clubs and schools. We had to climb up four flights of stairs to get to our seats. The humidity and chlorine smell of the pool hit us as soon as we got to the top of the stairs. Our seats were so high up that we were unable to see the stand on the other side of the pool! Luckily we had our binoculars and zoom lense with us.
Women’s 100m Butterfly – S10
In the second race of the morning we saw New Zealand’s Sophie Pascoe, who had won three golds and a silver as a 15-year-old in Beijing. Sophie absolutely dominated her heat, winning by over four seconds ahead of her nearest rival in a new world record time. Pascoe went on to break her world record again to win the final.
Men’s 400m freestyle S6
Next up were the two heats for the S6 400m freestyle. It became clear early on in the first race that Darragh McDonald from Ireland was swimming in a class of his own. By the end of the eight length he was almost a length ahead of everybody else, finishing over 26 seconds ahead of Australia’s Reagan Wickens in second place.
Matthew Whorwood (GBR) competed in the second heat which was won by by Anders Olsson from Sweden. Matthew was carried by the enthusiastic home crowd to finish his heat in second place. He would later win bronze behind McDonald and Olsson.
Women’s 400m freestyle S6
I have watched quite a lot of swimming before and was really surprised that for the heats the athletes do not come out individually before a race. Instead the swimmers for the next race get ready while the previous race is still under way. The Union Jacks were flying around the Aquatic Centre when Ellie Simmonds and Natalie Jones came out for their heat.
The classification system allows competitors with varying disabilities to compete against each other. This means that Ellie, who has dwarfism, competes against athletes who are much taller than her. It was also interesting to see that athletes are allowed to start races in different positions.
Due to her size, Ellie isn’t a strong starter and tends to be behind for the first length. However, as the race developed, she stormed ahead, eventually lapping one of the other swimmers on the home straight. She missed the world record by .18 of a second but qualified fastest for the final. Natalie Jones finished the race in third and both looked very happy with the result as they left the pool. The swimmer who was lapped, Lorena Homar Lopez of Spain, received great support from the crowd on her final straight to finish an astonishing 52 seconds after Simmonds.
The second heat was dominated in a similar fashion by Ellie’s main rival Victoria Arlen (USA). There had been issues over Arlen’s classification in the lead up to the London Games, suggesting that she wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ for the S6 category. In the end she was allowed to swim in the S6 category in London, but her classification will be assessed again in the future to determine whether her condition is actually getting better.
Throughout the morning we saw several other British swimmers qualify for the finals. James Crisp and Sam Hynd finished third in their heats in the SB8 100m breaststroke, Claire Cashmore won her heat and qualified fastest in the women’s SB8 100m breaststroke, Anthony Stevens finished second in his S5 200m freestyle heat and Sascha Kindred and Thomas Young finished second and third in the SB7100m breaststroke. We also saw Daniel Dias from Brazil, the Paralympic version of Michael Phelps, win his S5 200m freestyle heat with ease.
There were some very surprising moments which made me realise how little I knew about paralympic sport. It was fascinating to see how at ease the athletes are in the water when many of them required assistance in getting to and from the pool. There was a small white bench next to the exit from the pool where athletes would put their prosthetic limbs on again. Others were helped straight out of the pool into their wheelchair whilst the visually impaired were guided by a coach. Before the Paralympics it had not occured to me that blind swimmers would be competing. I can’t see very well without glasses and although I am a confident swimmer, I used to find being in a blurry swimming pool very unnerving before I got contact lenses. I could not image swimming a full length of the pool at full speed and waiting for my coach to tap me on the shoulder to indicate when I am about to reach the finish. Similarly I was astonished to see that 3 of 5 swimmers in a SB7 100m breaststroke heat did not have any arms. The crowd really got behind Tomotamo Nakamura (JAP) who caught up with Matthew Levy (AUS) on the final 20m and managed to finish with his head before Levy’s arm could touch the wall!
I really enjoyed the electric atmosphere in the Aquatic Centre. Although the crowd was patriotic, there was also great support and appreciation for athletes who were not challenging to win their races. There were lots of families in the crowd and it was brilliant to see the excitement in children’s faces. The Aquatic Centre will feel very different when it reopens to the public and I hope it with be flooded with daylight when large glass windows replace the temporary stands. Let’s hope we will be able to take a dip in the Olympic pool one day!