GB Paralympic athletes use Petitclerc experience

By Elizabeth HudsonBBC Paralympic sports reporter

The Great Britain Paralympic athletics team are hoping that the influence of one of the world's most successful Paralympians can help them star at London 2012.

The team struggled in Beijing, winning just two gold medals - both from wheelchair racer David Weir - in a total of 17 medals.

But the appointment of Swedish-born head coach Peter Eriksson in early 2009 has revitalised the team and the arrival of the squad's newest addition, 14-time Paralympic gold medallist Chantal Petitclerc as a coach and mentor, means the future is looking bright.

While Eriksson has brought in many new initiatives, including closer integration with the Olympic team, the appointment of his long-time charge is the most eye-catching.

Canadian wheelchair racer Petitclerc has been one of the most stellar stars in the sport, winning five gold medals in both the Athens and Beijing Games at distances from 100m up to 1500m.

And the long-time rival of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson wants to use all her expertise to help the GB squad.

"I retired four years ago with a lot of medals and a lot of experience, which I want to share, so when I was asked to consider the role I thought it would be a great opportunity for me," Petitclerc told BBC Sport.

"I wanted to be in London so although it will be a little strange not to be competing, I will be there with the athletes.

"I'm happy to do it all - whether that is at the track helping with strategy and positioning and advice, having coffee with nervous athletes or holding water bottles at the track for athletes after they finish training or competing."

Eriksson has set a target for London of around 25 medals, including five to six golds.

The team finished in third place in the medals table at last year's World Championships in New Zealand with 12 golds in their 38-medal total and his tough stance has helped to revitalise the programme.

Now coaches like Dan Pfaff and Lloyd Cowan are working not only with the Olympic hopefuls but also the Paralympic squad and Eriksson's mantra of "everything the same" is clearly evident.

"It is tougher today to be on the Paralympic programme than on the Olympic programme, because if you don't medal, you won't be on podium funding year-to-year," explained Eriksson.

"Instead of having a rewards programme, where you stayed on the team forever, now it is about investing in medals and it has upped the standards quite a bit and we have a lot of new young athletes who are performing."

And if any of the GB team, including female wheelchair racers like Shelly Woods, Hannah Cockcroft and Jade Jones, need to find out about how a Paralympic gold medal can change your life, they will not need to go too far to get Petitclerc's insight.

"I was always a very passionate and intense athlete and Beijing was so intense," she admits.

"I knew I was going there to win five gold medals for the second time in a row, which had never been done before, so it came with a lot of pressure and I had also decided it would be my last Paralympics. Looking back now, I just can't believe I made it happen.

"Working here with some of the younger members of the GB team it has brought me back many years. The energy is so high and positive and they have great potential.

"Many of these athletes will have the experience of having their first Games on home soil, which will never happen again, so I think they have to realise it is a unique privilege and as well as the performance, I want them to realise how great it is to have that experience and enjoy it.

"But winning a gold medal is certainly life-changing and you can't really prepare for it when you are at a Games. Then you land back home and you find your life has changed. People recognise you and even now there are people who remember me competing who want autographs and photos.

"It's great but it does come with pressure and time management and your life is completely different.

"I think as part of the GB team I will be happy if they make it to their goal in terms of medals but personally I will be very happy if I can come out of this games having made a difference and helped individuals make their dreams happen."

You can hear more from Chantal Petitclerc in Sportsworld this Sunday on BBC World Service from 1500-1800 GMT/1600-1900 BST

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