The Wonderful Work of WheelPower at Stoke Mandeville Stadium

“Stoke Mandeville Stadium is like a second home to me, and here I had a defining moment of my career choosing what sport I wanted to do.”

~ David Weir CBE, past Junior Games participant and 6 x Paralympic Champion.

I recently visited Stoke Mandeville Stadium to find out more about the inspiring work of our national charity for wheelchair sport, WheelPower; who provide opportunities for disabled people to play a sport they love.

Wheelpower sign

But before I talk about the amazing activities and coaching this charity organises, I’d like to take you back to where it all began, to the ground breaking and pioneering work of doctor Ludwig Guttmann, who made all of this possible.

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann & The National Spinal Injuries Centre

Doctor Ludwig Guttmann was a top neurosurgeon in Germany when the Nazis came into power. Jewish by birth, Dr. Guttmann realised he had to get out of Germany before the start of the Second World War.  Fortunately he was able to come to the UK in 1939 and settled in Oxford with his family.

Here he continued his research in neuroscience at the Radcliffe Infirmary until he was asked by the British government to spear head the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann painting and quote

Under his leadership the centre opened on 1st February 1944 and Guttmann became its first director. He introduced the concept of using sport to rehabilitate injured service personnel returning from the war and also for those with other spinal injuries and illness. Dr. Guttmann believed that physical exercise was crucial to restore fitness and self-esteem, as well as giving much needed social interaction.

1984 Paralympic Flame signIn those days spinal patients weren’t expected to recover and were left lying in sedation with no hope of rehabilitation, their treatment was purely palliative.  Fortunately, Dr. Guttmann had other, more innovative ideas, which met with resistance initially, but gradually his therapies changed both lives and attitudes.

Here is a moving clip from the film, The Best of Men, with Eddie Marsan doing a brilliant job of portraying this kind, forward thinking man in his quest to bring sports into the lives of the injured and disabled:

With around sixteen patients in cold wooden huts with little in the way of equipment and resources he set about creating an atmosphere of support and camaraderie that gave his patients hope for the future. To him, being paralysed wasn’t the end of life.

Dr. Guttman used medicine balls and got patients to sit up and move around, which soon progressed into wheelchair sport. In the grounds of the hospital they would play wheelchair polo, archery, basketball and netball. In 1948 London hosted its first Olympic Games and Dr. Guttmann persuaded the authorities to let him showcase his work. As a result, two spinal units competed at Stoke Mandeville in what was the first ever Paralympic Games.

In 1952 the Dutch team came over to compete with the British and in 1960 the UK sent its first Paralympic team to Rome. Fast forward to London 2012 and the Paralympic athletes are given as much respect as Olympic athletes. The 2012 Paralympic torch relay started from its home in Stoke Mandeville.

Memotial Placques

Transforming Lives

WheelPower continues to carry the torch of Dr. Guttmann’s legacy at grass roots level by enabling disabled people to transform their lives through sport.

They have specialist advisors who work in the Stoke Mandeville spinal unit as well as on site at the stadium next door, and at other spinal units around the UK.

WheelPower host the Junior Games every year which are open to 11 to 18 year olds across the UK and are held at Stoke Mandeville Stadium.  It was at one such event that Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson began her career as a Paralympian.

They also run sport camps at weekends where parents can accompany their children. These are expanding from Stoke Mandeville to London, Birmingham and five new locations around the country. This is an ideal environment for the youngsters to try different wheelchair sports and find out what they like doing.

“I went to my first WheelPower camp and I tried lots of different sports, but the last sport I tried was archery and I fell in love with it straight away! I felt the whole experience of the WheelPower camp was amazing and without it I would never have found archery.”

~ Megan Fossberry, (past participant aiming for Rio 2016.)

For adults, WheelPower run the Inter-Spinal Unit Games based on Dr. Guttmann’s ideas. There are around twelve units in the UK. They are also given advice on how they can play sport in their local area, and WheelPower have a postcode finder on their website.

