Sally sprinting for success at London 2012 Paralympics

Ballykelly sprinter has her sights set on a medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. 1008SJ80
Ballykelly sprinter has her sights set on a medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. 1008SJ80

Like most girls her age, Ballykelly teenager Sally Brown loves shopping for the latest fashions, listening to music and is guilty of a messy bedroom. 

But unlike her school friends, for large chunks of the year, the teenager leads a life that is worlds apart. 

In a fortnight’s time, the Roe Valley sprinter - who was born with left arm Dysmelia, a rare birth defect which means her arm didn’t develop below the elbow - will don the Team GB and Northern Ireland strip and race in the London 2012 Paralympics in front of tens of thousands of spectators. 

“Running really does take up my whole life, but I am like any other teenage girl as well, I love to shop, I love my music and my room’s a mess,” admits the 17-year-old.

“To know that when I step out onto the track and know that most of the crowd will be supporting me and the GB&NI team will be amazing. It is going to be a real honour to represent my country.”

Sally started running when she was at primary school and knew very quickly it was something she could be good at. Aged nine, she joined Springwell Running Club and has competed in able-bodied athletics ever since. 

“I really love running because of the adrenalin rush and the high you get from competing and doing well in a race,” she says. 

Things could have turned out very different had Sally’s fears taken hold. 

“It was only two and  half years ago that I was spotted at a competition and asked to attend a talent camp in Leeds for disabled athletics run by UK athletics,” she explained. “From there I was selected for the GB&NI team at the IPC World Juniors Championships twice, the IPC world Senior Championships and the BT World Cup.

“It’s strange to think, but the night before I went to the talent camp in Leeds I got cold feet and told my parents I was not going. Thankfully, they convinced me to go and I haven’t looked back since!”

The last 18 months have been mixed with highs and lows for Sally, from when she won bronze at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in New Zealand to when she was injured in May last year with a double stress fracture in her foot. 

“This meant I had to stop running and focus on rehab and recovery,” she says. “This was a really tough time, but I stuck to what my coaches and doctors told me to do and I have made a full recovery.”

Sally’s love of running and sheer determination to be the best has often meant she hasn’t been able to do things teens her age take for granted.

“I have had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to get my selection onto the team,” she says. “I don’t really have much time to go out with friends or do what most teenage girls would do, but I love running and I would not swap what I have achieved for anything.”

Sally says throughout her career there have been many people who have been there, pushing her, believing in her and making sure she achieves what she is capable of. 

People like Bill Deighan, her first coach at Springwell Running Club in Limavady. 

“He always made sure that we enjoyed what we were doing and that has stayed with me ever since,” she says. “He has always believed that I could do something special.”

In the last two and half years Sally moved to Springwell Running Club in Coleraine where Philip Tweedie has coached her. 

“He has given up so much of his free time to coach me up to six days a week at times,” she says. “My success in New Zealand can be put down to the gruelling training schedule I had the three months before the competition. The weather was horrible and some days we had to train on the beach in Portrush in -10 degrees because the track was frozen over! I couldn’t have done that without Philip encouraging me and making sure we had a bit of craic too.”

The two people who are a constant in Sally’s life are her parents. 

“They have given up so much for me to be able to train and compete,” she says. “Parents of an athlete are so important. My dad travels everywhere with me and makes sure I get to training and competitions on time. We spend a lot of time together in the car, at airports and hanging around hotels. We have a very similar sense of humour, so we have good fun.

“My mum makes sure I have my kit and puts up with my picky eating habits. She also made sure that when I first started running that I never missed training. It must have been hard because I have a little sister and she had to come along most of the time.”

At the end of a “very hard” and “very tough” four-week training block, Sally heads to Portugal for two weeks to train with the rest of the GB& NI team. 

“This will be really time to fine tune and put everything together, so that my performance is peaking at the end of the month,” she says. “I have always thrived in the warm weather training camp environment and am looking forward to it. “We will be training twice a day. So the time is only spent training, eating and resting.”

Having watched in amazement the athletes in action in London at the Olympics, how are her nerves? 

“At the moment, I am feeling very excited but also very nervous,” she says, candidly. “Watching the Olympics and hearing the noise of the crowds makes it all feel very scary. I know the sessions my events are on have sold out, so to compete in front of 80,000 people will be amazing but I know I will have to stay focused on my race and what I have to do.”

Her goal is to reach the finals of the 100m and 200m and “then anything can happen on the day”. 

“I have been training with the aim to medal at the games, but there are a lot of fast girls in my classification and they will all want to achieve the same thing,” she says. “It can all boil down to who can cope with pressure and crowds on the day.”

Three things she knows she will do for the days of her events is getting her make-up and nails done before competition. 

“I also have a lucky necklace my mum and dad gave me, which I wear at all my competitions,” she says. 

Sally’s inspiration is the Olympic Gold medallist and heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, who she says “inspires me to improve all the time and to always strive to do better”.

Given Ennis’s success at the London 2012 Games, and Sally’s talent and determination, the Ballykelly sprinter is on the right track. 

“To be able to compete at a home games is a once in a lifetime experience,” she added.

Sally Brown will compete at the London 2012 Paralympics in the T46 100M and 200M on: 

31st August: 20:30- 200m 

1st Sept: 22:10- 200m final

4th Sept: 12:50-100m heats

5th Sept: 21:15- 100m Final