The centre has the ball. They pass to the winger. The winger darts down the field, avoiding one, two, three, tackles, but then crash! Metal collides with metal as the player is sent tumbling to the ground.
High-octane and potentially even more ferocious than its grass-based cousin, wheelchair rugby is just one of the treats on offer for spectators during Swansea’s week-long Para Sport Festival, which sees athletes from Wales and beyond battling it out in disciplines on the track, field and court.
Equally as important, however, is the festival’s focus on inspiring youth and fostering participation. As such, there’s ample opportunities for every visitor to get stuck in, and the chance to meet a number of para athletes who serve as testaments to the transformative power sport can have on lives.
A sporting extravaganza
Marking a new date in the Welsh sporting calendar, the annual event runs across a week in early August. It offers a mix of competitive clashes and introductory lessons taking place throughout the city of Swansea, from its historic cricket ground to its 19th-century dockyard. The Para Sport Festival 2023, takes place from 10 - 16 July.
The first few days of the festival, which enjoyed a successful debut in summer 2022, are dedicated to taster sessions in over 20 sports. Ranging from golf to cricket to karate, there are professional coaches on hand to provide assistance and encouragement to any nervey newbies. These coaches are also on the lookout for potential stars of the future – just like Beth Munro, who remarkably went from a taekwondo intro class at a similar style event in North Wales to becoming a Paralympic medalist in the sport in just 18 months!
Then it’s time for the pros to take centre stage, with mini-tournaments taking place in sports like deaf rugby sevens and indoor rowing, alongside a number of spectator-friendly endurance races. In 2022, this included a leg of the World Triathlon Para Series, and brought elite competitors from around the world to Wales’ second city.
Life-changing taster sessions
To see just how big an impact sport introductory sessions – like those put on during the Swansea Para Sport Festival – can have, look no further than rising Welsh wheelchair rugby star, Kyran Bishop.
As a disgruntled teenager, Kyran considered his main hobbies to be watching television and eating. But a single sporting taster session set him on a new trajectory.
'I never really thought that sport was for me, but with very little expectation I went to a taster event, and it absolutely changed my life,' says Kyran. 'I’ve gone from not having any goals in life to wanting to be the best Wheelchair Rugby player that I can be.'
Providing a nice sense of cyclicity, Kyran was one of the pros inspiring the next generation of players at the inaugural Para Sport Festival in 2022, where he turned out for his team Ospreys in the Wheelchair Rugby Welsh Open.
I never really thought that sport was for me, but with very little expectation I went to a taster event, and it absolutely changed my life," says Kyran. "I’ve gone from not having any goals in life to wanting to be the best Wheelchair Rugby player that I can be."
It’s a similar story for another Swansea-based athlete, David Smith OBE, who believes being introduced to boccia (similar to the French game, boules) at a young age opened him up to experiences and opportunities that would otherwise have been closed to him.
'At school, I was told that I wouldn’t necessarily be good at any sport because I was too disabled,' says David. 'But I went to a National Junior Games event and had a go at boccia. Initially, I couldn’t hit a barn door. But things got better!'
In fact, things got much better. Within a few years David was the youngest ever national champion of the sport. Four years later he was world champion. Then, in 2008, he qualified for the Paralympic Games in Beijing, China, and won a gold in the team event.
'Boccia gave me opportunities, confidence and the ability to look outwards. Without it, my horizon might only be a few miles outside my front door,' David adds.
Accessible attractions in Swansea and beyond
Outside of the Para Sport Festival, Swansea boasts a whole host of accessible attractions for visitors, from the free National Waterfront Museum, a wheelchair-accessible venue that tells the story of Wales’ industrial heritage via braille-equipped exhibits, to the Swansea Grand Theatre, a beautiful Victorian-era performance space that hosts audio described, signed and captioned shows.
But for David Smith, it’s one of Swansea’s outdoor attractions that tops his list of things to do in the city.
'I like the Swansea Bay coastal path because it seems to go on forever,' says David. 'I can get all the way down to The Mumbles, although the battery range on my chair is about 16 miles so it’s touch and go if I can get all the way back home!'
Kyran, meanwhile, is drawn to the culinary delights of the Welsh capital, which is connected by direct train from Swansea.
'Cardiff is an awesome city. The restaurants are great, and it’s so well adapted to visitors with accessibility problems,' says Kyran, 'and right in the centre is one of my favourite places in the world, the Principality Stadium.'
Known as the home of Welsh rugby, the Principality Stadium will host the European Wheelchair Rugby Championship for the first time in May 2023, an event Kyran is set to play at. Not bad for someone who thought sport "wasn’t for them".
'The Para Sport Festival really is a fun, fantastic event,' says Kyran, 'It’s also a big opportunity for people who have never tried sports before to come and have a go – if I can do it, so can you.'