Whilst Matlock did not have any representation at the Olympics just gone whereas neighbouring towns like Chesterfield, Buxton and Alfreton did, Derbyshire’s capital will be represented in the Paralympics by 45 year-old Ryan Cowling.

Cowling plays an integral part in Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team and this will be his second Paralympic Games following his debut at Rio in 2016. This time, however, Cowling has his eye on bringing back a medal back home from Tokyo to Matlock.

We spoke to Ryan Cowling about a month and a half ago to get an insight into his preparation for the Games and what Britain’s chances are in claiming a medal in this sport.

Unfortunately, wheelchair rugby is not a sport that is broadcast very widely on television or on radio. Hopefully, if Team GB can land a medal, things will start to improve in terms of more mainstream coverage. For those who are unfamiliar with the sport and how it works, Cowling gave us a quick introduction to the basics of the sport and what makes it such a fun sport to follow:

“The sport is played on a basketball-sized court. At each end, you have a goal; what’s essentially a try-line, which is in between two cones. Your team has a period of 40 seconds to try and get the ball over that try-line. There are comparisons with basketball – so you do have to bounce the ball or pass the ball to a team-mate within every ten seconds. But you also have to have at least passed the halfway line within 12 seconds of having possession with the ball. Each team has four players on court at any one time. You can substitute players at any time in the match whenever the ball goes dead. Like any disability sport, there are different classifications within wheelchair rugby. The classification system in our sport is based on your disability. This sport is also a mixed-gender sport too. We have one woman in Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team for the Paralympics. The sport is four quarters long and each quarter lasts eight minutes. Some people might see this sport as quite violent! There’s a lot of players that will get hit, that will fall out of their chairs. Chair on chair contact is allowed, but actual physical contact is not allowed.”

“It’s a very quick sport and I think that’s part of the draw. The gameplay is very intense. I was lucky enough to have competed at the Rio Games and it was a full-house crowd for every game. The following for the sport is very strong when he head into a Paralympic Games.”

Cowling also went into detail about how he first got involved with wheelchair rugby and how his career has progressed up to this point:

“I first got involved in this sport about 12 to 13 years ago. I was introduced to it by a friend. Basically, I’d put on a few kilos - I thought I could do with getting a bit fitter and a bit healthier. So that’s how I got started and I ended up playing at club level in Southport in the north-west of England. I then got an opportunity to play in the Great Britain development team in 2014. That was what they called the Performance Pathway back then. I ended up becoming the captain of that talent squad. In 2016, I ended up breaking into Britain’s senior side just in time for the Rio Games at the age of 40. So I guess I left it quite late to get involved in all this. I’m known as the old man of the team!”

Like many disability sports, London 2012 proved to be a watershed moment for wheelchair rugby. Following the enormous success of the London Paralympics, the sport along with many others has grown in size and participation at every level has increased every year. In our interview, Cowling speaks about how the sports has never been in a better position than right now:

“Before London 2012, the sport had around eight to ten club teams in the UK. Since the London Games, that number has risen up to 30. The participation levels have gone through the roof. Ahead of London, wheelchair rugby wasn’t very well publicised in the media. But that’s changed now. It’s still not exactly a mainstream sport but we have started to receive some amazing coverage. The ability to stay informed about the sport has just skyrocketed now. Coverage has also improved after events such as the Invictus Games. Because the sport was under the spotlight in that too, that’s meant that participation levels have further increased in wheelchair rugby. Before London 2012, there was only one league in this sport in the UK. Nowadays, we have three leagues and have regional divisions too. It’s a good atmosphere in the sport and a friendly one too.”

As has been widely reported, this has been the most difficult and stressful Paralympics to have prepared for in all aspects. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic, very little competitive wheelchair rugby action has been possible. Because of this, there are quite a number of unknowns heading into this event and looks to be a very wide open event in terms of which nation will pick up which medal. It’s a very tough one to call. Another huge difference in the upcoming Tokyo Games as opposed to Cowling’s previous experience in Rio, is the fact there will be no crowd whatsoever in Tokyo to cheer all the players on. It will be a far cry from the carnival atmosphere Cowling experienced throughout the Rio Games:

“The preparations for this obviously haven’t been good, but we’ve just had to deal with it. We had a tournament back in February 2020 and there’s only been one event that we’ve participated in between then and the Paralympics coming up. And that event was about two months ago. That’s how big the gap has been in being able to compete. From April 2020 until the end of the calendar year, the sport did a great job in supporting us as much as possible so that we could do as much training as possible from home. We were provided equipment just to keep us ticking over…thankfully, the past couple of months have almost been back to normal though. We’ve been able to train hard finally and that’s been great.”

“I recall going out onto court in Rio and the noise was just amazing. I can barely describe what it felt like. To be part of that was very, very special. So the fact there will be no crowd whatsoever in Tokyo – yes, it does take something away from these Games coming up. One positive from there being no crowd is that communication between team-mates on court and communication between the coaching staff and substitutes will be a lot easier because you’re not having to deal with huge noise from the crowd. But it is sad though, that this has to be the situation. Sport is a wonderful thing. It brings people together. It’s also really sad for the players who will be making their debut appearance at a Paralympic Games because you want them to have the same incredible experience that players felt at previous Games. But I understand why there has to be no crowds. It’s a pandemic, we have to be sensible. This doesn’t mean though that the gold medals at these Games will be worth any less.”

Finally, Cowling was asked what Team GB’s prospects are ahead of the wheelchair rugby event and what the likelihood of picking up a medal is:

“There’s eight nations competing overall and we’re split into two groups of four. In our group, we’ll be facing The United States, Canada and New Zealand. In the other group, it’s between Australia, Japan, France and Denmark. We’ve got a tough group. It will not be easy. Canada have an excellent team and that’s who we face first. They won silver in London 2012. Their best player actually took a break from the sport for quite a while but he’s back now ahead of these Games so he will be a big threat. The United States are always a threat in this sport. They’ve won medals at loads of the big events over the years and they’re a very well-drilled team. In terms of New Zealand, I think this is actually their first Paralympics appearance in wheelchair rugby since the Athens or Beijing Games. But they were surprise gold medallists the last time they competed. They have a small team coming into Tokyo but it’s a good one. Every match will be tough at these Games. Every match brings up different challenges. But we are confident. This is probably our best chance in a very long time to get a medal.”

It goes without saying that everyone at Derbyshire Media Company wishes Ryan the very best of luck and will be rooting for the Team GB wheelchair rugby team!

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