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Oct 27, 2018

A love of sport set Laura Sugar on a path to Team GB

Laura Sugar, paralympic athlete and former hockey international, talks to Tony James about her life and career

When she was three, Laura Sugar’s doctor told her parents that their daughter would have a happy and normal life so long as she didn’t play any sport, and at the time it sounded a reasonable prediction.

A series of operations on a foot malfunction had left Sugar with no movement in her ankle. For just about everything in life we need ankle movement, but for athletes, the lack of dorsiflexion - the upwards movement of the foot making it closer to the shin - is reckoned a disaster. Without it, you limit your performance and increase the risk of injury.

Wisely, Sugar’s parents never mentioned the doctor’s bleak prognosis to their daughter until years later, but she admits she probably wouldn’t have listened. For as long as she can remember, sport was the most important thing in Sugar’s world and it would take more than a dodgy ankle to stop her battling her way to the top.

As success stories go, Sugar’s has turned out to be doubly sweet. Not content with becoming a Welsh international hockey star, she switched to para-athletics at 22 and recently won gold at the World Para Athletics European Championships and is currently world number two in the T44 100m and 200m paraathetics rankings.

“At school in Essex, I gave every sport a go. I loved athletics and was always up there with the fastest girls and I always dreamed of being a full-time athlete,” Sugar, now 27, remembers.

“Then I fell in love with hockey. It seemed ideal for someone with my ankle problem. It’s not all about speed, but involves technical ability, reading the game and team strategy, whereas athletics is purely how fast you are.

“With hockey it just clicked. I loved the camaraderie and it had the best of everything. My closest friends have all come from hockey, from school to playing at university. It’s the most sociable sport.

“On the hockey pitch, my disability wasn’t a problem - in fact it seemed to make the rest of my body stronger to compensate.” But there were heartbreaks ahead: on the week she was chosen to play for the school, Sugar broke her leg in a riding accident and it took nearly a year for her to become a team regular.

From then on, she quickly progressed to county level, had successful trials for Wales and captained the country’s under-21 side before winning 16 caps as an international defender in test series and Word League tournaments.

“Picking up a hockey stick again and playing for fun is something I plan to do when my athletics career is over,” Sugar says. “They were wonderful days.”

Suddenly they were all over. Sugar had assumed that she would stay in elite hockey for the rest of her sporting career, but then something happened which changed everything. As Sugar tells it: “I am a qualified teacher and was working at a kids’ camp. We were watching the London 2012 Olympics on TV when we saw Dan Greaves throwing the discus in the Paralympics.

“I was like: ‘I’ve got that foot!’ I’d always loved athletics at school but never knew that my foot condition made me eligible for Paralympic sport. I was realistic enough to know that I couldn’t compete with nondisabled athletes but there seemed no reason why I shouldn’t try the Paralympics route.”

The next step was to try sprinting at a Loughborough University talent day. “I was very nervous and absolutely out of my comfort zone, but I gave it a go and really enjoyed it. After that I was really chucked in at the deep end when British Athletics Paralympic head coach Paula Dunn selected me for the 2013 world championships team, but it was too good an opportunity to miss.”

Sugar finished fourth and fifth in T44 200m and 100m races in France - the start of a burgeoning sprinting career which led to two fifth places at the Rio Paralympics, running personal bests and being only 0.28 seconds away from bronze - that’s less than the time it takes to blink.

“In the 100m I beat the reigning champion, Marie-Amelier Le Fur. I’d never beaten her before and for me that was great. Obviously I would have loved a medal at Rio but it was a stepping-stone and I know I’m competitive in these races. Hopefully I can go even faster.”

Now her focus is on the 2020 Toyko Paralympics. “Every day I am learning something new,” Sugar says. “I have those little light bulb moments every couple of months where it finally clicks and I know I have got a new target in my head. “I want to break that 13-second barrier and I know that isn’t far away in good conditions. When you are sub-13 seconds, that’s a medal.

“Speed and endurance doesn’t come overnight so you need to build up your strength. I need to stay injuryfree, stay fit and stay strong, and I’ve got to keep that running technique going all the way to the finishing line.

“I have technical sessions to work on these details and hopefully, I’m improving all the time.”

Sugar’s success comes at a physical and mental price. “Ours is a classification which is dominated by amputees,” she said. The blade runners get a lot of recoil off the track and that helps them come through in the end.

“I get nothing coming off the floor from my left leg because I have no ankle movement when I run, and no calf. My left leg just slaps on the floor and comes along for the ride! I can lead into the home straight but then find my legs turning to jelly. The good thing is that the rest of my body is well suited to sprinting.”

Sugar finally said goodbye to international hockey in 2016. “I had to make the choice of playing for Wales in the European championships or competing for Great Britain in the World Para championships and so I reluctantly put hockey on one side to concentrate on my sprinting.

“It was really hard to leave, but my hockey mates were really supportive. They knew my heart was set on athletics and said: ‘Go for it’.”

Now a full-time sprinter, Sugar has put her teaching career on hold, but as an ambassador for the Mintridge Foundation - a charity devoted to improving the mental and physical wellbeing of the next generation - she regularly finds herself back in schools inspiring the students to become involved in sport and coaching promising youngsters. Sugar finds it a pleasant break from her gruelling six-days-a-week training regime. “Coaching in my spare time actually re-energises me. Having things to do away from training helps me keep a balance and an enthusiasm for my sport.”

What advice does she give youngsters just starting their careers? “I say as long as you are enjoying your sport give it all you have, but also allocate time to exploring other opportunities.

“A fulfilling life away from sport can have a positive effect on an athlete’s overall wellbeing. While competing in hockey, I trained as a teacher so I will eventually have something to fall back on.”

But at the moment, Sugar’s focus is firmly on the more immediate future. “I know I am a good racer and on the day I race well,” she says. “It’s not quite there yet, but I am definitely in the right place and moving in the right direction.”

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