SM sports hall

WheelPower 2014-15 year in numbers:

  • 482,155 people played sport at Stoke Mandeville Stadium
  • Arranged 103 sport sessions and workshops for 794 recently paralysed hospital patients
  • 122 children attended the National Junior Games
  • 450 new Wheelpower members
  • 85 recently paralysed people introduced to sport
  • 228 disabled gym members
  • 288 disabled children introduced to sport at WheelPower camps
  • 2% of disabled people play sport once a week
  • 45,214 disabled people played sport at Stoke Mandeville Stadium


Sport England provides a certain amount of funding for the buildings that WheelPower use in their work, but mostly they rely on volunteers and public fundraising to continue with their day to day activities. Companies can also sponsor corporate events at Stoke Mandeville to assist the charity.

A £100 donation could fund a place for a child at a weekend event.

WheelPower also promote their WheelAppeal which raises money for a disabled person’s first specialist sports wheelchair. These bespoke chairs are made to measure by RGK and cost around £3,000.

SM track view

Their Tour de Vale bike ride takes place every June with two thousand community places and in 2015 the event raised £63,000. Lots of budding cyclists welcome!

Ollie told me that he regularly takes a wheelchair into mainstream schools to raise awareness of their work with able bodied children to get them thinking about what they can do for children who haven’t been so fortunate. There is also a fundraising lottery that costs £1 per week.


The charity publish the proportion of spending for every pound they recieve. In 2014-15 16.4%  of income was spent on governance and fundraising and the remaining 83.6% went to good use fulfilling their charitable objectives. WheelPower raise £5.19 for every £1 they invest in fundraising.

How to join in and support WheelPower

If you would like to make a donation to this worthy cause, you can do so here.

Stoke Mandeville Stadium

The Stoke Mandeville facilities are open to able bodied and disabled members alike. The swimming pool has a special pod that transfers someone from their normal wheelchair into a waterproof wheelchair without the need for assistance.

SM pool

The comprehensive facilities at the stadium complex include track and field, indoor sports hall, well equipped gym that caters for wheelchair users also, tennis courts, dance studio, stationary bikes, and in the original huts there is powerlifting, shooting and cue sports. In total there are twenty different sports and activities available. The site can offer accommodation for up to 200 disabled visitors.


Chris Rattenbury - Wheelpower AmbassadorChris Rattenbury has been a WheelPower ambassador for five years. A former power lifter, he was once ranked 7th in the world, lifting 172 kilos.

Chris has Spina bifida and has received twenty years of support and assistance from WheelPower. These days he loves to play basketball, and he was a charming host, showing me round the stadium complex.

It was such an uplifting and inspiring day, I hope my post adequately highlights the dedicated and important work that WheelPower does, and can continue to do with enough public support.

Please donate what you can to this worthy cause!

The Anatomy of Hope

“The hope of future generations is the chance we have to awaken in ourselves a consciousness that is increasingly immune to irrationality and that values wisdom.” ~ Harry Palmer

hope-quotes-about-love-i14Bad news travels fast. At the speed of light it departs from the behemoth that is the worldwide web and whizzes along innumerable fiber optic cables, then streams through your router and onto your screen! In the modern, hyper-connected age it’s impossible to stay away from news. Every new headline seems to scream of murder and mayhem. I limit myself to exposure just once a day, unless it’s something earth shattering. I loathe getting constantly bombarded with how ‘bad’ the world is.

Whilst it’s important to stay informed I do think there’s a danger of news overload. You could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a hell on Earth, and those kind of beliefs create a climate of fear. You see desperate faces devoid of hope on your TV every night. You might rightly think, ‘WTF is the world coming to?’ It’s easy to get depressed in the face of such relentless s**t.

And you have to remind yourself that out of the billions of people inhabiting planet Earth, only a small percentage are making trouble. But those are the only ones we hear about. Most of us live in relative peace (unless you are unfortunate enough to be in one of the war zones or trouble hot spots in the world). Wars have been raging somewhere in the world for about ninety percent of humanity’s existence.

hopeIn times of war hope is a precious commodity indeed. Winston Churchill, who himself battled bouts of depression, (his “black dogs”); kept our nation’s hope alive with his brilliant speeches that rallied people together against an evil doctrine that threatened our freedom. Even in the face of devastating losses. But the important thing is, it wasn’t empty rhetoric, it was a combination of well thought out strategy and inspiring oratory.

