Woman of the fu­ture

Meet the ath­lete re­fus­ing to let her dis­abil­ity hold her back

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

Sarah Leiter was born with al­binism and has only 10 per cent of nor­mal vi­sion. She jug­gles crack-of-dawn starts for gru­elling train­ing ses­sions as part of Bri­tain’s goalball squad with hospi­tal shifts as part of her Cam­bridge de­gree in medicine and sci­en­tific re­search.

But do not for a mo­ment think that this is a sport­ing hard-luck story. In­stead, five years on from her first ex­pe­ri­ence of goalball – the fast-paced sport for vis­ually im­paired ath­letes that sees com­peti­tors at­tempt to throw the ball into their op­po­nents’ goal – Leiter has just been short­listed for the pres­ti­gious Women of the Fu­ture Awards for her con­tri­bu­tions to the sport. “I al­ways felt I’d been at a dis­ad­van­tage in any team sport,” she says. “I can’t see the ball and I’ve got no clue what’s go­ing on half the time.

“I think that dis­abil­ity has been a big­ger bar­rier in my life than be­ing a woman, but I find that we are very lucky with a good set-up in goalball here in the UK. Women are very in­te­grated. In other tour­na­ments, in other coun­tries at the elite level, there’s only men play­ing.”

Leiter, 26, is not the sort of char­ac­ter who would al­low gen­der stereo­typ­ing to block her path. Af­ter be­com­ing hooked on goalball at the Lon­don 2012 Par­a­lympics, she was scouted for the Bri­tish squad within six months of tak­ing up the sport at her lo­cal club, the Cam­bridge Dons, while study­ing an in­te­grated MB/PhD pro­gramme in medicine and sci­en­tific re­search at the all-women’s Newn­ham Col­lege at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity.

Her sight prob­lems force her to use a tele­scope for lec­tures and spe­cial­ist com­puter soft­ware that can read her long pieces of text. She chuck­les as she re­calls a daily sched­ule that is ex­haust­ing just to lis­ten to.

“I get up about 6.30am, take the bus to the hospi­tal and get go­ing on place­ment,” she says. “I get boxes of food to­gether to snack on through­out the day and be­fore and af­ter train­ing. So I leave with a huge pile of food, es­sen­tially.

“My place­ments are ex­tremely var­ied – it might be a day of lec­tures, I might be shad­ow­ing in an in­ten­sive care unit, I might go out with an am­bu­lance on a shift or spend some time in a clinic.

“I fin­ish when I fin­ish, then take the bus to the sports cen­tre at the uni­ver­sity and do my train­ing – tech­ni­cal stuff, throw­ing or de­fence, or in the gym and lift­ing weights or work­ing on your car­dio. Then come home, cook some food and fall in to bed.”

Leiter’s ded­i­ca­tion helps to ex­plain why she has been nom­i­nated for the WFAs, which cel­e­brate the vast wealth of fe­male tal­ent across all sec­tors of so­ci­ety and en­cour­age cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion among them. As both sportswoman and scientist, Leiter views them as not sim­ply cause for cel­e­bra­tion, but a way to com­bat gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that she wit­nesses of­ten in both her fields.

“Women still face chal­lenges that are dif­fer­ent from our male coun­ter­parts. It was as a young adult that I re­alised how un­equal some things are. In sci­en­tific fields, women are still get­ting paid less. Why? We are do­ing the same job. We have to fight so much harder. Ev­ery time an ap­pli­ca­tion comes around, women don’t ap­ply for higher-ranked jobs.”

In sport, too, much progress still needs to be made – in­clud­ing goalball. “In the UK, pretty much ev­ery club now has at least one fe­male in their team. How­ever, in tour­na­ments in other coun­tries at the elite level there’s only men play­ing. As a woman you might not achieve the same speed, but tech­ni­cally how skilled are you? How tac­ti­cal are you? How good a de­fen­sive player are you?

“Can you lead a team? Can you keep go­ing men­tally in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions? I don’t think be­ing fe­male is a dis­ad­van­tage in any of those sit­u­a­tions.”

She has just got back from com­pet­ing in Fin­land with the GB team in the Euro­pean Goalball A League for the first time. The team fin­ished sixth over­all and there­fore stay in the sport’s top tier, hand­ing them en­try for the Tokyo 2020 Par­a­lympic qual­i­fiers.

The is­sue, as ever, is money. With no fund­ing at all from UK Sport – “we are com­pletely de­pen­dent on fundrais­ing and some very gen­er­ous donors” – the Bri­tish squad have to be cre­ative with their fundrais­ing tech­niques.

“One of the other girls had the crazy idea to sign us up for the TV show Eg­gheads,” she says with a laugh. “It was a bril­liant day up in Glas­gow as part of a fundraiser, but also rais­ing aware­ness and spread­ing the word about goalball. I didn’t know what it was un­til Lon­don 2012 and I of­ten won­der how many peo­ple there are out there who don’t even know the sport ex­ists and who are miss­ing out on some­thing. It would be great to see more girls get­ting in­volved.”

Even here, her com­pet­i­tive streak was ir­re­press­ible. “Sadly, we didn’t come first on the show,” she said, “but I did win the sci­ence round.”

Role model: Sarah Leiter is com­mit­ted to a a gru­elling sched­ule of train­ing and study

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