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Personal Bests

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It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, and in many more cities than just two. First the Olympics, now the Paralympics; riots in Belfast, a reshuffled Cabinet, and a coming to fruition of the Back to School posters which have been in so many shop windows since before the schools broke up for summer.

The Paralympics have been extraordinary, although that 'Back to School' timing has prevented me from following them as meticulously as I did the Olympics several weeks ago. 'Meet the Superhumans', the Channel 4 posters read as the Paralympic Games approached. And when you discover sports like Sitting Volleyball, the One-Legged High Jump or Blind Soccer, you certainly understand that advertising campaign. The inspiring stories are not hard to find. The Paralympics are full of examples which could make us ordinary mortals feel quite worthless. Ex-servicemen, limbs lost through horrific war injuries, fighting back to track or pool. Promising young athletes, who changed discipline instead of giving up, following critical illnesses or injury. Or people who have fought from childhood to stop themselves being defined by the conditions with which they were born. Most inspiring of all, some of the Paralympians have fought against the very classification of 'Disability Sport', saying that as sportsmen and women who push themselves to the very limit of the personal best, they want to be judged for their sporting excellence, not for the conditions which give the code letters to their competition category.

Interviewed trackside after his 200 Metres Gold Medal victory, Richard Whitehead commented that Paralympians have one or two disabilities but many hundreds of abilities. As a double-amputee, running on blades, coming from behind to claim Gold in memory of a close friend who had helped inspire his love of sport and his determination to succeed, Whitehead is someone for whom the London 2012 strapline, 'Inspire a Generation', could have been composed. Ellie Simmonds is another: aged 17, a double Gold medallist in Beijing at only 13, already with two Golds, one Bronze and her London 2012 campaign not quite over yet, Ellie explained in an interview that her Mum had taken her to swimming lessons when she was 4: Ellie has achondroplasia (often known as dwarfism) but says that her Mum had her join in with young swimmers of all heights, telling her that she was just a little bit small. Showing the gutsy determination we've all admired and been moved by in her Paralympic triumphs, Ellie just swam harder to keep up with her (much taller) friends. History had been set in motion. And it's a history that is starting to see Paralympians competing alongside Olympians. Olympic champions have even been known to complain that perhaps the 'blade runners' used by double amputee Paralympians could represent an unfair advantage against those who are usually termed 'able bodied'... the irony is extreme.

One of the moments which, to my mind, has encapsulated the spirit of the Paralympics is that instant when the swimmers for each race are poised on the blocks, set, and ready for the starting signal. In the Olympic Games, the 'set' position is uniform, but in the Paralympics this is adapted to suit the athletes themselves. Some are sitting, some are kneeling, some are standing, some are already in the pool as opposed to on the blocks. And that's just it: right there. Set and ready on the starting line. Sport is just like life. We're not all going to get the Gold, but it's really incredible when we do - incredible enough for tears of joy and triumph. We can all achieve a personal best, though, and we can do that without medals or podiums or anthems. A personal best can be just being there. Just keeping going. Just having the self belief to try again. And we all start from different bases to reach our personal bests.

As strangers and friends and family, we find what we can all do and try to understand each other better. We try to find a starting line position which will shift the emphasis to where we can succeed. Our starting line might be a defining of our shortcomings, but our goal to be our own personal best is the same. What I hope will inspire a generation, as the Back to School posters are peeled away and the first Christmas decorations creep diffidently into shop windows, is just what Richard Whitehead said on 1st September 2012. We all have things which hold us back, but we all have many hundreds of abilities and skills and talents. And the realisation that your own personal best can be a wonderful thing lends an alchemy to life which is worth even more than gold on a podium, with flowers and tears and anthems.