GB sledge hockey team target Paralympics and funding support

By Nick HopeBBC Paralympic sports reporter

The Great Britain sledge hockey team are hoping for an upturn in fortunes - starting with qualification for the Sochi Winter Paralympics.

GB finished seventh at Turin in 2006 but failed to reach Vancouver 2010 and do not receive UK Sport funding.

Next week they return to Italy seeking a top-three finish in their qualifying group to reach the 2014 Games.

"We're aiming for a medal in 2018, but qualifying for next year's Games would be huge," said GB captain Ian Warner.

"I've never been so excited leading into a tournament and I believe we have a really big chance [of qualifying] because the squad is so strong at the moment."

Warner captained Great Britain to an impressive World Championship Pool B bronze in Japan earlier this year but that success comes against the background of significant financial struggles.

GB sledge hockey - the sport is a version of ice hockey for athletes with a lower-limb disability - has never been supported by UK Sport because to date they have not been able to prove they have genuine Paralympic medal potential.

Although they have found a sponsor to cover the costs of the qualification tournament in Italy from 20-26 October, they have been forced to run numerous fundraisers to ensure their continued existence.

"Sledge hockey has been about scrimping and saving everything you can," team member Nathan Stephens, who competed in the javelin at the London Paralympics, told BBC Sport.

"We've hung around outside supermarkets with buckets to try to get those pennies and pounds for equipment and get to events all over the world."

The 25-year-old Welshman, who lost both legs in a railway accident as a child, added: "In athletics everything is put on a plate and you just have to go and throw, but fundraising like this has really brought us together as a team."

The sport's plight is illustrated by the fact that weekly training sessions at the Planet Ice rinkexternal-link in Coventry have to take place between midnight and 2am.

"To get a bit of support that would enable us to train in the middle of the day and more professional hours would be fantastic," said three-time GB Paralympic sailor Stephen Thomas.

"It shows our determination though - most people our age would either be tucked up or out at a nightclub, but we're here training hard and some of the guys even have work the next day."

For Thomas, 36, who had both legs amputated below the knee as a result of meningitis, qualifying for Sochi would at least go some way to helping him get over missing out on a medal at London 2012.

His Sonar team were on-course for bronze before an off-water rule infringement saw them relegated from the podium positions.

"It was disappointing to get a fifth place but we have to move on from that now and try for better," he said.

Thomas, Stephens and captain Warner were all part of the British team that finished seventh at the 2006 Winter Paralympics, held in the same city as next week's qualifiers.

GB face hosts Italy on Monday before encounters with Sweden, Japan, Korea and Germany.external-link

GB head coach Andrew Linton said: "It would be a huge boost to the sport [if they qualified for Sochi] and I genuinely feel the doors will open [to financial support] if we do make it there.

"I think we're quite capable of beating anybody - but so is everyone else."

Games against Italy and Sweden offer Britain's best chance of victories, but they are also likely to require a win against Japan or Germany to give them the three victories that would guarantee a place in Russia next year.

"Paralympic sport has grown so much since London and we want to show Britain is good at Winter Paralympic sports as well," said Stephens.

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