“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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!