In 2000, Louise Sauvage almost single-handedly lifted the Paralympics into the Australian sporting consciousness, becoming a household name in the process – surely a first for a disabled athlete in this country.
Now Sauvage’s wheelchair racing heir apparent, and current pupil, is primed to grab her own share of the spotlight.
The story of Sydney-based Angie Ballard has been intertwined with that of Sauvage's ever since that unforgettable period at the turn of the century. And, if recent results are any gauge, Ballard is ready to turn sporadic success into golden glory.
Her CV has improved dramatically in recent years, in a sport where experience and know-how, especially over middle-distances, can be equally as important as explosive speed.
Ballard has been racing internationally since 1998, and she seems to have finally cracked the secret to success via a highly considered training regime, an unrelenting work ethos and pure familiarity with her trade.
Will it be gold-medal winning alchemy in Rio?
Over four Paralympics from 2000 to 2012, Ballard won three silver and two bronze medals. There was also a stack of national titles, and numerous strong showings at world championships, including a handful of medals.
But genuine sustained success never came. Then in 2012 came Ballard’s self-styled “revolution” both in training method and technique, with three medals at the London Olympiad the outcome. Such was her breakthrough impact, even many among the Paralympic fraternity thought Ballard to be a newcomer to the sport.
Now four years on, Ballard is ready to take the next step at the fifteenth edition of the summer Paralympic Games which will take place in Rio over 12 days from 7 September.
If all goes to plan, Ballard’s name will grab a share of the headlines. She plans to compete in the 100, 400, 800 and 1500-metre events in Rio in the T53 classification. Ballard’s specialties are the 400 and 800 races in which Sauvage won the double at Atlanta 1996, part of a remarkable career haul of nine gold medals.
Reprising Sauvage’s gold medal double would be a considerable feat, but Ballard is well placed heading into Rio. She is ranked first in the world in the 400 and 800, and is the current world record-holder for both, having further lowered the mark for the latter just a few weeks back. Madison de Rozario – Ballard’s training partner – is ranked third and second for those events respectively.
Twelve months ago Ballard set three world records within a week. It was a breakthrough period that was literally decades in the making.
Ballard became involved in wheelchair sport aged just 9. Now 34, Ballard has been competing internationally for 18 years, but there were times when self-doubt and the grind of years on the circuit took a toll that briefly threatened to end her career.
“It was one of those moments that is hugely self-satisfying,” Ballard says about breaking her maiden world record in Switzerland last year.
“I have had a long career and I have had some hard years where I wasn’t getting faster and I didn’t feel I was progressing. I maintained my belief that if I worked hard I would get a moment. But I didn’t think that (moment) would be world best.”
Ballard’s nadir, at least mentally, came in early 2011. But in the pace of 18 months she went from basement to penthouse. Stepping away from the sport was briefly considered, but Ballard is not one to throw in the towel.
“I’m pretty loyal to all my decisions,” says Ballard. “I’m stick with the same sandwich for two years if I’m happy with it! So for me to even consider walking away from my sport was pretty bad, but (in 2011) I limped through world champs and didn’t feel proud of my level. I was sick all the time, I wasn’t getting faster, I hated going to training. I hit rock bottom.
“I took a huge risk and decided to going back to the drawing board and questioning everything we were doing. The age old rule is that you change one thing at a time, but we didn’t have time because we had London 2012 (looming).”
Ballard altered virtually every aspect of her approach to the sport - technique, chair position, training regime, diet, gloves.
“It was a huge turning point,” says Ballad. “Or as we refer to it ‘the revolution’.
That marker set up for success at London 2012, one which still resonates heading into Rio.
Success, they say, breeds success. And those world class showings provided a massive spin-off, via an increased funding level. “The more you have to work, the less time you have to have to train and even recover,” says Ballard, who does some work as a research assistant to help fill the gaps.
Money, quite clearly however, is not a prime concern for Ballard. She is driven. Her psychology studies at the University of Sydney are currently on hold as the four-year Paralympic cycle reaches its high point.
Asked if her daily routine is harder than able-bodied athletes, Ballad is impressively even-handed.
“I think every athlete faces challenges and your job is to work out the best way to do things. In terms of Paralympic athletes, it is more sponsorship dollars, media exposure, and even understanding of our sport (that is problematic). Travel can be frustrating too, but again that is just something one has to take on board. I have a great team of people around me.
“I don’t feel like I’m athlete with a disability, I just feel like I’m an athlete.”
Away from the track, Ballard has long been an advocate for people with disabilities, and has served on the NSW Wheelchair Sports Association since 2004. “I don’t love the term Para-athletics,” says Ballard. “It is all just athletics in my book.”
Sixteen years after Sauvage brought the Paralympics into the Australian sporting lexicon, Ballard has the opportunity to bring the baton full circle. Ballard has been coached by Savage for ten years, and the pair have enjoyed a working relationship in some form or another since Sydney 2000, where they roomed together.
“I was able to watch her (Savage) go through what was a hugely intensive period for her,” Ballard says. “She is one of the most disciplined athletes I have ever met and a great example. Lou and I have always had a great relationship in terms of communication.” Ballard even lived at the Sauvage household when she first moved to Sydney from her native Canberra.
“I learned a lot from how she did things, and applied herself. She had that self-discipline and accountability. It didn’t matter how much hoo-ha there was about her, she was always true to being an athlete.
“I’m thankful for that (example). It really grounded me, in terms of what kind of an athlete I wanted to be.”