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Paralympics Review: Global sporting fever hits Brands Hatch

Wednesday, December 19 2012

Gold medals, record breaking performances and actions of super-human ability were just some of the highlights when the Paralympic Games visited Brands Hatch for four days in September.

Less than four weeks after the closing ceremony for the Olympic Games, engine power at Brands Hatch was temporarily replaced by pedals and cranks as the spirit of London 2012 descended on the Kent circuit for the Paralympic Games Road Cycling events on 5-7 September.

Spectators were able to get within a few feet of the athletes competing during the event with the kaleidoscopic London 2012 artwork providing a stunning backdrop to a unique showcase of sporting talent. A multitude of standout performances, not to mention the stunning blue skies and scorching temperatures, all helped provide an atmosphere different to any other seen at Brands Hatch before. One national journalist even proclaimed Brands Hatch as a contender for "venue of London 2012."

It didn't take long for history to be made, with an intense first day of competition (Wednesday) that decided no less than 18 gold medals, and provided two huge talking points. The first being British competitor Sarah Storey claiming her third gold medal of the games, having already secured two in the Velodrome, which left her one gold short of equalling the British Paralympic record. Storey dominated her C5 Individual Time Trial to finish over a minute and a half clear of her nearest competitors, a feat made even more remarkable when it was revealed afterwards that her earpiece had broken, meaning she was having to pedal flat out unaware of her position in the classifications relative to other riders.

There was more British success as well, with Mark Colbourne claiming silver in the Men's Individual Time Trial, Karen Darke also securing silver in her category and a bronze for David Stone in the Mixed Time Trial.

Then later that day, former F1 driver Alex Zanardi claimed the first of what turned out to be two gold medals with a stunning performance in the Men's H4 Time Trial. After competing his two laps of the course, Zanardi remained on the circuit with his trainer and watched his fellow competitors cross the line one by one. When it became obvious he had claimed gold he squeezed himself out of his bespoke handcycle and one-handed, raised it aloft to the crowd, with a grin of sheer ecstasy on his face. There was more to come from the great Italian two days later...

Thursday saw a record breaking performance from Sarah Storey, who equalled the British Paralympic gold medal tally of 11 held by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dave Roberts by pulverising her opponents in the Women's Individual C4-5 road race. Storey claimed the win by over seven minutes, even overtaking the men's road race which started several minutes before, with the Princess Royal watching on. Such heroics ensured Storey secured a nomination for last Sunday's BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

But it was perhaps the Friday that will be most fondly remembered by those who were there, with Alex Zanardi putting in a breathtaking performance in the Mens' handcycle road race to claim his second gold medal in three days. Having raced with the lead peloton throughout the 64km race, seemingly without breaking sweat, Zanardi made his move with 300 metres remaining. Taking a tight inside line in the final corner, the Italian powered his way to the front of the group, and roared on by a vociferous crowd on the start/finish straight edged out his nearest competitor by just one second after two hours of competition.

With no British rider for the spectators to cheer on, Zanardi was very much the focus of the crowd's attention, with many aware of his previous exploits as a racing driver and the aptness of his journey going full circle by winning at Brands Hatch. Zanardi squeezed out his seat and kissed the tarmac in celebration before again lifting his bike single-handedly into the air, the fading late summer light adding an almost perfect golden hue to one of the shining moments in the whole games. Then came a rousing rendition of the Italian national anthem on the podium, and finally an impromptu rendition of 'Happy Birthday' for Zanardi's son Niccolo, with the gathered masses around the podium only too happy to join in!

Earlier in the day there had been more success for Great Britain, with Rachel Morris claiming a bronze medal in her handcycle road race. In an attempt to share the medal with countrywoman Karen Darke, the pair crossed the line hand in hand, but it was Morris who was awarded the medal by virtue of crossing the line just marginally ahead. It was a fitting reward for Morris, who had been injured just weeks prior to the games, leaving her participation in some doubt.

Then almost too quickly the final day arrived, but not without more success for Great Britain, and more for Zanardi also, this time as part of a team.

David Stone successfully defended his Mixed Road Race crown he claimed in Beijing 2008 by securing the win at Brands Hatch, making up somewhat from his bronze medal disappointment earlier in the week during the Time Trial.

And then as a grand finale, a somewhat chaotic but thoroughly entertaining handcycle Team Relay was held, which saw Zanardi and Italian colleagues Francesca Fenocchio and Vittorio Podesta claim a silver medal behind the USA team.

Four days of world class sporting action, 32 gold medals awarded, over 200 athletes from 42 nations, an unbeatable atmosphere. Oh and the sun shined too! It was quite simply an inspiring four days.

To recap fully on the Paralympics at Brands Hatch click here to view the minisite.

Images by Richard Randle