Seventeen new records show that visually impaired athletes are more than up to the challenge, says Denyse Presley
Dianne Theakstone is one of the success stories of the 22nd National Schools Athletics Championships for the Visually Impaired, hosted for the first time by the Royal Blind School at Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh this summer.
The 17-year-old from the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh was left sightless after contracting cancer as a toddler, but that hasn't stopped her becoming a track athlete, running the 60m, 100m and 800m races in the championships.
At international events visually impaired and sightless athletes compete separately but here, as Dianne points out, they compete together. To guarantee an even playing field, they all wear eye masks.
Dianne herself opts for some fashionable reflective shades. When asked about her distinctive black and gold Nike running shoes, she confides: "I only wear these twice a year at major events."
The other entry qualifications are that competitors must be in full-time education and be at least 10 years old but no older than 19 by the September before the games.
The shorter races are over and Dianne chats easily about her enthusiasm for the track. "I like the 60m and 100m because I enjoy sprinting. I'm a bit nervous because I've never run an 800m until today.
"I like running because it keeps me fit but I don't take the competition element too seriously, it's just a bit of fun."
That may be, but Dianne has just broken the 60m partially sighted under-17 girls' record, running it in 10.60 seconds. Tired from competition, she rallies on learning that paralympic officials are at the championships recording times. In all, 17 records were broken at the event - four by Scots.
Dianne trains weekly in a 90-minute session with the school's athletics club at the Meadowbank stadium, its local track. In bad weather, they train indoors. Her varied fitness programme also includes horse riding, football and skiing.
So what next? Janice Eaglesham, the athletics co-ordinator for Scottish Disability Sport, doesn't hesitate: "The future for all the Diannes and Janet Arnotts - an 800m record breaker, also from the Royal Blind School - are local athletics clubs who can take up the work of schools." Kirsten Taylor - another record breaker, from Panbridge Primary in Carnoustie - discovered the event having contacted Scottish Disability Sport through her local club.
However, Richard Brickley, Scottish Disability Sport's chairman, is not so sure. "What Scottish Disability Sport and Sportscotland are trying to discover is whether visually impaired kids are accessing local clubs like non-disabled kids. Effectively they should attend mainstream clubs but work needs to be done.
"Physically disabled people will look to specialised facilities outwith school, but there's a reluctance among sensory impaired kids to link in to disabled facilities.
"As a result of the Royal Blind School experience, we will work with youngsters to get them into sports, whether accessing community or other facilities."
While Dianne retains some visual memory, Wilma Henderson, the Royal Blind School's physical education instructor, reports that the difficulty for many children who are blind from birth is that they cannot conceptualise what sport requires from them.
A new initiative by the Sports Youth Trust, called Sports Ability, which aims to help children with any physica disability to take part in sport, could go some way to solving the problem. Gavin MacLeod, Sportscotland's co-ordinator for people with disabilities, enthuses about the rolling programme, which involves more than 150 sports bags containing a variety of innovative games being sent out to schools across Scotland. The bags contain curriculum advice, resource cards and information about developing the games. In Glasgow alone more than 100 teachers have already completed a special training course.
One of the games is goal ball, an invasion game which is played on a badminton-sized court. All the children wear eye shades and the ball has an internal bell. There are no nets but the court is marked up with tactile tape. The object is to get the ball over the back line and the rules resemble football or rugby.
"It's played to paralympic level and obviously a game like this, which draws on highly developed aural skills, is appropriate to the visually impaired," says Mr MacLeod. "The feedback has been extremely good. The visually impaired children in mainstream schools are at an advantage and it's especially suited to those who are blind from birth."
Perhaps the initiative will encourage more visually impaired children to specialise in sport and enter the National Schools Athletics Championships. "We did a mailshot to all the schools, but we got a very poor response," says Ms Henderson, shrugging her resignation. Ms Eaglesham cited the location as a possible factor in the poor turn-out, while acknowledging that some competitors travelled from as far as London and Exeter and that British Blind Sport subsidised travel costs. Why so few Scottish youngsters entered is harder to fathom.
"I really don't know why," says Mr Brickley. "Mainstream schools provide good access to physical education for visually impaired children but they're not moving on to specialise in sport."
Sportscotland is trying to track down next season's stars. Mr MacLeod says:
"We're getting a national database together to identify both visually impaired and physically disabled children. It's not as easy as it might sound, because we're not quite sure where they all are.
"We want to get the information about the junior programme and festivals directly to the kids so they can chose what they want to do."
The opportunities vary from one sport to another. "We organise the Scottish Junior Swimming Championships, which are extremely popular and successful among visually impaired children," says Mr Brickley. "It's athletics that's not attracting them.
"We need to get people to link into an appropriate club. At local level there are pockets of good practice where coaches are skilled and well prepared, but good training opportunities do not make good athletes. The kids must have a keen interest in the sport, training three or four days a week. That would take you into competing against the best of British."
Schools for the visually impaired and competitor numbers
St Joseph's, Dublin, 15
Royal Blind School, Edinburgh, 12
West of England School, Exeter, 12
Joseph Clarke School, London, 12
Exhall Grange School, Coventry, 9
St Vincent's School, Liverpool, 8
New College, Worcester, 5
Integrated teams and numbers
Cheshire Visually Impaired Service, 3
Dumbarton Academy, 1
Panbridge Primary, Carnoustie, 1
Plus one guest competitor running for paralympic qualifying times