Disability in 2012: Jane Coia
Sports coach, Jane Coia, is describing the day she met her latest protégée, Rhys Jones. “He walked into the hall with his head down, a shy lad who played a bit of football. Out on the athletics track he was gangly and uncoordinated, but I could see potential.”
Three years of hard graft later, Paralympian Rhys is one of Great Britain’s hopefuls in the 100m and 200m sprints. Jane believes his transformation into a powerful runner at the tender age of 18 is as psychological as it is physical. “As an athlete, he has a new respect for his body and what it can achieve. He glows with confidence.”
Jane runs a Scope day centre for disabled adults in Wales, and has worked in disability sport since 1996. “I saw the difference sports makes to body and mind. Our society isn’t set up for disabled people to be daring or push their limits. Sport helps disabled athletes to set new goals, defy expectations and create an identity. It’s exhilarating and a confidence boost to beat your personal best.”
Problems in PE
Today, Jane coaches in the National Indoor Athletic Centre in Cardiff. The disabled athletes she works with are talent spotted and brought to the centre for specialist training. Despite their potential, a significant number did not take part in competitive sports at school and started training later than many non-disabled athletes.
“I’ve heard kids say their teachers didn’t know how to work with them or were too afraid of - and I quote - ‘hurting’ them,” says Jane. “One lad I know with hemiplegic cerebral palsy couldn’t fasten the button on his shorts, so he stayed in the changing room and missed every PE lesson at secondary school.”
Thankfully, times are changing. A swing in attitudes towards disabled sports over the last few years means disabled athletes, and the support teams behind them, are starting to get the kudos they deserve. “When I began coaching, my work wasn’t taken that seriously. Now, people see me training Paralympians and are fascinated by what these athletes can achieve.”
So what has brought about this change? Jane believes modern technology is putting disabled people at the cutting edge of sports. “Equipment like running blades, lightweight wheelchairs, and throwing frames mean disabled athletes can compete harder, faster and for longer,” she says. “Years ago, if you wanted to play shot-put, they just strapped your wheelchair to the floor and hoped for the best.”
The latest television adverts for the Paralympics are also helping to challenge perceptions. Tough, hard-hitting and full of impact, they show elite disabled athletes pushing themselves to the limit for their love of sport. “It’s about creating a new set of role models for young disabled people,” says Jane. “They need dreams and aspirations - heroes to look up to.”
Running alongside Rhys Jones in the 100m and 200m sprint is Jane’s other trainee, Jordan Howe, 17. She says she’ll be ‘like jelly’ when she watches the boys compete. Both athletes have been in a five days a week intensive training programme to prepare for their moment in the spotlight.
“Being chosen for the squad was beyond their wildest dreams,” says Jane. “Even more so for the parents, who never expected to see their sons in the iconic white GB tracksuit. It’s such a buzz for us all.”
Jane is quick to point out that most of the young people she trains will never make it to a professional level. But, she argues, their progress is just as significant as it for elite athletes like Rhys and Jordan.
“When you see the immense self-belief that sports can create in young disabled people, well, it’s just mind blowing. It’s not all about gold medals, it’s about these kids being proud of who they are and what they can achieve.”