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Chris Hallam

Aug 21, 2013
Chris Hallam

Chris Hallam, who has died aged 49, was a hero of the Paralympic movement who won medals in both wheelchair racing and swimming;

Chris Hallam, who has died aged 49, was a hero of the Paralympic movement who won medals in both wheelchair racing and swimming; he inspired many other people with disabilities to take up sport.

A flamboyant, outspoken character, the Welsh-born Hallam, who was known as “Shades”, was instantly recognisable because of the dark glasses and headband he habitually wore on the track. He had been paralysed below the chest in a motorcycle accident at the age of 17 — just two days before he was due to be selected for the Welsh swimming team. In 1982 he won the 50m breaststroke at the World Disabled Games.

Hallam continued to break swimming records into the mid-1990s and, as a wheelchair racer, was a medallist in the Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) Paralympics. He won the London Marathon twice, in 1985 and 1987, setting course records, and also competed in the summer games at Stoke Mandeville in 1984. Wheelchair races are conducted at speeds of up to 30kph, faster than those of able-bodied competitors.

His fellow Welsh Paralympian Baroness (Tanni) Grey-Thompson has described how watching Hallam win the London marathon when she was a teenager convinced her that she, too, could compete as an athlete. “Not only was he Welsh and living not far from where I was,” she recalled, “he really challenged perceptions of disability sport. Chris... made the sport of road-racing seem really sexy, exciting and glamorous.”

Although the Paralympics had been going since 1960, disability sport remained on the margins for many years. Tanni Grey-Thompson has recalled how, at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, she and Hallam had flown out on their own to represent their country as the New Zealand Paralympic and Physically Disabled Federation had not invited Wales to submit any entries.

“We soon realised there would be problems,” she recalled. “The Welsh Commonwealth Games Association refused to give either of us any kit because their view was we were 'Mickey Mouse’ athletes. We had no recognition, but eventually they gave us one vest between the pair of us.”

She recalled that they were accommodated in a youth hostel well away from the luxurious premises where the non-disabled athletes were staying. But she counted herself lucky that she got to wear the vest first, for the 800m event, in which she came third, before Hallam donned it to compete in the 1,500m, coming fourth: “I didn’t even have time to wash it before handing it to Chris. It’s surreal because at the time, though it didn’t seem great, it did seem acceptable we were treated in this way.”

But Hallam helped to drive the creation of a sports infrastructure that has made Wales arguably the most successful Paralympic nation in the world. With his close friend and fellow Welsh and British competitor John Harris, he embarked on a series of punishing sponsored wheelchair rides to raise money for the first accessible sports centre in the principality, so that others with disabilities could follow their example.

In 1987 they pushed themselves 400 miles in 11 days around Wales — the equivalent of 15 marathons — and in 1997 they pushed 600 miles in 37 days, raising enough money for a national centre to be built at the University of Wales Institute, at the Cyncoed Campus site.

Chris Alexander Hallam was born on New Year’s Day 1964 and went to Llantarnam School, Cwmbran, where he became a leading schoolboy swimmer.

After his retirement from competitive sport in 1996 he took up athletics coaching, encouraging other up-and-coming wheelchair racers within the Disability Sport Wales academy system.

He was appointed MBE for services to disability sport.

Chris Hallam, who had been suffering from cancer for several years, is survived by his parents and his sister.

Chris Hallam, born January 1 1964, died August 16 2013

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