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'MY GOD, WHAT HAVE WE JUST DONE' - THE STORY OF RYAN COWLING'S GOLD MEDAL


"Every now and again, when I get the medal out of its box to show somebody, it brings back a huge amount of emotion and pride. It's starting to sink in a little bit more than what it did three or four days ago. I've gone back to being the dad taxi for my daughter, so that brought me back down to earth this morning!"


It's fair to say that Matlock's Ryan Cowling is still on cloud nine.


On August 29 at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo, Cowling was part of the historic Paralympics GB team that beat The United States 54-49 to win the wheelchair rugby gold medal at the recent Paralympic Games in Japan. It was a truly phenomenal achievement considering that Paralympics GB had never previously medalled in this event, had their main source of funding dropped and had to endure the trials and tribulations of trying to prepare for a Paralympics campaign during a pandemic.


Cowling played a hugely instrumental role in the wheelchair rugby team's success. The 45 year-old from Matlock scored three tries in the final and played in every single Paralympics GB game of the tournament. After his gold medal success, Ryan has certainly been enjoying the limelight since returning back home to Derbyshire's capital after his flight from Japan's capital:


"I got a free double gin and tonic! That was thanks to my step-mother who shouted it out to the waitress that I'd won a gold medal at the Paralympics. I was happy to be quiet about it but my step-mother decided that the whole pub should know! I've also had a request from my barber as well to take my gold medal in the next time I get my haircut. So maybe I'll end up with a free haircut too!"


Cowling has been overwhelmed by the amount of support he's received before, during and after the Games were over:


"I was aware that there was quite a big following behind the wheelchair rugby side over the course of the Games. I received quite a few messages before the start of the tournament wishing me luck and then a lot after the final saying congratulations. For where I live in Matlock, we have a neighbourhood WhatsApp group and that was certainly pinging away a lot as the tournament progressed! It was pretty amazing just how many messages I received over the course of the competition. Since I've returned home, I've received a handwritten letter from the Mayor of Matlock saying congratulations. It's quite humbling, in a way, to know that you've done something quite special and you've got all these people that are so supportive of what you're doing. A young girl and her mother knocked on my door the other day and she had made me a card and a poster; it was a beautiful thing. Inside the card, it said congratulations and that you're an inspiration to hundreds of children in Matlock. It genuinely almost brought a tear to my eye and I had no idea who these people actually were. They lived on my estate but I'd never spoken to them before. To know that I've had an effect on the next generation of possible sports stars is very humbling."


In our interview with Ryan, we were intrigued to know what it felt like to head onto court for a Paralympics final. It was fascinating to find out that nerves did play a big part - but not when it came to the gold medal match against The United States:


"People have different ways of dealing with nerves. For the final, I was actually quite excited. I knew already at that point, that we'd made history for wheelchair rugby in the UK and that we were already assured of a medal. I was genuinely enjoying the build-up right before the final started. I think everyone in the GB team was the same; we were all just really excited as we spoke to each other just before the start of the final. None of us had ever experienced this before at this level of the sport, so we were just like 'let's just enjoy this' rather than going out there as a nervous wreck and allowing the game to slip away from us. If I'm honest, I was actually more nervous ahead of our opening pool game against Canada because we'd barely played any competitive games since the start of the pandemic. Because of that, it was hard to know where we were in the world order, as it were. Canada also had a very solid team - so going into that opening game was tough, knowing that if we lost to them, we would have a much bigger struggle to qualify from our pool and reach the semi-finals. So yes, there were definitely nerves ahead of that game. I actually had dreams about that game in the run-up to it and those thoughts were keeping me awake as well. I think those nerves showed in our performance too, as I think that if we'd played Canada later on in the tournament, we would have won more convincingly than what we did do in that opening pool game. There were also some nerves ahead of the semi-final against Japan, because even then, none of us in the team had ever reached this stage before in a Paralympics Games. None of us wanted to blow this opportunity. I put a lot of pressure on myself ahead of that game and, again, I think that showed in the match. We did play a bit nervously in that first quarter against Japan. But then we grew into the game and I ended up enjoying it. So when we ended up in the final, it was just a case of what will happen is what will happen - just enjoy the occasion. I think we also learned a lot from our defeat to The United States in our final pool game of the tournament. It sort of helped us in a way; we were then able to discuss tactics in detail as to how to approach the final when we met The United States once again."


