"I did get a free haircut, which was great! My barber kindly said it's on the house! Everything seems to have calmed down a little bit now. Not so many free offers anymore! There is still a little bit of a buzz about it particularly in the wheelchair rugby world and locally for me."

It's been an incredible past few months for Matlock's wheelchair rugby athlete Ryan Cowling. Cowling was an instrumental part of the British wheelchair rugby team that won their first ever Paralympic gold medal last year in August. Ryan was the talk of the town back in Matlock for a number of days and weeks following his return from Tokyo with a gold medal around his neck. Has Ryan watched that Paralympics final back?

"I've watched it back quite a few times, yeah! I'm more of a look towards the future kind of person - but not too far ahead. That's probably more to do with my age more than anything! The Paralympics final was just an amazing experience. I'd love to be able to do that again at Paris 2024. As athletes, you have to set yourself goals and at the moment, that's just focusing on the next 12 months. We've got some important competitions coming up within that time frame and the team is also going through a bit of a transition phase as well. After Tokyo, some of the players retired. We've now got a large contingency of new players coming through. They're beginning to learn playing at this really high level. So yeah, the next 12 months is where I'm focused on now. The past 12 months have certainly been difficult at times, like it has been for everyone, but I've also got some fabulous memories that will stay with me forever."

The success certainly didn't stop in August though. As 2021 was just about to head into 2022, The Queen's annual New Years Honours List revealed that every member of the British wheelchair rugby team had been rewarded with an MBE:

"I was just dumbfounded - absolutely flabbergasted. I never thought something like an MBE could be given to myself and my teammates. Every now and again, I receive a letter which is addressed to Mr Ryan Cowling MBE - that always makes me smile."

The next Paralympic Games takes place in 2024 but 2022 is still a very important year for the sport. The World Championships takes place in Denmark later this year; but before that, Great Britain will be bidding to retain their European Championships title at the end of this month. The tournament, which will be hosted by France, begins on February 21 and ends on February 27.

Ryan gave us a great insight into the return to domestic competition, how preparations have been going ahead of the European Championships and whether participation in wheelchair rugby has increased since Britain's golden success in Tokyo:

"Yes, since we came back from Tokyo, we'd normally have a bit of a break and some downtime. We ended up managing to get a week or two in before we went straight back to the domestic season which started pretty soon afterwards towards the end of 2021 which then carried over into 2022. We'll find out which team wins the domestic title in April, I believe. As far as the participation levels are concerned, wheelchair rugby has had a rather strange kind of progression after Tokyo. It was very much on the way up heading into Tokyo and then it sort of levelled itself out after the Tokyo Games. We were still seeing good numbers and there were lots of people participating. I don't think the Tokyo success has had quite the same impact in terms of participation compared to what London 2012 had, if I'm honest. London 2012 just propelled disability sports in great ways. It was fantastic for wheelchair rugby especially. I think it has to be said that Covid has certainly slowed down the progression in terms of participation too. Restrictions were obviously very tough for all indoor sports. It did hamper our growth a little bit. But it is still growing pretty well. Once all the pandemic restrictions are all over, the sport might receive another participation boost."

Great Britain has enjoyed fantastic success in the European Championships. They've won the past three tournaments and are certainly regarded as the favourites to win gold once again. However, hosts France and future World Championships hosts Denmark will prove to be stern opposition that cannot be taken lightly. On top of that, Ryan explains why this will be a significant tournament for the future of British wheelchair rugby:

"We've won the last three European Championships and I've been fortunate enough to have played in the last two of those. The European Championships this time around is in France and I'm really looking forward to it. We've had a few changes in our team since Tokyo as some players have retired and new faces have come in. We're confident of how we can do but there are also some very good teams out there in this competition. France and Denmark are both world-class teams. Denmark beat Australia in the last Paralympics so you can't dismiss them whatsoever and France are probably slightly better than Denmark on paper. So we've got to be careful and not be complacent. But this is also a big opportunity for our newer players to come in, experience a major tournament and test themselves. Then we've got the World Championships towards the end of this year. Hopefully, we can bring back some more medals this year too!"

A total of eight nations will compete in this month's wheelchair rugby European Championships. The nations are divided into two pools of four with the top two countries in each pool qualifying for the semi-finals. Cowling and his teammates will come up against Poland, Germany and The Netherlands in Pool B of the tournament. Pool A will feature France, Denmark, Switzerland and Russia. Despite winning the biggest prize the sport has to offer last year, Cowling thinks that their Tokyo success actually puts more pressure on the team to succeed again at major tournaments:

"I personally think it puts more pressure on us for the upcoming European Championships. Every team now wants us as that scalp. I'm sure both France and Denmark would love to beat us and be able to show what they can achieve. We've got to concentrate hard and not be complacent - because if we are, then we'll not retain the European title. But we're certainly confident that we're strong enough to win a fourth European Championships in a row, which would just be amazing."

2023 will also be a significant year for British wheelchair rugby. Remarkably, for the first time ever, Great Britain will host the wheelchair rugby European Championships and Cowling says this will be a huge moment for the sport in the UK:

"I think it's a huge step for wheelchair rugby in Great Britain. It's being held in Cardiff and I have very strong family links with Wales. I think it's long overdue, in my opinion. We certainly have the facilities and the supporters to back this. It's a brilliant step for British wheelchair rugby and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it. It will also act as the 2024 Paralympics qualifying event for European nations too."

As Ryan reiterates though, focus for now is solely on this month's European Championships and their quest to win four European titles in a row. Can Matlock's Ryan Cowling become a triple European champion as well as a Paralympics champion? We'll soon find out if he becomes the talk of the town once again.

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