Paralympic legend Louise Sauvage still driving her sport of wheelchair racing forward

Three nights after Cathy Freeman’s memorable victory at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, another of Australia’s most remarkable champions lit up the capacity crowd again.It was Louise Sauvage, in the women’s 800 metres wheelchair race.Louise Sauvage’s careerInternational debut: 1990Paralympics: Nine gold, 13 total medalsOlympics wheelchair demonstration events: Two gold, one bronzeIPC Athletics World Championships: 11 gold, two silverWins in Boston Marathon (4), Honolulu (3) LA, Berlin and Oita (2)Australian Paralympian of the Year: 1994, 1996, 1997, 19982000 Female Athlete of the Year, Sport Australia Awards2000 World Sportsperson of the Year with a disability, Laureus AwardsSport Australia Hall of Fame – inducted 2007, Legend 2019Australian Paralympian Hall of Fame – inducted 2011International Paralympic Hall of Fame – inducted 2012Waking up feeling under the weather, writing in her diary that she felt immense pressure, Sauvage used the noise and beat of the crowd to push her wheels through hundreds of revolutions, racing twice around the Olympic track, to smoothly roll across the finish line for gold.Three weeks later, like Freeman, she would light the cauldron, signalling the start of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games where she added another two gold medals and a silver medal to her already overflowing trophy cabinet.Later in 2000, at the Oscars of sport, the Laureus Awards, Sauvage shared a stage with Tiger Woods and Serena Williams — as the world athletes of the year.And where is she 20 years on? Still at Sydney’s Olympic Park.As a NSW Institute of Sport coach, Sauvage is training other wheelchair athletes with dreams of their own.”There’s a lot of memories for me, I can’t believe it’s 20 years ago,” she said.”A lot of these guys weren’t even born,” she added, referring to a team of young boys and girls in her training squad.This week, to coincide with the 20th anniversary Olympic and Paralympic celebrations a new “anthem” sung by Casey Donovan has been released by Wheelchair Sports NSW/ACT. Sarah Clifton-Bligh (R) is one of Australia’s young hopefuls trying to make it to the Tokyo Paralympics.(ABC News: Tracey Holmes)The music video for How I Roll features several of the young female athletes coached by Sauvage.LoadingWith funding from the NSW Office of Sport, it forms part of the Her Sport, Her Way strategy designed to get more girls and women active.One of Sauvage’s charges is 16-year-old Sarah Clifton-Bligh, who has been training with the Olympic Park squad since she was in Year 6.”Getting up is hard sometimes but when you’re out there it’s not much of a chore,” she said.”I hope I can get to the Tokyo Paralympics next year.”Also in the music video are 11-year-olds Coco Espie and Ava Edwards, who have been regulars at Homebush for around four years.Although they also have dreams of becoming Paralympians, Coco’s dad James initially suggested they should go to the training mostly to roll around the track and have socialise.”But there’s like 1,000 boys and two girls,” Ava said. Ava Edwards loves wheelchair racing — but she wishes there were more girls to compete against.(ABC News: Tracey Holmes)They are both hoping the release of the How I Roll video will encourage others to join them at the Saturday morning sessions.Eliza Ault-Connell, a two-time Paralympian, said it was important every age group had their own role models to look up to.”In order for us to grow participation in wheelchair sport, we need to build more role models for girls and women with disabilities to know and love,” she said.Wheelchair Sports runs programs from grass roots to elite, with all ages and abilities catered for.”Our female athletes are incredible, and everyone deserves the chance to see them in action,” Wheelchair Sports NSW/ACT chief executive Mick Garnett said.”We know from experience that when people see the skills and determination our female athletes bring to their sport, they love them.”We need to build the profiles of our role models to invite more girls and women with disabilities to roll with us.”But it is not all about inspiration. Sauvage can be a hard taskmaster.”You’ll have to ask them,” she said of her charges, before admitting she is “definitely tough”.”I want the best for them so I try and push them a little bit harder. It’s a lot of fun.”LoadingWheelchair Sports say proceeds from buying or streaming How I Roll will go to funding more opportunities for girls and women to get involved in wheelchair sport in what many describe as a life-changing experience.Sauvage is evidence of that, with more than 30 gold medals from world championships, Paralympic and Olympic Games, multiple victories in the Boston, Berlin and Honolulu marathons, and world records from 100 metres to 5,000 metres.She is also Australia’s only Paralympian afforded “legend status” at the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.Twenty years after the Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games, Sauvage is more interested in the future champions of wheelchair and Paralympic sport than reflecting on her own achievements.”It’s the most rewarding thing, being part of someone else’s journey,” she said.

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