Sydney University Athletics Club’s Sarah Clifton-Bligh is taking the world of Australian sport by storm with her rapid rise through the ranks of para-athletics, writes Harry Croker.

When reading about Sarah’s sporting credentials, one would be forgiven for assuming that they’re reading about the achievements of an athlete in their senior years of secondary schooling, or even at the beginning of university, however, Sarah is just 13 years old…

Born and raised in Sydney, Sarah has been living with cerebral palsy since birth. The condition causes her to suffer from severe coordination impairment in all four of her limbs and trunk, but this hasn’t stopped her from pursuing a successful sporting career. Sarah competes in the official Paralympic classification ‘T/F32’, which means she is matched against other athletes who also suffer from a similar condition.

Sarah’s sporting career began when she showed signs of natural talent at the Year 5 school athletics carnival, particularly in the 100m track, shot put, and discus events. After demonstrating promising ability, Sarah was lent a proper athletics wheelchair, which was actually once also borrowed by Paralympians Kurt Fearnely and Sydney University’s Angie Ballard. This initial brush with fame was almost an omen of things to come for Sarah as after a few short years she was selected in the NSW Junior Wheelchair development squad, which is coached by Angie Ballard, who has won numerous medals at the Paralympic Games in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

Earlier this year at the NSW Open Championship, Sarah cleaned up, winning gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m track events, and javelin in the field – as a 13 year old… In fact, in the process of winning gold in her favourite event, the 100m, Sarah beat her champion coach, Ballard. It was quite a shock for the teenager, “I was absolutely shocked. I didn’t want to beat her, I wanted to get the silver medal.” Despite the epic victory, Sarah is humble in victory, and relishes the opportunity to train with Ballard, let alone race against her, “It’s really cool training with Angie because she’s so amazing, and has won so many medals at the Paralympics over the years, and I’m only 13 years old.”

Despite knocking off Paralympians in state tournaments, Sarah is still at school and enjoys studying History and Art at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Croydon. She hopes to study engineering at University when she completes high school so she can design “really cool” wheelchairs for athletes in the future. However, studying engineering at university won’t get in the way of her sporting aspirations in wheelchair athletics. Sarah hopes to continue improving her PBs so she can qualify for the 2019 Para World Junior Championships held in Switzerland. Assuming she successfully qualifies, she will compete in shot put, and ‘club’ (which is the equivalent of discus) in her official Paralympic classification (F32) at the tournament. Sarah is certainly on the right track to qualify for the Junior Championships, earlier this year at her school athletics carnival she beat the previous U16 shot put record, which actually allows her to qualify for the 2019 Junior Championships. Age is the only thing restricting Sarah, as she’s too young to be selected for an Australian team. Following this, Sarah has her sights set on shot put and club at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. In terms of competing on the track, Sarah will look to race at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Games after she receives an International Classification, so she can officially start breaking some world records on the track.

Currently, all of her Australian track records are faster than those in the world, however, unfortunately they don’t count yet as she doesn’t have the International Classification. With such potential demonstrated at a young age, Sarah has an intense training program that fits in with her schooling so she can ensure a balance between the academic and sporting domains. She balances multiple training sessions a week with both her school athletics team, and her state team, as well as the occasional swimming session to ensure an overall fitness balance. Her mother ensures that she’s keeping up her schooling as well as her athletics, “With all the training I do, I tend to get a bit tired, and so mum sometimes has to yell at me to do my homework.”

Outside of wheelchair athletics, Sarah is a self-proclaimed “book worm”, and spends the little down time she has reading and eating chocolate.
Forget being a star of the future, Sarah is a star of the present.