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Saturday, 20 July, 2002, 19:04 GMT 20:04 UK
Tanni's sitting comfortably
Paralympic gold medalist Tanni Grey-Thompson
BBC Sport's Andrew Swiss investigates the technology behind the wheelchairs that enable top athletes like Tanni Grey-Thompson to continue breaking records

A garage in Redcar isn't your average centre of sporting excellence, but then Tanni Grey-Thompson is hardly your average athlete.

For all her eight Paralympic golds and four London Marathon titles, there's no winter training at La Manga or Tenerife.

Instead it's amid the tool-boxes and oil-cans that she clocks up mile after mile on a vast exercise mill.

Steve Redgrave will join Tanni in the London Marathon
Steve Redgrave will join Tanni in the London Marathon
As she fine-tunes her technique, though, it's clear that this in an event in which the athlete is only as good as their wheelchair.

As Tanni admits, it doesn't look the cosiest of contraptions, but the appearance is deceptive.

Her chair, like those of her rivals, is custom-built.

"If you feel comfortable, then pushing's the easy part," she says.

"The most important thing is having a seating cage that fits very tightly.

"I can only fit in my racing chair if I'm wearing one layer of lycra - which is a big incentive not to put on any weight.

"It needs to be that snug to take the corners, and to go downhill fast, because there's one hill on the London Marathon where you can be hitting over forty miles an hour.

Even a quarter-of-an-inch difference on the seating cage would be the margin between a two hour marathon and a two hour 15 marathon. It's that important."


It needs to be that snug to take the corners, and to go downhill fast, because there's one hill on the London Marathon where you can be hitting over forty miles an hour
Tanni Grey-Thompson
The men behind the machine are based a couple of hundred miles down the M1, at a workshop near Cambridge.

Barry Norman was an international wheelchair athlete, while Dan Chambers worked as a bicycle mechanic.

They put two and two together to form Draft Wheelchairs.

"You can probably lose 10 to 15% of your effort in a poorly designed chair," says Dan.

Ten years ago, though, design of any description was non-existent.

"They were really just souped up versions of the sort of thing you'd push around a hospital," he says.

"Since then, though, they've gone from four wheels to three, and using lighter materials - aluminium instead of steel."

The difference has been vast - over the last decade, wheelchair marathon times have plummeted by 10 minutes.

The world record is only one hour 20 minutes.


I have this love-hate relationship with London. I hate it as soon as I finish it, and in the months afterwards, I grow to love it again. So I guess I'm the biggest fool for coming back year after year
Tanni Grey-Thompson
"If you consider that for a runner, marathon records are being beaten by a second here and there," says Barry, "it's a colossal amount."

But no amount of wheelchair design can make the marathon experience any less painful.

"I have this love-hate relationship with London," admits Tanni.

"I hate it as soon as I finish it, and in the months afterwards, I grow to love it again. So I guess I'm the biggest fool for coming back year after year."

Links to more Athletics stories are at the foot of the page.


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