The Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, take place from August 24th to September 5th, 2021. My family Our Needs had the privilege of talking to Boccia athlete, Claire Taggart. In this interview Claire tells us about her disability diagnosis, training for Tokyo in lockdown, and shares her best piece of advice.
I have a physical disability called dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle spasms and abnormal posturing throughout my body. This means that I have restricted movement in my limbs, limited dexterity and use a powerchair to get around. I developed my condition as a late teenager, and it took three years to receive my diagnosis via many medical procedures and tests. In my case, my dystonia has been progressive, initially starting in my feet but now affecting most of the muscles in my body.
Growing up as an able-bodied child/teenager, I had no real interest in or passion for sport. I played hockey and badminton for some of my teenage years but it wasn’t a particular hobby of mine. I much preferred spending time gaming, reading or doing creative things such as making jewellery. When I developed my disability, I decided to try out wheelchair basketball and, later, wheelchair rugby, but those were effectively short lived due to the progressive nature of my condition. Boccia was on my radar; I knew it existed but I initially found it boring, as at the time I was still playing rugby. When rugby was no longer an option for me (I spent more time pushing around in circles rather than trying to play!) I started to investigate boccia, and the tactics and mentality of the sport at a world level truly captivated me. I knew this was what I wanted to pursue. I joined a local club and then, via Disability Sport NI, the coach at the time encouraged and persuaded me to compete in the UK championships in 2014, and from there my journey really began!
A sense of belonging
My transition from playing recreationally to getting on the world-class programme at Boccia UK (formerly GB Boccia) was only six months, and from there I went to my first Paralympic Games 12 months later. Overall, a complete life change and transition in 18 months! For me and my family it was a complete whirlwind to begin with. As I require care support, this meant that either my mum or dad needed to accompany me wherever I had to travel to, so boccia became (and still is) a full family affair!
Never did I anticipate my Paralympic journey, now well on my way to my second Games. I wanted to meet other people with disabilities, to learn to be independent and have friendships with people who understood my situation. To now have reached number 10 in the world individually and be able to compete in the pinnacle of disability sport at the Paralympic Games is something I am incredibly grateful for and I’m thankful for all the support I have had along the journey. My favourite moment so far in my boccia journey was retaining my UK championship title in 2019, when it was held at my home, Northern Ireland. It meant that many of my friends and family could see me compete for the first time in person and I felt a great deal of pride and belonging throughout that competition.
Tokyo 2020 is the pinnacle of sport for disabled people and, yes, I am very much looking forward to it. It will be the first competitive opportunity we have had in 18 months and I feel that, as a squad, we have become a much tighter knit unit, with more of an appreciation of what we do for a job and how much we can have an impact to inspire other people to get involved in sport.
As a person with a severe physical disability, COVID-19 meant that I shielded throughout the pandemic, realistically until I had my vaccinations. Our staff at Boccia UK were highly inventive and innovative to keep us all motivated and focused on our goals throughout this time, and basically switched everything to virtual. I was able to begin training again outside of my house in June 2020, thanks to my local community hall giving me sole access, and I believe that the work I have put in will stand me in good stead when competing in Tokyo.
When the Games were postponed, my initial feelings were of relief but also that this was an opportunity to have extra time to prepare for the Games. My feeling of relief came not from the postponement, but instead clarity of what was going to happen and how that would affect me. Indecision and spontaneity can stress me out, so the clarity of what was going to happen was beneficial to me. Nevertheless, I am very excited to compete this year – any opportunity to represent your country is one that cannot be taken lightly and something few people get to do. I’m excited to experience my second Games and for the competition that we have all been preparing for! As I previously mentioned, it’s a full family affair for us, so my dad will be my sports assistant whilst we are in Tokyo; meanwhile, mum will be staying at home to keep friends and family updated, as well as look after my dog, Rio!
To any person with a disability who is interested in getting involved in sport, I’d say just go for it. See each sport or discipline as an opportunity, and that you will meet people along the way with whom you can go on to form great friendships and relationships. Who knows where you might end up! Boccia is a highly inclusive and accessible sport; regardless of how severe your disability, there is always a method to play boccia. I’d also say, don’t be like me and write it off straightaway for a more fast-paced sport (for example, powerchair football) – the tactics and technical aspects of boccia are what motivate me to improve and the idea of thinking outside the box is always welcome.
My method to keep focused and motivated is to keep myself busy. I have found that spending too much time thinking about situations or scenarios is demotivating for me, and that having outside interests (such as my business, my dog and my voluntary work) really keeps my mind occupied and focused on the task at hand – Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
In terms of hobbies, I would say I’m quite creative. I started my own stationery business in 2018 (Nifty Notebooks NI) which really developed from my passion for stationery and design, realistically creating stationery that I, myself, would want to buy. I’m also really into indie music, such as bands like The 1975 and Wallows, but I also really enjoy bands like Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro. One thing that the pandemic has taught me is to appreciate the little things, and the importance of getting fresh air. Walking my dog daily has become a huge part of my routine and something that I really enjoy – something I’m definitely going to miss when I’m in Tokyo!
The legacy after London 2012 has meant that the opportunities for disabled people to get involved in sports have never been greater. However, a lot of disability sports (such as boccia) require costly equipment to get you started and the development of local clubs who already have the equipment necessary to get involved is pivotal. I’d recommend reaching out to the home nation where you live (Disability Sport NI/Scottish Disability Sport/Disability Sport Wales/Sport England) to enquire about clubs and events in your local area.
I’m a firm believer in working hard to achieve what you want, and that’s what I stick by in my personal life but also my sporting journey.