There will be many more British golds and records at these Paralympics but none will resonate quite like the triumph of the wheelchair rugby team who, against great odds, delivered the first gold in a team sport in the Games’ 61-year history.
It was not just the individual stories of the players — from the Afghan military hero to the woman whose life was changed utterly by a diving accident — but the fact that the group were told five years ago that their £3million funding was being withdrawn and they had to fight to claw back £500,000.
A breath-taking victory over USA — a team of tough, seasoned operators who define the sport’s alternative name: Murderball — was vindication for that fight, team member Ryan Cowling said on Sunday.
Ryan Cowling celebrates after Team GB beat the USA to win their first wheelchair rugby gold
No player seemed quite so overwhelmed by the moment of victory as Stuart Robinson, a former RAF commander. He plays with a look of relentless intensity on his face yet a trace of tears played on his face when the anthem played at the end of it all.
Robinson, whose two turnovers and eight tries in the final’s last quarter were pivotal to the GB gold, cited the team’s travails since 2016 as the reason, though the carnage in the place where he lost his left leg has formed the backdrop to this tournament.
‘I’ve seen what’s been going on in the news recently and I’ve been trying to focus on the sport,’ he said, in the aftermath.
‘It’s pretty unfortunate what is happening. I’ve tried not to let it affect me too much.’
Robinson, who previously served in Afghanistan, was emotional during the national anthem
He won’t be attempting to meet the two Afghan athletes who have arrived here having first been evacuated to Paris on Friday.
‘My time in the military ended a few years ago now,’ he said of that. ‘My focus is now on sport.’
That focus saw a victory which seemed to cut through with the public even more than the dazzling array of record British times in other sports.
It took the Paralympics out of the sphere of high level individual performance — where so many gold medal winners are streets ahead of the field — and delivered titanic collisions. The smashing of wheelchairs and the upending of players.
GB had lost to the US in a pool game. Robinson declared himself hugely satisfied ‘to come back and smash the Americans.’
Robinson celebrates ParalympicsGB’s victory with Ryan Cowling (left) and Ayaz Bhuta
The arc of his own game showed the ups and downs of team sport. The match was evenly balanced going into its last quarter when his chair was smashed to the floor, allowing a US turnover and try.
That moment of calamity fired him up. ‘I tried not to let it affect me too much with the negativity,’ he said. ‘We knew the advantage that had given the Americans in the game.’
He then proceeded to turn the game GB’s way, with two of the turnovers which are critical to this sport — wresting the ball from Joe Delagrave for one. It was his work which saw GB get home 54-49.
A successful wheelchair rugby team needs a blend of Robinsons — players with high standards of ball-handling dexterity, despite being confined to a wheelchair — and Cowlings — ‘low pointers’ who block and defend.
Low pointer Kylie Grimes, the only woman in the squad, did not feature in last night’s final but did play in the pool stage against New Zealand.
Robinson (right) holds on to the ball as the USA’s Joshua Wheeler attempts to steal possession
‘More ladies! I hope I can inspire girls to give it a go,’ she declared when asked what she hoped this might lead to.
But it was the game’s Murderball moments which made the spectacle so compelling.
Robinson and team-mate Jim Roberts, who in his other life works for an architect’s practice, went chair to chair with the iconic US No 5 Chuck Aoki. There was no quarter spared.
The strategy of the American team was to sit deep and invite GB on to them. There was a wall of steel ahead of them. GB navigated ways through the tight spaces, or they barged through.
GB had a far more ambitious game, pressing high up the court. Fortune favoured the brave.
One of the motivational posters around the GB squad states simply: ‘Relentless.’ They lived up to that.
The USA’s Chuck Aoki (left) battles for the ball with Jim Roberts during the gold medal match
Robinson’s gold medal marked a new staging post in life that he had never expected after his vehicle was blown off the road in Helmand, eight years ago. He is one of three former British soldiers injured in Afghanistan who have taken medals here.
‘Obviously we know each other,’ he reflected. ‘We knew these Games were the pinnacle of where we wanted to get.
‘I think what we’ve done shows a little bit of that military mentality. You’ve got a little bit of the ability to work very well as a team.
‘You’re always looking out for each other.’
Jamie Stead (left) celebrates with Ryan Cowling after clinching the gold medal on Sunday
Visually impaired judoka Chris Skelley paid tribute to his former coach Jeff Brady, who died just before the Paralympics, after winning gold in the B2 -100kg final. Next year Skelley will marry Louise Hunt, wheelchair tennis player, whom he met on the flight home from Rio 2016. ‘I’m going to get married as Paralympic champion!’ he said.
Dame Sarah Storey says she will need ‘courage’ at the Fuji International Speedway circuit where she will attempt to match swimmer Mike Kenny’s record 15 golds tomorrow. ‘I’ve heard the course is very hard,’ she said.
Jonnie Peacock found the size of the task facing him when Felix Streng clocked a Games record, beating him into second in their 100m heat. The final is on Monday.
GB swimmer Suzanna Hext said it was ‘not safe to continue’ after a series of asthma attacks led to her withdrawal from the Games.
ParalympicsGB sprinter Jonnie Peacock will compete in the men’s 100 metre final on Monday