Paralympic pioneer

22 March 2019

Our Can Do Sport supporter Janice Watson bagged gold for Great Britain at the Paralympics. She shares her story.

Early years and instant record breaking

Ever since she was young, Janice Watson loved taking part in sport. Her first loves were netball and rounders. However, Janice had a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) – damage to the retina among babies born early – that can lead to blindness. By secondary school, her visual impairments became severe.

Janice wearing her gold medal, holding a Paralympic bear

Janice says her changing vision made her teenage self “try even harder.” She went along to a local Rotary Club event to try out disability sports and became successful at discus, entering competitions in Stoke Mandeville — the birthplace of the Paralympic games.

In her early twenties, Janice decided, on an impulse, to give javelin a go. She was in for a surprise. She remembers:

‘I asked how much further I had to throw to beat the British javelin record. I heard the reply: ‘you’ve just beaten it’.’

Competing

After fundraising for herself Janice entered her first international competition: the European Games 1983 in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. She won her first gold medal for Great Britain with a distance of 21m 98 cm.

In 1984, at 22 years old, Janice set off to New York for what we now know as the Paralympic Games, again fundraising for the trip herself.

Janice said:

‘I did enjoy New York. I remember there was an Australian athlete who scooted about on a skateboard to get around.

‘And there was the Canadian Arnie Bolt, a single amputee high jumper. He didn’t have prosthetics.

‘He just bounded over. It was brilliant to have these things described to me and hear things I just wouldn’t have thought of.

‘The camaraderie was good. If it weren’t for these athletes, my coaches and the Rotarians, I wouldn’t have got anywhere and wouldn’t have won my medals.’

At the Games in New York, Janice won gold for Great Britain in the B1 javelin for athletes with profound visual impairments.

Competing under her maiden name of Janice Moores, her winning distance of 18m 98 cm saw her placed just ahead of athletes from East and West Germany.

She did all this despite far from ideal preparations, dislocating her shoulder on her non-throwing side just days before.

Janice was understandably pleased with the result — ringing bleary-eyed supporters back home ‘at what must have been 4am’. But after her victory, the celebrations were sadly downgraded.

Janice says:

‘They told us that they would play the national anthems for each gold medal winner. But they ended up just playing the Victory March.

‘It was a bit disappointing because as a sportsperson you always dream of turning towards the flag and having the British national anthem played.

‘I think that would have given us a bigger sense of achievement straight away. I still feel to this day that I’d still love to throw one more javelin and hear it.’

Janice’s experience is a world away from the present-day Paralympics, where the national anthem plays for each gold medal winner, as it would at the Olympics.

In 1984, the Olympics and Paralympics were also held in two separate cities – LA and New York respectively. Athletes with spinal injuries even had their events in another country, competing in Stoke Mandeville in the UK. After 1984 there would be the same host city for all Olympic and Paralympic events.

Janice recalls:

‘Back then we weren’t in the same stadium, of course. There was no press in those days, and no one watching us.’

Turning point

It took a while for Janice to realise the full value and impact of her achievements.

She tells us:

‘I never felt proud of my medals until many years later. Shortly afterwards I wasn’t sure what to make of it.”

‘The turning point was the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. On the TV they were talking to a young female athlete.

‘She gave an interview and said something along these lines that really stayed with me: "It’s not just us who should be getting the glory. It’s those people that have gone before us. They had to find their own funding, arrange their own support and they needed to work far harder than we did."’

Sport for everyone

Janice is delighted at the coverage received now by modern Paralympic athletes.

She said:

‘It’s fantastic nowadays. Your country’s association usually pays for you now – travel, equipment, kit, everything. There’s an athlete’s village, TV coverage, a big crowd. I’m so pleased for them.’

The former Paralympian is keen to stress that sport is open for everyone. Following a car accident, she is now also a wheelchair user but retains a passionate commitment to sport. She tells us:

‘Everybody should give it a try – especially if you like sport but even if you just want a challenge.

‘There’s nothing better than setting yourself a goal and beating it. Go online and nowadays you’ll find a sport that’s right for you.

‘It doesn’t matter if you have a very severe impairment. There’s a sport out there for everyone.’



Find out more about disability sport and getting active 

Find out more about our Can Do Sport programme.

You can also visit the Parasport website to find sports, clubs and organisations near you.

Other useful links

English Federation of Disability Sport - ‘Get Active’

Disability Sport NI

Disability Sport Wales

Scottish Disability Sport – ‘Take Part’

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