Wheelchair racer Angela Ballard is hoping for a fast track at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games in September to boost her chances of winning an elusive gold medal writes Graham Croker.
The 32-year-old Sydney University Athletics Club member will be competing at her fifth Paralympics in a career stretching back to the 2000 Games in Sydney, but her five medals to date in the T53 category have been of the bronze and silver variety.
Angie’s three silver medals came in the 4x100m at Beijing in 2008 and the individual 200m and 400m at the 2012 London Games.
She won bronze medals in the 100m at the 2004 Athens Games and the 100m at the London Games.
She also won the women’s wheelchair 1500m gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, clocking 3:59.20 to finish ahead of Canada’s Diane Roy and England’s Jade Jones.
“I definitely knew I could probably outdo most of the girls to get a position to finish but I was a little worried because I was boxed in,” she said. “It came good because the way was cleared for me. It was a very technical race because not many others had very good grip. It was challenging to keep the speed as it was.”
But having set world records in her ‘pet event’, the individual 400m, at international grand prix meets in Switzerland in last year, she has firmed to gold medal favourite on a good track in Rio.
Angie stole the show on the opening day of competition on May 26, 2015, at Nottwil, Switzerland, when she stopped the clock at 54.73sec, edging out a quality field including Chelsea McClammer (USA, second, 56.45) and her training partner Madison de Rozario (Western Australia, third, 57.31) in the 400m. Angie lowered the mark of American Jessica Galli, who had set the standard at 54.88sec when she won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.
She then bettered the time again 10 days later at the Daniela Jutzeler Memorial meet at nearby Arbon, Switzerland, when she lowered her 400m mark to 54.70sec.
The Commonwealth champion backed that up later in the day by setting a new world record in the T53 800m, completing two circuits of the track in 1:47.48, which bettered the eight-year-old mark of 1:49.82, also held by Galli.
The Daniela Jutzeler Memorial carnival was followed by the Swiss Open Nationals, where Ballard was once again in the medals, claiming gold in the 200m and 400m, and silver in the 100m.
The Swiss program put 32-year-old Ballard in the form of her life for the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha where she won golds in the 400m and 200m and bronze in the 800m to take her medal tally at World Championships to 10.
But it was the elusive 400m title that pleased her the most when she clocked 57.47 to defeat Chinese pair Hongzhuan Zhou and Lisha Huang. After eight previous attempts at claiming the title, she was one very relieved athlete. “That was the one I wanted,” she said. “I was so nervous going in, you try and tell yourself that the worst thing that can happen is a loss and starting again tomorrow, but the reality is that this matters so much.
“I was so scared before the race, perhaps it gave me the adrenalin to get it done. I had worked so hard for this for so long.”
Angie said the 400m was her favourite distance to race. “A lot of people hate the 400m, but it is something I have learned to love,” she said. “The (world) record has given me a lot of confidence.”
Coached by Paralympic legend Louise Savage, Angie said she had been hoping to do well in the 2015 grand prix series.
“Before last year I was a little bit under the radar. I didn’t expect to break a world record at Nottwil even though that was the goal,” she said.
“That was a huge confidence boost for me. It wasn’t just that I had this awesome race where I pulled something completely surprising out of the bag. It was actually a reflection of where we had got to in training. I was actually at this new level.
“The turning point for me was actually quite a few years ago and I feel like the world record is kind of the success at the end. It was the culmination of all that had happened behind the scenes that came to that public moment that everyone witnessed.”
Continuing her preparation for Rio, Angie carried her world-beating form from 2015 into the new year with a strong showing at the recent IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Canberra.
The former SUSF Elite Athlete Program scholarship holder dominated day one of competition winning gold in the 100m, 400m and 1500m events.
Angie made a clean sweep of her events when she returned on day two to take honours in the 200m and 800m events.
“It’s just good to get some good racing done on a fast track, and to come away with a few wins is a great thing to,” Ballard told Athletics Australia. “It’s awesome to know that I am faster now than at the same time in 2015. I broke two world records last year off a slower preparation so that’s exciting. If this is an indication of how the Paralympic year will go it is a great place to be.”
Canberra-born Angie’s will to succeed and overcome hurdles were called on at age seven when she was involved in a car accident and spent the next three months in hospital. Her back and spinal chord were broken, she lost her right kidney, and was resigned to life in a wheelchair. She started competing in wheelchair racing as a teenager in 1994 and first represented Australia in 1998.
Angie came to the University of Sydney in 2001 to study and train with the Elite Athlete Program. She started studying economics, but switched to science (psychology) and has since completed her undergraduate degree with honours and a PhD in the discipline.
Off the campus she was named 1999 Athlete of the Year in the Disabled Category at the ACT Academy of Sport, Female Para-Athlete of the Year by Athletics Australia in 2013 and 2014, and awarded the 2014 Nigel C. Barker Grade Medal for Sporting Achievement by the University of Sydney.
“People think because you end up in a chair that is it; but it is not,” Angie said in 2000 when selected for the Sydney Games. “It’s human nature, plain and simple, to better yourself. My sport has helped me get over the fact that I will never walk again.
“People face and overcome different sorts of pitfalls in life. Sport has opened up a lot of opportunities for me; I meet a lot of different people, travel overseas a lot and have great things to look forward to.”
Wheelchair athletes are graded in four categories – T51, T52, T53 and T54 – the lower the number the more extensive the disability. Angie competes as a T53. “T54 athletes have more abdominal muscles and are able to lift up in the chair to push forward,” she said. “Once we get going there’s not a lot of difference in the times. Over 100m the T54s are .02sec faster. In fact we race together in the 1500m.”
Before her record-breaking 2015 season, Angie’s career highlights had been her first individual medal at Athens 2004 and winning gold in 100m at the 2002 World Championships.
She’s now hoping to add another highlight with gold in the 400m at Rio.