Paralympic champion Richard Whitehead believes Menna Fitzpatrick’s historic achievement at the Beijing Winter Paralympics can inspire a new generation of winter para-athletes.
Skier Fitzpatrick, 23, has so far won a Super-G silver and a Super combined bronze in Beijing alongside guide Gary Smith, with the visually impaired Giant slalom taking place tomorrow.
Those two medals, coupled with the one gold, two silvers and one bronze she won in PyeongChang four years ago, have made her Britain’s most decorated Winter Paralympian.
Fitzpatrick’s journey into professional skiing began at Chill Factore in Manchester when she was talent spotted aged 12.
Today, a special event, hosted by The National Lottery, was held there to encourage people with disabilities to try skiing.
Speaking at the event, Whitehead, a winner of two gold and two silver medals at the Summer Paralympics in 2021 and who also represented ParalympicsGB in sledge hockey at the Turin Winter Paralympics 16 years ago, believes Fitzpatrick’s success can boost the profile of winter parasports within the UK and help challenge perceptions and break down barriers for all disabled people.
“For me, it’s brilliant to have those athletes that go beyond with their performance. Menna’s a great role model for winter parasport and she’s still got opportunities to get even more medals,” said Whitehead, 45.
“The Winter Paralympics have been great for Britain. These athletes have been getting lots of medals, but also there’s lots of people with career-high finishes. These Winter Games will provide a great platform moving forward.
“It gives young people and those with disabilities the ability to be inspired and liberated by people they look up to. Barriers and obstacles that are put up in front of disabled people are lowered by performances such as these.
“There’s 2.1m people in the UK with a disability and for them there’s been lots of physical, emotional and economic barriers. Today it's an opportunity to give people with disabilities that platform with winter sport and give them the opportunity to try physical activity.
“It’s important to communicate that sport is important for physical and mental health.”
Fitzpatrick joins ParalympicsGB's most competitive ever team at a Winter Games, with more athletes looking to achieve personal best performances in more sports than ever before.
Also at Chill Factore today were Fitzpatrick’s parents David, 58, and Mair, 60, who have been following their daughter throughout the early hours of the morning during these Games.
David and Mair travelled to PyeongChang in 2018 to watch their daughter compete but are having to follow the Games from home this time with international fans not allowed in Beijing.
“It’s not quite the same as being out there. We went to the last Games and we would have really loved to go out to China but obviously circumstances prevent it, so we’ve got to try and support her the best we can from home,” said David.
“The biggest issue is that you can’t just give her a bit of a hug really. There are times where it doesn’t always go to plan and she needs a parental arm round her. You can’t do that; you just must do it over the telephone. It’s a bit tough.
“We had no idea that she’d reach these heights. She does keep her feet and skis on the ground. The record is brilliant and it’s amazing, but she just goes out to do her best really in each race and sometimes that works. She’s done fantastically well. We’re really proud.”
Mair added: “The people who play The National Lottery every week and pay the money for their tickets, they support over a thousand athletes now. It wouldn’t be possible without The National Lottery and UK Sport funding."
Menna Fitzpatrick is one of over 1,000 athletes who have benefited from National Lottery funding which allows them to train full-time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support. This funding has been crucial in getting them to the start line of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing 2022.
Mair continued: “We can’t wait to see her. She was supposed to arrive back in Manchester on her own but they’ve rescheduled all the flights now so we can go and give her a great big cheer through the arrivals in Heathrow!
“Menna’s motto really is that she feels like the girl next door and wants to inspire other little girls next door to do the same and get out there and produce something incredible. If it makes one young girl and one boy go out and perform, then she’s done her job really well.”
National Lottery players are one of the biggest supporters of ParalympicsGB winter athletes and raise more than £30 million each week for good causes, including grassroots and elite sport. If you want to learn more about how you can take part in inclusive sporting opportunities, visit parasport.org.uk