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shelly woods interview

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Shelly Woods

23 March 2011

T54 1500m World Record holder Shelly Woods is the latest athlete to be featured on UKA’s website (below) as part of an ongoing series focusing on UKA’s World Class Performance Programme (Paralympic) athletes in the countdown to the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Four times Paralympian Stephen Miller, former F44 long jump World Record holder Stefanie Reid, IPC World Champions Libby Clegg and Katrina Hart and Hart’s training partner Ben Rushgrove - also a medallist in the 2011 IPC World Championships - have previously been featured.

First, she admits she was talent spotted as a thrower; hard to believe, but not entirely unbelievable (enough to raise a smile, though).

Then she details her changeable coaching history, briefly mentioning her previous tendency to over-train, a potentially cruel flip side to absolute dedication and motivation.

And then of course there’s her performance record; Beijing Paralympic Games silver and bronze medallist, IPC World Championships bronze medallist, T54 1500m World Record holder, multiple British Record holder and one of the most experienced members of the current crop of Aviva GB& NI Paralympic athletes. All in all it’s not a bad CV for a 24-year-old, albeit with a few complexities thrown in.

Shelly Woods was paralysed from the waist down after falling from a tree aged 11, but her infectious enthusiasm for sport remained as she tried out various activities including basketball and swimming through her early teens. The fact she opted to focus on athletics “because it was hardest”, is, on reflection, indicative of her personality. She is totally passionate about her sport and races because she loves it; “racing is hard to be good at and you have to be committed to it, but the speed is addictive,” she says.

Initially identified as a potential thrower and not for her track speed, she credits her first coach Jason Gill for getting her into wheelchair racing when she attended a British Wheelchair Athletics Association (BWAA) training weekend.

Their coaching partnership was short lived however, and as Woods progressed, Gill was keen for her to move on.

“He stopped coaching me when I was about 17,” she says. “He was great, a real driving force, but he wanted me to move on; I took it into my own hands to find a new coach and I started working with Andrew Dawes.”

Dawes represented another step along the coaching pathway; a well respected Australian coach, currently the Wheelchair Track and Road Head Coach at the New South Wales Institute of Sport in Australia, he coached Blackpool-based Woods to two Paralympic medals in Beijing, but there were inevitably complications to the partnership, not least that the pair were operating from opposite sides of the world.

“He definitely moved me on as an athlete and helped bring the best out of me in training and racing...that paid off a hundred times over at my first Paralympic games in Beijing when I came home with a silver a bronze medal,” she says, “but I was still looking for that little bit more, and the fact that he was based in Australia made it hard. He was a great coach and someone I gelled with, which is so important because you really need to enjoy your sessions, but I felt I needed to work with someone closer to home.

“At the same time Pete (local coach Pete Wyman) was at home helping me follow Dawsey’s programme; he was basically being an assistant coach and eventually I moved to him full time because we’d known one another for a long time and he had a real understanding of my training; we worked together for the best part of a year.”

It was a year of highs and lows however. She raced to her first ever World Record in the 1500m in Arbon, Switzerland, in June, clocking 3:21.22 to reduce the three-year-old mark set by Canada’s Chantal Petitclerc, the most successful Paralympic track and field athlete in history, and travelled to the IPC Athletics World Championships in New Zealand with high hopes which were, in part, dashed.

“I had flu at Christmas and lost three weeks training which didn’t help, but I thought I’d do better than I did,” Woods admits. “I just didn’t hit the mark. If I’d been in the shape I was in during the summer I’d have won more than just a bronze, but it’s about learning from mistakes and now it’s about pushing forward.

“I just want to beat those girls, you know; they’re a great bunch of girls and we race each other a lot. I’m always tracking their results and learning about them, their strengths, weaknesses...take Amanda McGrory (USA’s Paralympic gold medallist in Beijing) - she’s such a nice girl but she’s a fiery wee thing on the track. You’ve just got to respect them all for what they do and the work they put in, but at the same time you want to kick their ass.”

Her ambition is to win Paralympic gold: “to do that in London would be so special, so fantastic, that’s what you get up for every day,” she says, and it’s perhaps that motivation which had driven her to move on once again.

That, and the credentials of her new coach Peter Eriksson, UKA’s Head Coach (Paralympic), who has coached athletes to 119 medals in Paralympic Games, including - fittingly - Petitclerc.

“It’s a journey and you’ve got to find yourself as an athlete,” says Woods. “Peter is very specific about what he wants in training, but he’s a good guy, he knows his stuff and he’s coached a lot of great athletes.

“My sessions are new and different now. He knows what he wants and will tell you exactly what he thinks. He’s got great knowledge of wheelchair racing and knows his stuff when it comes to getting you fast when you need to be, which is vital.

“I’ll always do the sessions, training isn’t that hard for me because I’m motivated and I enjoy it, but sometimes you need someone to hold you back a bit, to focus on quality rather than quantity. I need to learn not to burn myself out and Peter is the right coach for that.”

She’s leaving nothing to chance, and thanks to a five year technology partnership between UK Sport and BAE Systems - developed to aid Britain’s athletes in major Championships - she has been able to access engineering expertise and go through wind tunnel testing to analyse the efficiency of her body position and racing-chair set up, with a view to controlling those elements which were, previously, out of her control.

“It’s just about getting the edge,” explains Woods. “Winning a race comes down to centimetres and millimetres and this partnership helps us make that difference. As athletes we’re always working on something and the wind tunnel testing was the first phase of the project to help us improve our performance and racing efficiency.”

Both she and three-time IPC World Champion David Weir have benefited from the partnership, although it’s very much work in progress; “it’s definitely working for him,” she laughs with some irony when reflecting on the success of her team mate and good friend in New Zealand.

Weir, in fact, is an athlete she holds in the highest regard: “He’s one of the best wheelchair racers on the planet,” she admits, “and the knowledge he has is brilliant; I can just call him for advice and he’s great for a second opinion - and most of the time he’s right.”

It’s an honest admission; she also names Lance Armstrong - seven times winner of the Tour de France - Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe and former wheelchair star Chantal Petitclerc as inspiring.

Several key words spring to mind to describe the quintet, including talented, committed and tough, and all can be applied to Woods. Arguably, only her success rate can be improved, and now that she’s working with Eriksson her focus is, absolutely, on results.

You can also read these interviews on www.insideworldparasport.biz; the series continues next month.