The CEO of WheelPower, a charity that has been providing opportunities for people with physical impairments to take part in sport, is celebrating 30 years of service this year.
Martin McElhatton is much loved by the charity, and has been part of the Paralympics and Paralympics GB movement ever since his first involvement in the 1980s.
He was a patient back at Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit in 1979, aged just 18 years old. after a spinal cord injury.
After an introduction to Paralympic sport during his rehabilitation, Martin was selected for the 1984 Paralympic Games held at Stoke Mandeville Stadium for wheelchair basketball.
He also competed in the European Championships in 1987 and the World Championships in 1986 in Australia.
He narrowly missed out on selection for the 1988 Paralympic Games in Korea, from that stage deciding to join the administrative side of wheelchair sports.
WheelPower invited Martin to record results and do some PR, after impressing Jean Stone who worked with the charity.
He said: “I’ve done a range of different things right from that press role which I did for a long time, to fundraising, to being involved in helping organise sports events and for the last 20 or so years I‘ve been the chief executive.”
Martin reflected on the changes he has seen over the years since he started at WheelPower, which itself has been going for nearly 70 years.
He said: “There was no British Paralympic Association or International Paralympic Committee until the early 1990s, so at WheelPower we were involved from grassroots right up to elite level sport.
“We’ve seen participation in wheelchair and Paralympic sports grow, and the amount of different sports people that can now participate.
“There’s been a big increase in awareness and opportunities for disabled people to get involved in sport and be more physically active.”
“I think there have been huge changes both in how the games are perceived, but also how wheelchair sport in particular is viewed.
“I think it started with things like having the wheelchair race in the London Marathon, much more visibility.”
Martin also played a key role in securing the raising of more than £10 million to redevelop Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the birthplace of the Paralympic movement led by Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann.
He added: “What a lot of people may not realise is that the Stoke Mandeville Stadium is owned by a charity, all the staff here have worked so hard to get to this place where we can offer an accessible and inclusive community centre where people can play sports and keep fit.
“It’s an amazing sight to see school children come down for a swim, followed by elite wheelchair athletes, followed by amateur sportspeople either disabled or not.
“It’s fantastic to see those barriers removed, with people from all aspects of the community coming together in sport.”
Martin commented on the location of WheelPower, and the cultural significance of Stoke Mandeville as the birthplace of the Paralympics.
He said: “In any sports movement it’s important to know where your roots are and whether that’s rugby at Twickenham, cricket at Lord’s, tennis at Wimbledon, all of that is celebrated and the heritage of sport is very important.
“It gives us a foundation to build on and to tell the athletes of today that they are part of something bigger than just themselves, they are part of a whole sports movement that started on the lawns of the hospital and has grown to be this incredible event every two years – whether its winter or summer Paralympics or summer Games – where all the athletes of the world who are the top athletes within their sports and impairment classifications gather together and compete on the world stage.”
Talking about his proudest moments at WheelPower, Martin cited his charity skydive and carrying the Paralympic torch in 2012 through Canary Wharf just before the opening ceremony at the London Stadium.
He concluded: “I’ve worked with some amazing people, incredible volunteers from board level downwards, to coaches and support staff for our sports programmes to those supporting our fundraising.
“Without all the volunteers it wouldn’t have been such an enjoyable and exhilarating 30 years.
“I can’t wait to see what the next thirty have to offer.”
“I just want to carry on the legacy of Dr Ludwig Guttmann here at Stoke Mandeville with our amazing colleagues.”