WHEN 10-year-old Natasha Baker sat and watched the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, she dreamed of taking part herself.
What she saw on TV that day inspired the youngster, who was disabled from a young age, to strive for her dream and tomorrow she will take her place at the London Paralympic Games.
The Games will see more than 4,000 athletes from 166 countries competing in 20 sports.
Miss Baker, who competes in dressage and trains in Milton-under-Wychwood, said: “I’m extremely excited, a little bit stressed but it’s going to be great fun and I can’t wait to get started.
“Sydney was the first time Para-dressage had been shown on TV. I’d never seen it before and it was incredible, mind blowing, seeing people with disabilities like mine and seeing how able they were on a horse. I thought ‘that’s my dream’.”
The 22-year-old contracted a virus, Transverse Myelitis, when she was 14 months old. It left her weakened and unable to feel her legs. She uses a stick for short distances and an electric scooter for longer ones.
Miss Baker added: “I was completely inspired by Sydney, so if I can do that for just one disabled child, everything has been worth it.”
Other Paralympians with Oxfordshire links include rowing cox Lily van den Broecke, who lives in the city, and fencer Gemma Collis, who was born in Oxford. Another recognisable name is that of Nathan Smith, who played for the Oxford Harlequins rugby club.
In 2004, Mr Smith, who will compete for New Zealand in the cycling, tragically lost his leg after being hit by a car on the A40 near the Green Road roundabout in Oxford.
And the athletes are already inspiring the next generation. Jamie Craggs, Oxfordshire Sports Partnership disability officer, said they had been inundated with calls enquiring about local disabled sports clubs in the run-up to the Games.
He said: “I think this is something the county will really get behind and I think that will only be heightened over the next fortnight.” Oxsrad in Marston, a centre offering activities that are accessible to all, is holding a Paralympic celebration tomorrow.
Manager Paul Saxton said: “We want to promote all the activities available to people, we want to help people build up their confidence and know there are so many sports available to them in the city.”
The centre is also trying to raise £60,000 for new gym equipment and to spruce up the building. Jane Slade, 56, from Cowley, uses the centre’s gym twice a week. She was left paralysed from the waist down after an aneurysm on Christmas Day in 2009.
She said: “When it first happens you think you’re in the chair and that’s it, you’ll never be able to do anything. “You think you’ll never be able to push yourself. But after going to Oxsrad, I’ve grown in confidence and I’m able to pedal myself backwards and half way forwards on the machines now. “I never thought I’d be able to do that.”
She said the London Paralympic Games would be an inspiration: “You think it’s the end of everything when you’re first consigned to the wheelchair, so to see people who are so strong and who have made themselves so fit, is incredible."
The free Oxsrad Paralympics celebration runs from 1pm until 4pm.