In our chat, Ryan gives us a fantastic and detailed insight into the euphoria you feel after you've just won your first Paralympics gold medal following years of training. His account of the first couple of hours following the end of the gold medal match describes a mixture of sheer elation and chaos:


"I remember just going around hugging the players. Those first few moments after the final was over was just so emotional. You've just got this huge release of energy; I just wanted to scream and shout! I imagine that that very moment is the one that I will always want to try and recreate when we head into the next Paralympic Games. I remember lifting my arms up in the air and just thinking; 'my god, what have we just done!' I could barely say anything to any of my team-mates straight after the final was over. It was just an outpouring of emotion. That was brilliant; just a very special moment. I remember that around five minutes after the final was over when we were all quieting down a little bit; everyone was like, so what do we do next? We all had absolutely no idea what happened next or where we now needed to go. Thankfully, one of the officials came over to our team on the court and told us "you need to go off the court this way now." So we wheeled off the court and into the changing room. There were a couple of guys who went in there first and they videoed the entrance of every single player coming back into the changing room to huge cheers. That was absolutely brilliant. That was done for all the coaches and staff too. I think it all started to hit home a little bit when we were all sat there for the medal ceremony. I think that was the teary moment for me: hearing the national anthem being played while wearing the gold medal around your neck. That was a very emotional moment. I was thinking about family and friends right at that moment. After that, it was celebration time really! There was lots of terrible singing from the players on the bus back to the Paralympics Village. Some of my team-mates absolutely cannot sing. Once we got back to the Village, we had some beers and champagne. Then we decided to order some pizza at like half two in the morning, which I thought was a very English way of celebrating after a party! I actually had to watch the final back the next day. In fact, I watched it twice. I did that because I honestly couldn't tell you anything that I'd done in that game. The first time I watched it back, I was getting nervous!"


Of course, every gold medal won is a special one. Paralympics GB's success in the wheelchair rugby though is truly a historic one, as Cowling explains:


"This is the first time that Paralympics GB has ever won a team sport gold medal. We're also the first ever European nation to win gold in the wheelchair rugby event at a Paralympic Games. We're also the first ever team to win gold in this event at a Paralympics that has featured a woman in the squad. Kylie Grimes plays a big part in our team."


Legacy is a word that is used frequently when it comes to analysing and discussing Paralympic and Olympic Games. As an onlooker myself who got heavily invested in Paralympics GB's progress in the sport, it feels like wheelchair rugby have won a gold medal that could, without exaggeration or cliche, define and shape a legacy. It's just not a gold medal but a landmark one; so what legacy comes with the gold medals shared among this team? Ryan is already finding out some of the answers:


"I did an interview recently for a TV show and one of my team-mates said something massively profound. He's a south Asian Muslim chap from Bolton and he said that he believed that his gold medal has a higher purpose. I didn't understand his comment at first, but what he meant was that this gold medal can encourage everybody and anybody from whatever community or background, that they can do this and that this is for them. This gold medal can encourage so many people within the UK. I thought that was an amazing comment from him. What a good way to think of this gold medal. For myself, I've already been asked to speak to pupils at schools and even for the local Brownies. All sorts of things. If what I've done has encouraged even a handful of young people to take up a sport and become amazingly good at, or even just become healthier and lead a better lifestyle, then that's job done for me. For wheelchair rugby in general, I think we're already beginning to see the results of our success. I've already seen online posts from wheelchair rugby clubs in the UK that are seeing larger numbers of people giving it a go and getting involved for the first time."


One of the big questions now is: where does the sport of wheelchair rugby go from here in the UK? This moment surely has to be capitalised on. The sport has proven to be a big hit with viewers and gets talked about online. Will we finally see more mainstream coverage of the sport in the UK every year and not just when it's a Paralympic Games year?


"I certainly hope that more coverage of wheelchair rugby is given following our success in Tokyo. Hopefully, there will be even more tournaments hosted in the UK which can then be filmed and put out there for people to see. If we can get the sport more in the public eye, then you can start getting more sponsors on board and then that would mean more cash flow into the sport. That would then mean the sport will grow quicker at grassroots level. It's a snowball effect and hopefully our gold medal will be the start of that snowball effect."


Finally, where does Ryan Cowling himself go from here? What does one do when you finally reach the top of the mountain? Whilst we're three years away from the next Paralympic Games, 2022 promises to be a big year for wheelchair rugby. Despite that, there's still time for a just a little bit more of celebrating before preparing for the next big tournament:


"The rest of 2021 will be pretty quiet in terms of competitive games. Maybe another week of celebrating before returning to light training. Next year will be when the wheelchair rugby European Championships takes place in France. That's an important event and a title that we'll be looking to defend. The World Championships will then be held in Denmark later on in 2022. So yes, they are the two big tournaments that will take place next year. Then in 2023, we have the European qualifying section games for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. Unfortunately, the reigning Paralympic champions don't get an automatic spot for the following Games - you still have to qualify for it."


For Ryan Cowling, the gold medal from Tokyo is one to treasure forever and is something that holds a thousand cherished memories. You get the feeling though, that there's more gold medals to come.

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