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Sabrina Fortune: Exclusive Interview

Sabrina Fortune

Sabrina Fortune: Exclusive Interview

She’s a star shot-putter going for gold in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and while she chats to us about medals, world titles, the challenges she faces and her own path to sporting excellence, SABRINA FORTUNE explains just how much sport can benefit those with disabilities and says para-athletes should be celebrated all year round, not just every four years…

Sabrina Fortune has a great name. If you don’t know it already, remember it. Sabrina is a Welsh Paralympic shot putter with medals and world titles to her name, who looks set to be one of Team GB’s great medal hopes in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Sabrina, who is 22 and from Mynydd Isa near Mold, is an able-bodied athlete who has learning difficulties. She competes both as a para-athlete in the F20 (intellectual impairment) category and in mainstream competitions.  She has come a long way – both as an athlete and personally – in her quest for sporting greatness, but maybe because her disability is more difficult to see than others, Sabrina’s story is less well known than it should be.

The para-athlete who lives and trains in North East Wales, won her first world title at the 2019 World Para-Athletics Championships in Dubai, back in November. She also won bronze in the 2016 Summer Paralympics and gold in her F20 category at the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin.

Outside of the sporting circle, her public profile has risen since she was nominated for the BBC Cymru Wales Sports Personality of the Year 2019. If you tuned in to watch, you’ll have seen Sabrina take the runner-up spot behind Wales rugby captain Alun Wyn Jones and ahead of Flintshire’s double Olympic Taekwondo champion Jade Jones. No mean feat for a 22-year-old with speech dyspraxia who was once so shy she’d literally hide.

Sabrina was both surprised and delighted to win the industry accolade at Newport’s Celtic Manor Resort and loved mixing with Wales’ greatest sporting legends.

“Newport was just fantastic. It’s the biggest experience that I’ll ever have,” she says. “Something I wouldn’t expect to get. To be able to go there, watch the show and come second to Alun Wyn was so amazing. He’s a very impressive guy and awesome to talk to.”

Sabrina knew of her nomination just a few weeks before the event and travelled to the awards ceremony with her mum, Paula.  Then just days later they took the train up to Aberdeen for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2019, which is a separate event from the Wales-only ceremony in Newport.

“We did some Christmas shopping then went down to the red carpet around 5 o’clock. Our seats were behind a big camera so we couldn’t see a thing,” says Sabrina. But it didn’t stop her from taking selfies with other sporting idols, especially those from Wales.

“We saw Alun Wyn, Adam Jones, Denice Lewis, Colin Jackson…”

But Sabrina’s biggest idol is Welsh paralympian shot putter Beverley Jones, who she used to train with.

“She had a bronze in the shot put in London 2012,” says Sabrina. “She showed me her first-ever medal and I thought, that’s cool. I want that.”

Over the years Sabrina has become more used to dealing with the stresses and strains of competing, not just from a sporting angle, but with everything that comes with her achievements.  She has become more used to the whole experience of performing – the attention, the cameras, talking to people. It wasn’t always so.

“There are some competitions where you have the starting gun right next to you. With a learning disability you struggle with change. If something’s different in a competition you struggle. For me, to go in front of a camera and have it follow you around.. it’s hard. I don’t want it. I just want to throw.

“I’ve had times when they present medals halfway through a competition and you can’t throw.”

It happened in Doha in 2015, while she competing in the IPC Athletics Championships. She was about to go into the circle to throw and they stopped for a medal presentation.

“You’re in the flow of the throw, you’ve warmed up, and it comes to an abrupt stop,” adds mum Paula.

Her family couldn’t be more chuffed at her success, both in and out of the sporting arena.

“I am super proud,” says mum, Paula. “When she was in school she was afraid she wouldn’t achieve anything and she’s really come on so much. Her sport has given her so much confidence. She’s made friends.”

Far from being the best days of our lives, schooldays can be incredibly challenging to even the most emotionally and physically able, but add into the mix a learning disability then the days spent in the playground can be really tough.

“Sabrina had speech dyspraxia so she had to have a lot of intensive speech therapy when she was little so for her to stand up and talk in front of people is a massive thing,” says Paula. “She’s getting better the more she’s doing, especially interviews. It’s something she could never, ever have done before.”

“There were days when I was younger when I first started athletics when I didn’t want to leave my mum’s side,” adds Sabrina. “I wouldn’t go out and talk to people. I would hide behind them, I was too shy.”

Away from the world of sport Sabrina enjoys sugar craft and digital art and would eventually like to go into the cake making business.  It is sport that has brought her out of her shell.

“You have to do media, you have to do meetings. You have to talk in front of people. And talking in front of people was one of the worst things in my life,” she says.

Away from the bright city lights and awards ceremonies, Sabrina trains full time and has worked hard for years to reach the pinnacle of her sport, helping to promote the benefits of sport to people with disabilities along the way.

