Nine Welsh athletes – which makes up 20 per cent of the squad – have been selected as part of Team GB for the World Para Athletics Championships which starts in London on July 14 and runs through to July 23. Paralympic champions Aled Davies and Hollie Arnold are there, but Rob Cole profiles Laura Sugar, who has given up her career and her first sport in order to chase medals on the track.
The first time Laura Sugar went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London she enjoyed a eureka moment that changed her life.
She went as a spectator in 2012, but five years on she will return as part of the British team at the IPC World Championships. On her first visit she thought to herself, ‘I can do that’, now she intends to prove she can by winning a medal.
The 26-year-old school teacher has already won a handful of medals after changing the course of her sporting career after her inaugural visit to Olympic Park. A Welsh senior hockey international, she was born with a ‘club foot’, but never let it hold her back in any way.
While she was watching the 2012 Paralympics at the same London track at which she will be chasing medals over the next week (14-23 July) she noticed the Team GB discus thrower Dan Greaves had the same problem as her.
“I just thought, ‘I’ve got that foot!’ I’ll have a go. It was only by watching London 2012 that I found out I could compete in para-sport,” said Sugar.
She went to a Paralympics GB Sports Fest and then found herself being thrown in at the deep end at the 2013 World Championships in Lyon. She was selected on a hunch by British Athletics’ Paralympic head coach Paula Dunn and it was the launch of a major international career.
The rest, as they say, is history. She has got better and better, faster and faster, has given up her job to become a full-time athlete and has her eyes on a golden sprint prize in the T44 200 metres.
Instead of taking part in a global sporting championship in London, the Saffron Walden-born athlete could have been playing for Wales in the European hockey championships in Cardiff next month. Hockey, however, has been put on hold long with her teaching career for the time being as she concentrates on chasing medals.
With her and British T44 sprint team mate and world record holder Sophie Kamlish she aims to challenge the dominance of the T43 category amputees, or blade runners, to reach the top of the podium. Top of their joint hit list will be Dutch athlete Marlou van Rhijn.
“Ours is a classification that is dominated by the amputees. The blade runners get a lot of recoil off the track and that helps them come through in the end,” said Sugar.
“I get nothing coming back off the floor from my left leg because I have no ankle movement when I run and I have and no calf. My left leg just slaps on the floor and comes along for the ride.
“I can lead into the home straight, but then find my legs turning to jelly. But the good thing is that the rest of my body is well suited to sprinting.
“They have decided to split the categories for the Tokyo Paralympics, which means the amputees (T43) will be running against each other and those of us in T44 will fight against each other. Tokyo is the burning ambition after London – I’m 26 now and I’m still quite new in the sport.”
A talented all-round sportswoman at her school, Newport Free Grammar in Essex, she was always competitive on sportsday, but fell in love with hockey. Despite suffering from congenital talipes equinovarus, or club foot, she was good enough in defence at school to attract the attention of regional and national selectors, eventually opting to play for the land of her Welsh father.
“I played for Wales at U18 and U21 levels and won 16 caps for the senior side as a defender. I will go back to hockey eventually,” she added.
“I always loved athletics when I was at school, and was up there with the fastest girls, and I always dreamt of being a full-time athlete. I would have done it years ago, but I never knew that my foot condition made me eligible.”
London will be her third World Championships, she was in Rio last year and she has also been to two European Championships. She won medals on ‘home’ soil in Swansea when the Euros were staged there.
“Because of the support I receive from the National Lottery I’ve now got my chance to chase my dreams. I was able to put my career as a teacher on hold and really push myself,” added Sugar.
“I’ve had completely different experiences at the World Championships I’ve attended. I’d only been running about three months when I was thrown in at the deep end in Lyon in 2013.
“I finished fourth in the 200 and fifth in the 100. A few years later in Doha I was co-captain and was recovering from a hamstring injury.
“The physios did an incredible job to get me to the start line, but things didn’t go to plan. Even so, I learned a lot from that experience.
“I peaked really well for Rio last year and I was rewarded with two pbs, including a British T44 200 record. I feel I am able to compete really well at major championships – it’s all about embracing the occasion and the pressure.
“I tend to run a p.b. at every major championship and I know the times I am capable of delivering can win me a medal. We have semi-finals and finals to run this time, as well as the heats, so it is going to be tough.
“I think I am more than capable of running 27 seconds over 200 metres and that is the event in which I am really confident. I am a racer, I can put people under pressure and I thrive on the pressure of racing.”
The nine Welsh athletes selected for London are: Aled Davies, Hollie Arnold (British Women’s team captain), Sabrina Fortune, Laura Sugar, Stephen Morris, Jordan Howe, Kyron Duke, Rhys Jones and Olivia Breen.