Sport - Paralympic gold, a stone's throw away?

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Wheelchair curling teacher aims to inspire with Sochi story

Children at a South Lanarkshire primary could soon be learning from a Paralympic medallist, as one of their teachers is going for gold in Sochi next month.

Aileen Neilson, who is on a career break from Bent Primary School, will take to the ice with the British wheelchair curling team at the Paralympic Games in Russia. The team is due to play its first match against Canada on 8 March.

"I am very excited to be going. It is an honour to represent Great Britain at the Paralympics," the teacher from Strathaven said. Having taken time off to focus on the Games, she will return to Bent Primary after the summer and said that her time in Sochi would influence her teaching.

"Going to the Paralympics will give me a whole new experience and develop me as a person, so I will bring that back into the classroom," Ms Neilson said, adding that it would show her students that with hard work they could achieve their dreams.

She is also keen to introduce her students to curling. "That is one of the great things about the sport. It is for anyone from 8 to 80 and any ability," she said.

Ms Neilson was left disabled after the removal of a tumour when she was a child. Coming from a family of curling enthusiasts, she had tried the sport when she was young but later had to watch from the sidelines until she took her class to a nearby rink in 2004 and it was suggested that she try wheelchair curling.

Soon after, Ms Neilson took up club curling and has not looked back since. After winning bronze with the Scottish team at the world championships in Sweden in 2007, she made history in 2010 when she became the first female skip of a curling team at the Paralympic Games.

However, juggling a demanding teaching job and her training in the run-up to the Games proved difficult. "I tried to work full-time and train full- time, but I found it extremely hard," Ms Neilson said. "I was doing both but not to the extent that I wanted. I was the only one on the team who was working."

So in 2011, after 16 years as a teacher, Ms Neilson took a career break in order to focus on Sochi and make her dreams of winning an Olympic medal a reality. Training can involve being on the ice for five or six hours a day. "It is a full-time job," she said.

The British wheelchair curling team is among the favourites for a medal in Sochi. Bruce Crawford, chief operating officer of British Curling, told TESS that the players were "ready to take to the ice and perform well". The team had won medals at world level during this four-year cycle, he added, and he was confident that they would "reach the play-off stages for medals".

Caroline Wilson, headteacher of Bent Primary, said that students and staff had watched Ms Neilson's performances over the past couple of years and were looking forward to seeing her compete in Sochi "with great excitement and pride".

"All our teachers bring a wealth of life experience which can benefit our pupils in different ways, but until now we haven't had a Paralympian," Ms Wilson said. "Ms Neilson will undoubtedly be able to inspire pupils with her achievements and we are looking forward to hear her tales of life as a Paralympian.

"She really is a perfect example to children of how with hard work, determination and self-discipline anything is possible."

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