We should know more about her than we do but alongside many other disabled athletes, we only really read about or watch coverage of their amazing sporting achievements every four years, at the Paralympics. We forget that these inspirational sportspeople compete throughout the year, every year, chalking up sporting milestones, attempting to break records and improve their Personal Bests (PBs) at every opportunity.

It is something that Sabrina, her mum Paula and her coach Ian Robinson, are well aware of. They put in the time and effort to reap the rewards and bring home the sporting glory, yet their achievements often go unnoticed to the general public. 

Sabrina with mum Paula

“In an ideal world we would get more publicity for what we do. It doesn’t matter about awards, but it does matter that we can show the world what we can do,” says Sabrina.

More publicity is needed to show disabled people what can be achieved, she adds. “Many people with disabilities are struggling and don’t know what to do. There are so many opportunities out there for them.”

Sabrina’s mum, Paula, agrees with her daughter that more TV and press coverage would help spread the message and encourage others.

“I don’t think people appreciate that the Paralympians, people with disabilities, overcome their disabilities, learn their sport, perfect it to become world champions and record holders. They’re awesome,” says Paula. 

“There are people out there who have lost their legs and they have to learn how to walk again before they can throw,” adds Sabrina.

“You can say Olympians are amazing because they can throw all this great distance, but if you can watch someone who is blind go to a sandpit and jump straight and get a world record then for me it’s an incredible achievement.”

Sabrina’s own sporting journey started with sibling rivalry: her older brother, James, was throwing shot, discus and javelin and competing at Deeside Athletics Club.

“I started playing sport because we travelled around the UK with my brother, and I thought why does he get to throw and I don’t?” says Sabrina.

Sabrina pushes herself because she has her eye set on the medal at the end and she wants to hear her anthem.

“Even if you don’t get the medal then it’s achieving, and getting your personal best. That’s what you strive for. If you get more, then great.”

She started with the discus before eventually switching to the shot put, under the guidance of her coach Ian, who took her under his wing in 2012.

“Sabrina came down to the Wrexham track with the Special Olympic people and I was there coaching,” says Ian. “Ron, who looks after them, asked if I could spend some time with Sabrina. And at that point things weren’t going brilliantly with her throwing. She joined me and finished the season, compared to the rest of the season, on a high. And then decided to take me on as her coach.”

For Sabrina, competing on a global stage is just one thing on her personal wish-list.

“There are some things I just want to achieve,” she says. “I don’t want the fame, I just want to show that people with disabilities can do anything. I do catering, I do drawing.. and I struggle yes, but there is so much out there that you can actually do.”

Sabrina acknowledges she couldn’t achieve what she has if it wasn’t for the support from her coaches – both past and present – Disability Sport Wales and the medical team. And she says she wouldn’t be anywhere without financial backing from the National Lottery because ‘without people buying lottery tickets we wouldn’t have the money to do what we do,’ she adds.  Sabrina is fully funded by the National Lottery.

Despite having a world title and a gold medal under her belt, Sabrina says the bronze she picked up in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio is her biggest achievement so far, down to the amount of support she had to get there.

“The first is always the best… the atmosphere, the anthem.. people clapping. There was so much support there, so much happiness,” she says.

The team spirit among the GB competitors is something that Sabrina really enjoys and when abroad, she enjoys learning about new cultures and even picks up snippets of the local language.

“In Team GB you all look after each other. We’ve got a lot of new people at the moment so we have a buddy system. If you’re one of the older ones you look after the younger ones.  If you see someone struggling you look after them. I get on with anyone. Different countries. I’ve learned some French from some of them.”

With Tokyo almost certainly on the cards, Sabrina is looking forward to spending time in the Athlete’s Village.

“I’ve looked on Twitter and it looks really nice. There will be different food because it’s a different culture. And there are games rooms. We have all the people from different sports playing games.”

Mum Paula doesn’t go with her when Sabrina is with Team GB.  It’s one way of increasing Sabrina’s independence.

“When Sabrina is away there’s another F20 athlete so they tend to share a room and then nurses keep an eye on them to make sure they are okay,” says Paula.

Says Sabrina: “When you go away you’re not allowed to do anything you’re not allowed to do at home. So because of that you have a lot of down time and a lot of athletes struggle with that. So you have to learn to stay in your room, watch TV or a movie or read books.”

Ahead of Tokyo, Poland could be the next major competition on the cards, but the jury’s still out on whether Sabrina should compete.

Says coach Ian: “You can’t stay at peak all the time so this is where the question ‘do we go to Poland’ comes in. We’re not going to try and peak at all during the season. Last season we peaked a couple of times to try and get the performance to try and guarantee selection and the season before was the same, whereas now we’re just aiming at Tokyo.

“So if we go to Poland then it’s got to be on the basis that she’s throwing quite well but if it doesn’t come out as gold then we mustn’t be upset because we’re not going to fall short on training aiming for Tokyo.”

Taking part in run-of-the-mill competitions gives Sabrina the chance to test out some of the things she has been working on, and to prepare herself for the bigger stage in Tokyo.

