Isabel Newstead


Born: 3 May, 1955, in Glasgow. Died: 18 January, 2007, in Harlow, Essex, aged 51.

IT TAKES a remarkable level of application to reach the top of a sport, but Isabel Newstead, one of Britain's greatest Paralympians, managed it three times over.

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Newstead, born Isabel Barr, died last week after a battle with cancer. Before falling ill, she had been preparing for an eighth consecutive Paralympic Games appearance, a run that began in 1980 in Arnhem and ended 24 years later in Athens, when she claimed a gold medal at the age of 49.

More extraordinary than the length of her career were its range and diversity. Newstead won gold medals in three completely distinct fields: swimming, athletics and, most famously, shooting.

Although she spent most of her adult life in Essex, Isabel remained a proud Scot and was invited last summer to attend the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, where she enjoyed a victory for Andy Murray, Scotland's newest sporting icon.

Newstead grew up in Renfrewshire and enjoyed success as a county swimmer until an ear infection at the age of 15 forced her to give up. Four years later, a flu virus caused an injury to her spinal cord that would eventually lead to tetraplegia - partial or complete paralysis of all four limbs.

Her early rehabilitation programme included swimming, so in 1975 she enrolled at Port Glasgow Otters, and her determination to cope with her disability was noted by members of Britain's paraplegic team. That connection would propel her on the road to 25 years of international endeavour.

Newstead left Scotland in the late 1970s for Harlow, in Essex, where she took a job as a systems analyst for food corporation Rank Hovis McDougall.

Having swum at the national championships for spinal-injury victims at Stoke Mandeville in 1976, her major breakthrough as a disabled athlete came in 1980, when the Paralympic movement was beginning its growth into the vast land of opportunity it is today.

In the Netherlands, she claimed three gold medals in the pool, an achievement she repeated four years later when the Games came home to Britain.

At Seoul in 1988, Newstead was no longer a swimmer yet the transition was smooth. She brought home a gold medal and world record in the discus and her first gold in SH1 air-pistol shooting, the discipline she would master at the peak of her powers.

Cruel luck befell Newstead at the next two Games. In Barcelona, in 1992, a misunderstanding over the event's format caused her to miss the shooting final. Four years later, in Atlanta, she fell from her chair on the eve of the opening ceremony and broke her hip, finishing sixth in the competition after refusing to withdraw.

However, these setbacks only strengthened her resolve, and Sydney 2000 yielded the crowning glory: gold in the air pistol with a new world-record score.

That performance won Newstead an MBE in the New Year's honours list, but she wasn't satisfied and travelled to Athens in 2004, determined to rewrite her record. She failed to do so, and admonished herself. "I felt I had let myself and everyone else down," she said later. A ninth gold medal was clearly scant consolation for an inspirational athlete whose approach epitomised the Olympic mantra: "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

Isabel Newstead is survived by her husband, John, who doubled as her shooting coach.