Hampshire’s pride in the success of its Olympic and Paralympic athletes has been demonstrated at a special celebratory reception.
The Leader of Hampshire County Council, Cllr Roy Perry, hosted the event to congratulate the athletes on their achievements, for putting Hampshire on the sporting map, and to thank them for all they have done to inspire future generations of athletes.
It was a record medal haul for GB athletes at Rio 2016 in the medal tally with nine Hampshire athletes winning 12 medals, including five athletes who have been supported by the County Council through the Hampshire Talented Athlete Scheme (HTAS).
Cllr Perry said: “If Hampshire had been a country we would have been 37th in the Olympics ahead of Ireland, Austria and Norway and 26th in the Paralympics. Our athletes really were a great success for the country!
“Their outstanding performances have inspired so many and we wanted to demonstrate just how much we value and respect their hard work, dedication and talent. Not only have they put Hampshire on the sporting map but excited thousands of youngsters to lead healthier, more active lives.
“We’re fortunate that Hampshire is represented by such outstanding athletes and proud to have played a small, but important role in their success through the Talented Athlete Scheme and we’ll continue to nurture talent at grass roots level.”
The scheme provides grants for competition and travel costs, free training at leisure centres, free bus travel, as well as fast track physiotherapy and sport science support.
It’s not just the athletes who benefit as the scheme requires them to visit schools and the Hampshire School Games to inspire the next generation, and encourage children to be more active.
Alex Danson won gold as part of the women’s hockey team at the Olympic final, which was watched by around nine million people across the UK. The Southampton-born athlete, who attended school in Odiham and Farnborough, was supported by HTAS early in her career. She said: “Events like this reception are so important, because everybody has the local place they were brought up, the local clubs they played at, the local schools they went to. It’s a real honour to be invited back to celebrate with the local Olympians and Paralympians.
“It was a huge privilege for me when I was younger to be part of the Hampshire Talented Athlete Scheme. It was unbelievably helpful in terms of support, access to local facilities where I could do all my training, get to school on time, get back and do some more training. It was a real help for me as a youngster.”
Swimmer Mikey Jones made his international debut at the Rio Paralympics, but that didn’t stop him winning gold in the 400m freestyle. The HTAS athlete, who grew up in New Milton in the New Forest, said: “It’s been a long and difficult journey for me, but all the hard work and the years of dedication paid off, and the feeling when I won – words cannot describe it.
“The Hampshire Talented Athlete Scheme has had a massive impact on me from an early age. Being supported financially, and having access to leisure centres and the facilities meant I could commit to training fully. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of the Talented Athlete Scheme.”
Eastleigh boccia player David Smith triumphed at the Paralympics, winning gold in Rio after silver and bronze medals at London 2012. David, who has also been supported by HTAS, said: “The support from the public since I’ve been back has been great. I’ve been spotted and recognised a couple of times, which is cool. I think it might have been the blue hair.
“The Hampshire Talented Athlete Scheme was huge for me. At the time it was the first funding I ever got when I was trying to find my own way around the country and international competitions. I kept winning, but unfortunately the costs kept spiralling. Having HTAS there contributed directly to my success going forward.”
Champion rower Rachel Morris won gold in the single sculls at the Rio Paralympics, remarkably switching sports after a winning gold and bronze as a hand-cyclist at London 2012 and Beijing 2008. Rachel, from Farnham in Surrey, said: “It’s been really exciting post Rio. Lots of rowing and local events, going into schools giving them medal magic, as I call it, and getting children to see that they can achieve things.
“I’ve been to Beijing, London and Rio and the step change each time has been massive in breaking barriers and changing perceptions. Its been really exciting to be treated as an athlete and not as a disabled athlete, for that image to start changing, which allows children to believe that they’re not different.”
Cllr Perry also announced a £2,000 donation to local charity Allegra’s Ambition, founded in memory of 16-year-old Olympic hopeful Allegra Whittome, of Weild near Alresford, who suddenly died in 2015. Her father Ashley Whittome attended the reception to accept the donation, which will be used to help youngsters develop positive behaviour and lead happier lives through sport and outdoor activities.
The next cohort of around 200 Hampshire Talented Athletes is due to be announced in the New Year, funded by the County Council and administered by the independent charity Energise Me, formerly Sport Hampshire and Isle of Wight.