With a new generation of budding athletes being inspired by sporting heroes such as Jason Richards, the question the international wheelchair-racer is most often asked by youngsters is: "How can I get a cool car that can also carry a racing wheelchair?"
As a Ford MAGIC* ambassador, Jason is well-equipped to dispense sound advice on driving and disability, but this is a tough one. His own car is a hand-controlled Ford Mondeo Ghia X TDCi auto estate that takes awkward loads in its stride. "Racing wheelchairs are big pieces of kit, but I recently drove to the airport and managed to get in two racing chairs and two day chairs as well as a fellow GB athlete. The Mondeo’s carrying capacity is tremendous, which is what I love about it.
"The kids may be fairly new to wheelchair-racing and probably want to drive a car that’s sporty and small, but you just cannot combine that with a racing wheelchair. They tend to say: ‘Oh, if you have a silver chair, I’d like a silver chair’ or ‘You drive a Mondeo, so perhaps I can get a Mondeo!’ That’s fine, but a Focus estate is another good option."
Jason is spending even more time working with young people since becoming head of a new charitable body, the Grace Foundation, in May. "A lot of youngsters are wanting to get into wheelchair-racing, but racing chairs start at around £1,700 and that’s a heck of a lot of money. It’s not like buying a kid a pair of spikes to see if he or she takes to running, and because wheelchair-racing is a lot harder than it looks, it’s not for everyone.
"So the Grace Foundation is proposing to make a fleet of racing wheelchairs available for loan to whoever wants to try them."
The foundation aims to inject money into sport at grassroots level, to help tackle childhood obesity but with an eye very much on 2012. "By the time we get to the Paralympics in London, we want to have the strongest wheelchair-racing team possible," says Jason. "Anyone out there with the potential should be given the opportunity to make it."
Jason Richards has just completed what he considers to be his own best wheelchair-racing season yet, climaxing in the inaugural Middlesborough 10km race in early October. He won by inches after a thrilling tussle with rival Jason Gill, in a personal best time of just 24min 18sec.
"I started the season in March in the North-east by winning the Redcar 10-mile road race, so to win the last race just down the road was a great end to what’s been my best season by a long shot," says Jason.
Along the way he recorded a personal best time in the London Marathon, wins in the BWRA National Track Championships 200m and 800m races, and personal bests in the Dixie Games in the USA in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m (also a British best) and 1500m events.He also finished 8th in the heats of the 1500m at the Open European Championships in Helsinki.
"My health has been consistently good, and I got a new coach, Peter Eriksson, who has had a big impact on the way things have gone." And though the Grace Foundation is based in Doncaster, 50 miles from his home in Harrogate, Jason finds that working there three days a week allows him more time for training than he ever had in the past while working as a chartered engineer.
"It was a big departure, but it gives me far more flexibility," he says. "Now I can be very positive about what I’m doing, rather than feeling that my sport is getting in the way of work. And my work as a Ford MAGIC ambassador ties in with every part of my life. I cover up to 25,000 miles a year travelling to work and to competitions all over the UK in the Mondeo, and people are always wanting to ask about the car and about motability issues."
Now Jason’s challenge is to peak early against tough competition in 2006 and qualify for the World Championships in the Netherlands. That means a punishing training regime through the winter, covering up to 100 miles a week in his chair.
Jason was paralysed from the chest down in 1996, when he was 25, after damaging his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident. But within a year he had won a bronze medal for javelin and the Best Newcomer Award at the British National Wheelchair Championships, and hasn’t looked back. By 2002 he was British champion in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m wheelchair-racing events.
And now Jason Richards’ triumphal 2005 season is being crowned by a special Disabled Performer Award conferred by Harrogate District Sports Council. "I’m really flattered to have won something like this in my local town - as an international athlete, it means a great deal to me."
* Ford MAGIC (Mobility and General Information Centre) is a freephone information service on driving with a disability. It is available to all disabled motorists (whatever car they drive or want to drive), families, friends, carers and medical professionals in the UK. Information is available on the Motability scheme, disability benefit entitlements, mobility assessment centres, charities, vehicle adaptation companies, specialist holiday companies and Ford vehicles and dealerships. The lines are open from 9am-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-12pm Sat. Call 0800 240 241, or visit www.fordmagic.co.ukPublished 12 November 2005