To have no hope is to have no motivation, no reason to live. To feel that dreadful emptiness in your gut invites in apathy and her cohorts: fear, helplessness and depression. When hope dies, your future dies.

I read this article about the recent murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, which kind of implies they should all give up and accept murder and corruption as a way of life. Yes, it’s a big blow for democracy in Russia, but the people must use it as a springboard for continued change. Poor Boris probably hoped that he wouldn’t have to become a martyr to bring his lofty cause to fruition, but the power of a martyr should never be underestimated..

I’ve tried to understand, what exactly is hope? For me, the anatomy of hope is acceptance and gratitude for the present moment (what is), but at the same time having aspirations for what you want in your future. It’s interwoven with the creative process. Pursuits of any kind are not possible without hope for an improved tomorrow. It is the starting point for all endeavour. It is the root of goal-setting and encompasses desire, courage, compassion and love. Without it there would be no evolution, no growth.

Hope is one of the few four letter words that really packs a positive punch. Hope is as essential to the human spirit as air is to the survival of the physical body. Quite simply, it ranks up there with oxygen.


When hope leaves, your cells literally shut down. I’ve been there, at the bottom of the pit, feeling that there was nothing left for me in life. I very nearly gave up. It’s a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But when you hit rock bottom there is only one direction you can travel, or you perish down there.

The film The Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella has a wonderful scene between Andy and Red that perfectly epitomises the essence of hope:

Of course, I don’t want to get mixed up with false-hope, which is pie-in-the-sky thinking. I’m talking about the kind that will make you stretch and grow, yet is achievable. You need enough to excite your imagination; satisfy your reasoning mind that it’s doable and to ignite your furnace of ambition.

“All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, For they dream their dreams with open eyes, And make them come true.” ~ D.H. Lawrence

Hope wallpapersLast year I had a bout of rejection when I was submitting The Virtuoso to literary agents, and after a while it got me down. Then I became afraid to open the emails, because I knew what they would say. I could feel my confidence ebbing away, and my enthusiasm for my work dwindling. I decided after a few months of polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ comments that I would represent myself, for better or worse.

Hope is also a theme I wove into The Virtuoso. My protagonist, the violinist Isabelle Bryant, draws her hope from the example of her musical hero Beethoven, who once contemplated suicide in his darkest hour. The only reason we know that he did was the discovery of the “Heiligenstadt Testament” after his death in 1827.

I thought that if I put Isabelle in his shoes she might well feel the same despair. Imagine how you would feel if the only thing that you are good at, in fact brilliant at, is about to be ripped from your life, compounding the emotional havoc already in your heart, wreaked by romantic heartbreak and growing isolation. It’s the kind of suffering you can only recover from with a hefty dose of hope and determination.

I think that the depth to which we sink is a measure of the height we can ascend to. Luckily for us Beethoven persevered, and because of his courage we can enjoy his musical legacy, some of the greatest music in history, including the immortal ninth symphony:

There is always light at the end of the tunnel if we can but focus on it and have the faith to follow it. Napoleon Hill said, ‘The starting point of all achievement is desire.’ That desire is the flame of hope, the spark which provides your motivation for action, which in turn produces your results. I don’t advocate dwelling on the past, but sometimes it can be useful to see how far you have come.

And when you achieve a desired outcome you naturally find another dream to pull you towards your full potential. Hope is an immensely personal thing, but it can also be incredibly powerful when a group of people apply the same hope to humanity.

Here is a heart-warming compilation of normal folks responding to the question: what is hope?

If you find yourself in a similar mental state to the one I was in a number of years ago, I sincerely hope that this post has helped to give you the belief that you can make it through. When you get to the end of your rope, tie a big knot and hold on!

Hold On Pain Ends

My hope is that one day, humans will be able to co-exist in mutual respect of our diverse cultural, geographical and religious differences. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what your background is you have basic human needs, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to pretty much everyone alive.

My favourite rock band, Queen, also have One Vision:

I had a dream when I was young,

A dream of sweet illusion,

A glimpse of hope and unity,

And visions of one sweet union.