In a brand new series, GiveMeSport Women shine a light on athletes looking to compete at the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2021. To kick things off, we sat down with Paralympian Louise Sugden.
Few athletes can say they’ve competed at Olympic level. Even fewer can say they’ve done so across two separate sports. But Louise Sugden isn’t most athletes.
Funnily enough, representing ParalympicsGB was the furthest thing from her mind when she was first introduced to wheelchair basketball aged 13. “I was actually quite rubbish back then,” she laughs.
“I didn’t get good until I was in my early 20s. I actually competed at the Europeans [Championships] in 2003, when I was 18. There were 12 women in the country available, so I got selected kind of by default.”
It was a year later where everything changed. “In 2004, I was up for selection for the Athens Paralympic Games — and I got dropped,” Sugden recalls. “That’s when I went: ‘actually, I love this. I want to do this and I want to play for Great Britain’. It was that disappointment that spurred me on to become a better player.”
Indeed, the rejection proved to be a big turning point in Sugden’s budding career, and acted as a real source of motivation for her to kick on.
And kick on she did, in incredible fashion, returning home from the next six European Championships with no fewer than five medals. “There was only one competition where we didn’t get a bronze [medal]. Unfortunately we were never able to go any better than bronze which was always very disappointing for us.”
Third place qualified you for either a World Championships or the Paralympic Games, so that was always our focus.
In between all those tournaments, Sugden managed to make the cut for both the 2008 Beijing Games and London 2012, going on to compete at the Paralympics. “Beijing was very overwhelming. It was my first Games, so it was all new and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I hadn’t experienced a multi-sport event like that before, so it was both exciting and nerve-racking.
“London was a completely different event because it was my second Games, so I kind of knew what to expect. But the fact that it was a home Games made it so special. The crowd was just phenomenal. It didn’t matter what we were doing, they were always there, cheering us on. It was just… it was amazing.”
ParalympicsGB had prepared for the Games by organising an invitational World Cup the year before, a tournament they duly won, seeing off old rivals Germany 63–52 in the final.
“I think it’s one of the only times we actually managed to beat Germany in a competitive match! That was a huge confidence boost for us. I really enjoyed that competition.”
Sugden still counts those moments among the proudest of her career: “I loved the heroes parade at the end of the Games. It was incredible. We were on these floats driving through London and there were millions of people. I’ve never seen crowds like it.”
Sugden’s career hit a rocky patch thereafter. An illness robbed her of the chance to compete at Rio 2016 as she struggled to regain fitness. It was a tough time. Never one to give up in the face of adversity though, she reassessed her situation and decided to transition into the world of powerlifting.
(Image credit: swpix.com)
“When I was playing basketball I was always one of the strongest in the team — my one-rep max for bench press was 80 kilos — so I tried powerlifting and it stuck in a way I would never have imagined.”
While it took the 36-year-old a few years to establish herself as an elite-level basketballer, powerlifting has been a totally different story. “From my first session in June, I went from lifting 77 and a half kilos, which is a lot, to 96 kilos at my first international competition in December.”
Sugden’s scarcely believable rise through the weight brackets in such a short time frame has been thanks in no small part to her coach, Tom Whitaker. “I sent in a message to British weightlifting, right at the beginning when I was thinking about trying powerlifting. Tom replied to me and he’s been my coach ever since. He’s actually now the Performance Director for powerlifting too. He’s a great coach.
“Tom just gets it. So I’m lucky to have him, alongside the team that works with him. It’s an amazing team. Everyone’s working towards the same goal and it’s a really, really enjoyable environment to be a part of.”
Inside one year of taking up the sport, Sugden had already claimed the silver medal at her maiden Commonwealth Games. “Funny story about that: I didn’t actually know at the time, but if I got my last lift, I won the silver medal; if I didn’t, I would have gone home with nothing.”
(Image credit: swpix.com)
There was no bronze medal given in the competition, but I went out there thinking: ‘well, whatever happens now I’ll get a medal’. Turns out I wouldn’t have got anything.
Her team later revealed that they’d purposefully kept Sugden in the dark to ensure the pressure didn’t get to her. “I thanked them afterwards for not telling me. I think it [the pressure] would have been too much for me at that point in time.”
With both a Commonwealth silver medal and a gold from the European Championships now around her neck, Sugden’s sights are firmly set on the upcoming World Cup in Manchester, and in turn, qualifying for Tokyo 2021.
“I got my PB just before Christmas, so I reckon I should be able to break my British record. That’s the goal anyway, so you’ll have to watch this space.” Should Sugden be successful, she’ll return to the city that first introduced para-powerlifting into the Games, when Tokyo first hosted the Olympics back in 1964.
It’s hard not to be in awe of what Sugden has achieved. Already a Paralympian and multiple medal winner across two separate sports, her career is showing no signs of slowing down.
When asked if she had any words of advice for future generations, her message was simple: “Don’t give up. It’s tough, really tough, but the end goal is so worth it.”
Louise is living proof that setbacks only make you stronger, and if her story is anything to go by, it shows you really can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Louise Sugden is supported and partially funded by Path to Success, a charity that champions ParalympicsGB’s female athletes in disability sport by providing vital financial aid. Support Louise and other Path to Success athletes here.