After competing in five Paralympic games and guiding the Great British women’s wheelchair basketball team to their best ever finish at Rio this summer, Clare Griffiths has decided to call time on her highly decorated career.
Clare has seen the game improve drastically since her first tournament back in 1998 at the World Championships in Sydney, and she knows it will only develop even further as a medal at the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo are firmly in the sights of the team that came so close this year.
“When I started, you would be asking people to lend you a sports hall so you could train on your own. It is completely different now. It is good to be able to have a coach analysing your performance and the finer details. And across the board, to have the psychology and nutritional side as well means you can recover quicker from injuries. You add all this together, and it’s so different,” Clare said.
“The programme now is centralised which means we spend more time together training rather than travelling around. That has a massive impact and it means the breadth of services we have now can work together to deliver performance.
Since her wheelchair basketball debut 18 years ago, Clare has amounted seven European bronze medals and has represented her country at four World Championships and eight European Championships. She has not only just been a part of the incredible journey that the wheelchair basketball programme has been on, but helped in shaping it into what it is today.
And while she has many career highlights, Clare expressed just how magical Rio was.
“It was our best ever finish at a world class tournament and the first time bar Sydney that we hadn’t underperformed at the games.
“The leap forward in what we saw there is something to be proud of and it shows how the hard work paid off.
“After the first game, we lost to Canada but we sat down afterwards and said anything is possible and that it was still in our hands. We beat Germany and ended up second going into the quarter-finals and dominating that game. We made them look average and had such mental strength.
“Our goal was always to make the semi-finals and we came so close in that game. I was so proud of the team that day, on any other day against any other team we would have beaten them. Both teams were shooting fantastically, playing wonderful basketball. If you’re going to lose a semi-final, you want to lose it like that.
“So much had gone into that semi-final, that the bronze medal match was too much. It’s just a lesson you learn, that was the first bronze match we had played at that level and you can’t be disappointed,” Clare admitted.
Although it will be hard for Clare to sit out of the next games after a glittering career, just missing out on the elusive Paralympic medal, she only has high expectations for the next generation of athletes.
“Tokyo is really what the squad is aiming for. I would be very surprised, and disappointed, if they didn’t come away with one. It is exciting to know that this is the journey they are on.
“Some of the girls have gone abroad to play in Germany and Italy in the men’s leagues to enhance their performance and experience a different environment. That gives the programme a chance to develop the more inexperienced athletes to get them up to speed,” she added.
With strength in numbers, qualification for the European Championships seems inevitable as there are five spaces up for grabs. And Clare believes if the squad can achieve a world class medal at the competition in two years time, and to perform in semi-finals regularly on the world stage, then it will only boost the team’s confidence and performance level in the coming years.
“We are in a really interesting position now where we have the best support and funding ever. There is a real opportunity for new players to fight for spots. An increased depth within the squad at this stage enables more competition which should see the improvement,” Clare disclosed.
The Buckinghamshire athlete, who turned 37 in Rio, has been part of the game for almost two decades and highlighted Rio as one of the best experiences of her career, along with winning the Paralympic World Cup in 2011. But finishing fifth at the World Championships two years ago, despite missing out on the medal places, Clare marked it as a turning point in the team’s transition into what it is today.
And there is no stopping the team now as they go from strength to strength. Even though Clare has turned the light out on her illustrious career, she can look back and know that she contributed to the development of the team that can now compete at the highest level on the world stages.
Author: Zoe Shackleton