One of the UK’s most successful para-athletes, David Weir, thinks more needs to be done to help young people fund and access high-performance wheelchairs and adaptable gyms.
Weir, who won the London Marathon for the eighth time last month, launched Weir Archer Academy’s partnership with St Mary’s University yesterday, alongside Jenny Archer, which will help young athletes access the necessary equipment and resources to allow them to train at a high level.
Speaking at the launch, he told AMP that the old wheelchair voucher scheme made it difficult for people to access a suitable wheelchair, let alone a high-performance active chair.
He said: “I think the government needs to push on [funding] a bit more, although I know some people do get a lot more help if they really need the chair.
“This chair I’m sitting in now is £5,000. It is expensive but it’s built made-to-measure and it’s an individual thing and some people can’t afford that.
“Some families won’t be able to rack up £5,000 at all so it would be nice to get a bit more help for those people.”
Weir worked with Cambridge-based Draft Wheelchairs to build his racing chair but he noted that there are “loads of companies” providing active equipment, referring to the likes of Bromakin and RGK.
He added that some companies in the industry are working to encourage young people into para-sports and doing a lot for certain sports.
But where funding is concerned, Weir said “everything takes small steps”.
“That’s what I’ve learnt being disabled – you can’t just rush in and demand things because it doesn’t work like that you have to really take small steps. It’s great to see gyms and other places investing. You can see there are small things moving for disabilities which is great to see.”
Some of the young athletes at the Weir Archer Academy highlighted the importance of having suitable equipment to do sports but said it was often difficult to come by unless athletes have the financial support or have connections.
One said: “We find it really difficult because they’re generally quite expensive and it takes a long time to get the chair to a point where you can use it on the track. I started off in a Weir Archer-borrowed chair before I could get one that fitted me properly.
“With able-bodied athletics, all you really need are the shoes. And even then they don’t have a massive impact on their ability to run. But for a para-athlete having a chair that fits you perfectly is absolutely important.
“If you take away a runner’s shoes they’re guaranteed to find another pair but if you take away an athlete’s chair it could take a year at least.”
Another athlete in the academy said that wheelchair sports are “not cheap” and that it can take up to three years to find a chair that’s up to the job.
“No one is paying for a chair out of their own pocket, you have to get the funding and that can take a long time. And when you get your chair you’ve got to make sure it’s absolutely perfect because you don’t know when you’re going to get another one.
“If you had the facilities like you do here it’s easy to repair and fix but if you don’t have the means to do that, if you bust a tyre you’re done for the season and you’re behind everyone else and it’s a real disadvantage.
“A lot of [equipment suppliers] are very good but with most things in life it’s about who you know. If you’ve got good connections, you’re going to get a chair quite quickly. If you’ve been in the sport for a year, then good luck. If you’ve been there for five years, chances are you’re going to get one faster.”
The Weir Archer Academy will use St Mary’s University’s world class facilities as its sports science and strength and conditioning base.
This partnership means the University can provide students the opportunity of experiencing sport science support to Paralympic athletes, opportunities extremely rare in an academic environment.
The Weir Archer Academy provides athlete and coaching support and expertise across all levels and abilities including working with schools in the South East of England. It works with clubs and coaches in the region to provide access to the Academy for international development for under-resourced counties.