As well as working towards peak fitness and performance, ahead of the 2020 Paralympics Sabrina will need to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Japan. She will have to use heat chambers – as she did for Dubai – around a month to six weeks before the games.

“For throwers the heat is really good because you don’t have to keep moving. Your body is already warm. For runners it’s awful,” says Sabrina.

“It’s not hard to work out how to deal with it (the heat). So for a lot of hot countries you work out that the mornings are really hot,  the middle of the day can be extremely hot and at night you’re fine, So you compete at night most of the time. That means that although you lose the heat you’ve still got the humidity.

“With heat you sweat, but with humidity you don’t.”

So, what’s next after Tokyo?

“We always used to say baby steps,” says Sabrina. “If you look too far, you get ahead of yourself too quickly. You focus on that year.”

Coach Ian adds: “Once you get to this level you tend to work on a four-year cycle. Initially we were just working to get selected.”

While Sabrina has been blessed with sporting success, as for any athlete, things don’t always go to plan. So how does she get herself back up when she’s not at her best?

“I just say it’ll get better in the end. If it’s meant to be, it will be,” she says.

Right now, things are looking bright for Sabrina, but she knows there are people with disabilities out there that would welcome a helping hand. So she is encouraging those who want to follow in her footsteps to contact her on Twitter.

“I’m always happy to give advice,” she says. “I’ve helped people in competitions before now. If you’re scared of media I think, think of what your family want you to say and think of what you want to get out of it as well.

“Now sport is the best thing in my life. You meet people from all around the world. There are some amazing people in this world and to be able to talk to them, share your story to people who struggle with their mental health, anything, can help a lot of people.”

While Sabrina, her coaches and family, plan for the future and have Tokyo firmly in their sights, Sabrina reflects on what sport has done for her on a personal level.

“Sport has helped me grow as a person. I am more confident. I can stand up on a podium and smile. It’s helped me talk to more people and not want to run away and hide in a corner, which is what I used to do. It’s helped a lot with different things.

“When I was younger I wasn’t interested in sport but as I grew up I learned that sport is a lot of things and it teaches you that even if you do not win it’s an amazing achievement. It brings joy.”

And throughout her career her sense of awe at her fellow para-athletes remains undiminished.

“You can watch army guys with no hip bones, no leg, and with their blades they can run across a track faster than I can jog,” says Sabrina.

“They are super human – they just don’t have a cape.”

Sabrina’s path to sporting glory...

In her early years Sabrina was inspired to take up sport by watching her older brother compete for Deeside Athletics Club. Fast forward a few years and she too now competes for Deeside while training indoors at Deeside and outdoors in Wrexham.

She joined her coach Ian Robinson in 2012 at the age of 16. At that time her best and favourite event

was discus. She had thrown just over 10m on shot and was using a linear throwing technique. In 2013 she improved to 10.86m and having been classified for her F20 (intellectual impairment) class was ‘discovered’ by UK athletics and invited with Ian to talent camps as a potential future international para-athlete.

It was the start of a very fast learning curve for both coach and athlete. At this point Ian thought that if things went well, Sabrina might just get selected to go to the Paralympics in Rio in three years’ time.

In 2014 Sabrina was invited to throw at the Brazilian Para Schools’ Championships in Rio. She was

throwing a lighter shot and won with 12.42m. She also came second in the Welsh Under 20 Championships and finished the season at ‘The Final Fling’ throws competition in Wrexham, winning with 10.98m.

Over the next six months she changed her technique from linear to rotational, transferring her discus technique to shot. There was an immediate improvement… but to avoid confusion and in pursuit of world ambition, discus had to be banned! It paid off.

In 2015 Sabrina won the Welsh Schools’ Championships in July, but was still aiming for world para selection. She reached her goal in August, then topped it off by coming fourth in the World Championships in Doha in October. She was a year ahead of what was an already ambitious schedule, a time factor that continues throughout her career to date.

Fast forward to February 2016 and selection for an Under 20 international for Wales (mainstream), a fourth place in the European Championships (para) in Italy, and a bronze medal in the Paralympic Games in Rio, in the September. She was now targeted by UK Athletics as a potential gold medal winner in Tokyo 2020.

While Sabrina had a setback with injury in 2017,  coming sixth in the World Championships in London, by 2018 she was ranked number one in the world with 13.70m. She came second in the Welsh Senior Championships (mainstream) and first in European Championships against all the other leading world contenders.  A throw of 13.30m set a new championship record.

In 2019 Sabrina took the top spot in the Northern senior championships (mainstream) throwing 13.70m and was also invited to compete in a Welsh international in Manchester and the British Indoor and Outdoor Championships. She came ninth and tenth respectively. Competing at such a high level was all great experience.

Her gold medal-winning throw of 11.91m in the World Championships in Dubai set a new championship record, just 19cm short of the world record. With it came the possibility of automatic selection for the Paralympics later this year.

She is now hoping for a world record and – with a bit of luck – gold in Tokyo 2020.