Sunday, August 13, 2006

Visually impaired athlete hopes to get gold in archery

Dot Cooper has come a long way since watching Robin Hood on the telly as a little girl and playing bows and arrows over the fields.

Dot Cooper, a British Blind Sport national champion, says she knows roughly where her arrows have gone by the sound they make.

Although she is now 55 and blind, she has just become the first woman ever to be selected to represent Great Britain in an international archery championship for visually impaired athletes.
Today, ahead of the European Archery Championships in Prague, Dot is putting in some last-minute practice at the office — a huge disused animal shed on the outskirts of Cheswardine.
Thirty yards away at the far end of derelict building there is a makeshift target. Dot stands stock still on her sight spot, her face the picture of concentration. Silently, and in one fluid movement, she raises the bow, draws, then releases.

Red, three o’clock. That would be the verdict of a sighted spotter, a person whose job it is to stand behind blind archers and tell them where their arrows have landed.

“I can tell by the sound roughly where it’s gone,” she says, joking that if there’s no sound at all it’s probably because the arrow has flown straight out of the open window at the other end of the shed and out into the field. Not that it’s ever happened of course.

But watching her in action, you quickly forget that she is blind. Dot began losing her sight when she was 21 after suffering from a degenerative eye condition known as RP.

“I’ve lost probably about 98 or 99 per cent of my peripheral vision but it’s amazing what you can do with those couple of degrees left,” she says.

In one fluid movement she raises the bow, draws and then releases.

Her sight loss, she admits, was life-changing. A former accountancy worker, she took stock of her lot and went back to school.

“Before I lost my eyesight I didn’t have time to think about doing much other than bringing up the family, but after I lost my vision I went to university and got a first class degree in Business and German Studies.

“I graduated when I was 50 and I felt quite pleased.”

Dot continues: “It makes you re-think your life. You’re not quite sure what direction you are going to take but since I graduated I felt that I wanted to explore what I could do having lost my vision.”
Around this time she met Harry — full name Harry Heeley — a sighted spotter who convinced her to try her hand with a bow and arrow.

Dot had a natural talent. In May 2003 she became the British Blind Sport national champion just nine months after first picking up a bow. All those hours playing bow and arrows clearly paid off.
At the time she told the Shropshire Star that she took the sport up because it was “suitable” for visually impaired people, which on the surface of things seems rather strange.

“I cannot remember saying ’suitable’,” she says. “I just new that archery for visually impaired people was there and I could get into it.

“It’s been a bit of an eye-opener, if you like, for me.”

Dot describes how archery has been her passport to visit places she would not otherwise go, half-jokingly pointing out that sometimes it’s difficult to even get a bus out of Cheswardine.

Harry Heeley is her "sighted" spotter in practice and competition.

Next stop Prague then. Dot is able to compete on the world stage after her sport was recognised by the International Paralympic Committee.

Her trip to the championships may now be just a few days away but her journey began last November when she was invited to a residential training course at Lilleshall, the headquarters of the Grand National Archery Society.

Her talents were noted and last month she was selected for the European championships following trials in Maidenhead held by archery selectors for visually impaired athletes.

Dot says she was thrilled at the news, but not as thrilled as when the postman brought her Great Britain tracksuit. She takes it out of the packet and proudly displays it.

“My shooting top will just have the word “Dot” on the back,” she adds.

Proud of her achievements, the ever-present Harry — who mentally fires every arrow Dot fires and who is described by Dot as her “guide dog on two legs” — will of course be at the championships this month.

He says: “It’s a bit of history. She is the first woman to be selected — nobody else can be the first woman.

“There’s no pressure, but she’s got to come back with a gold medal.”

Dot says: “You’ve got to learn to relax. It’s very tiring firing 144 arrows between 8.30 in the morning to 5.30 at night. You’re wiped out at the end, particularly if you’ve battled against the elements like thunder and lightening.

“I will be nervous but if I get off to a flying start I will be more relaxed. I’m confident that I’ve worked hard and put in the training.

“I’m very positive and I will enjoy it if it’s going well. It’s a totally new experience for me and I’m going out there with the objective of winning a medal.

“I just hope I come back with the right colour.”


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