Wheelchair tennis player completes 140-mile challenge and sets his sights on Rio 2016

After conquering the mountain which nearly claimed his life, wheelchair tennis star Paul Stewart has set his sights on defying the odds once again by attempting to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Last week Stewart successfully climbed to the top of La Plagne in the French Alps, the summit from which he fell 200ft in a snowboarding accident in December 2008 - leaving him paralysed below the knees.

The climb was the culmination of the 32-year-old's incredible 15-day, 140-mile Iron Spine Challenge, a gruelling journey which combined swimming, walking and cycling - attempting to tell his story backwards by starting in a pool at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and ending in the French Alps.

And Stewart, who now receives funding from the Tennis Foundation as part of the Wheelchair Tennis Performance Programme, admits completing the physically and emotionally draining challenge has convinced him he can qualify for Rio despite only starting playing competitively two years ago.

"My challenge was a huge success and one I can't quite believe I completed if I'm honest," said Stewart.

"I didn't know how I would feel returning to the mountain and it was tough to go back there, but reaching the summit was such an incredible achievement and one I will never forget.

"I only started playing wheelchair tennis two years ago, and history shows most wheelchair tennis players take a good six years before they make it to a Paralympic Games.

"Completing my challenge was a huge inspiration for me and has made me think, 'why not?', if I can do that then anything else seems do-able in comparison.

"Wheelchair tennis is so competitive – to be in the Paralympics you have to be in the top four guys in the country so it's an incredibly hard task, especially when I'm coming into the sport so much later than some of my competitors."

At July's British Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships Stewart demonstrated his enormous potential, making it past the first round before putting up a spirited performance as he went down to world no.1 Maikel Scheffers.

At the competition he was presented with the Best Newcomer award for 2012, and now Stewart admits he has designs on breaking into the sport's top ten.

"To win that award was really nice for me; it showed me that I had come a long way but that I'm capable of improving quickly.

"The scoreline against Scheffers was one-sided but I was winning plenty of points and stayed competitive in the rallies – as he's been playing for so much longer than me I have to see that as a positive.

"I want to be heading towards the top end of those rankings as that's where I need to be if I want to go to Rio, and battling so well with Scheffers showed me that I have the potential."

Find out more about Paul's Iron Spine Challenge here (link opens in new window).  


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