Paralympic sport: hundreds try new disciplines at Sports Fest

By Elizabeth HudsonBBC Sport at the Surrey Sports Park

More than 800 people are trying out Paralympic sport in a two-day event intended to capitalise on the success of the London Paralympics.

The performance of ParalympicsGB at the London games has given disabled sport a surge in popularity as athletes including Jonnie Peacock, David Weir, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey have become household names and sporting idols to thousands of fans, young and old.

And ParalympicsGB has set out to continue the sporting inspiration with its inaugural Sports Fest.

The aim of the event, which started on Monday at the Surrey Sports Park, is to build on the momentum of the Games and showcase opportunities for people to get involved in Paralympic sport at all levels.

The success of the British team at London 2012 - where they won 120 medals, including 34 gold - led to more than 800 people registering for the two-day event, with some travelling from as far afield as Scotland.

Participants were able to try out a host of Paralympic summer and winter sports including rowing, judo, sitting volleyball, boccia and sledge hockey, while those who showed an interest in equestrian events got the chance to try out their skills on a mechanical horse.

Paralympic medallists including double equestrian gold medallist Natasha Baker, tennis bronze medallist Lucy Shuker and shooting silver medallist Matt Skelhon were on hand to meet the crowd and offer their expert advice.

But ParalympicsGB chief executive Tim Hollingsworth was keen to stress that the event was not just for those who dream of Paralympic gold.

"We want to ensure our sports can find the next stars for Sochi, Rio [the venues for the next winter and summer Games] and beyond but this is also a great opportunity to help people get into sport at all levels," he told BBC Sport.

"The fact so many people registered to come and meet athletes and try out winter and summer sports is encouraging and we are hoping to replicate these days at a number of other venues across the UK in 2013.

"After Beijing we had some talent identification days which typically had around 40 to 50 people attending - so the numbers that have registered for this event shows the growth that London has brought.

"We are not yet where we want to be - we are a growing movement and the momentum out of London has been magnificent, and today is one example of how we can bring it to life."

From established sports like athletics, swimming and cycling to the newest Paralympic sports of Para-triathlon and Para-canoe, which will be making their debut in Rio in 2016, all of the sports represented were striving to reach a wider audience.

British Cycling Paralympic performance manager Gareth Sheppard was hoping not only to unearth the next Sarah Storey or Mark Colbourne but also to encourage more people generally to get on their bikes.

"We are here to look for the next gold medallist for Rio and beyond but this is not just about the Paralympics - disability sport is bigger than that now and we are trying to grow participation at grassroots level and have people enjoy the sport," he said.

"The turnout has been brilliant and we will look to invite some people back for talent testing early next year to put them through their paces."

For GB Para-canoe development coach John Griffiths, the event provided a vital opportunity to seek out new talent before the sport's Paralympic debut.

"We are keen to get more people involved but we also want to showcase the sport as people may not be aware it is now part of the Paralympics and the opportunities it offers," he said.

"It would have been fantastic if the sport had been at London 2012 but we are already up and running and won five golds and a bronze at this year's World Championships - but hopefully we can get some more people from the event today."

Among the school groups enjoying the event were a party of 13 from Hurlingham and Chelsea School, led by teacher Kirsty Percival.

"Some of our students here today have physical disabilities, others have learning disabilities and there are some others without disabilities who are here to learn more about Paralympic sports," she explained.

"The whole school has been inspired by the Paralympics and we have started playing sitting volleyball, handball and tag rugby.

"Today we've tried everything and loved it - especially the shooting, wheelchair basketball, archery and goalball - and to meet the medallists was fantastic.

"For the students with disabilities it shows them that they can take part in sport and also hopefully give them a chance to be Paralympians in the future."

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