• Early life
  • Life as a Paralympic athlete
  • Achievements and awards

Isabel made her Paralympic debut in Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1980 and went on to compete at seven Paralympic Games winning 10 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze medals in events as diverse as swimming, discus and shooting.

Isabel Newstead competing at the 2000 Sydney Games

Isabel competing at the 2000 Sydney
Paralympic Games

Isabel Newstead and Deanna Coates at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics with their winning medals

Isabel Newstead and Deanna Coates with their
winning medals at the 2000 Sydney Games

Early life

Born Isabel Barr on the 3rd of May 1955 in Glasgow, Isabel swam competitively for Scotland as a young girl. In her late teens her spinal cord was damaged by a virus which left her paralysed from the chest down, including partial paralysis of her hands.

Life as a Paralympic Athlete

In 1975, as part of her rehabilitation, she joined the Port Glasgow Otters Swimming Club and eventually caught the attention of the British Paralympic swimming team. She swam in the National Championships in 1976 before competing in her first Paralympic Games in 1980 (Arnhem, Holland) where she won three gold medals.

At the 1984 Paralympic Games, held here at Stoke Mandeville she won an incredible nine medals across three sports. A truly remarkable achievement. She was a trailblazer for women and for athletes with a high level physical disability.

Having given up swimming Isabel next headed to the Seoul Paralympic Games in 1988 where she won a further four medals in athletics and shooting.

At the Barcelona 1992 Games, there was controversy in the air pistol competition. The rules stated that a final could only take place if there were more than 8 competitors. As there were exactly 8, Isabel’s coach was told that a final wouldn’t take place. Isabel finished third and therefore assumed she would be awarded the bronze medal. She and her coach left the event, but the organisers then decided that there would be a final. Isabel couldn’t be found in time and missed out on the opportunity to compete for a medal.

On the eve of the Atlanta 1996 Games, Isabel broke her hip falling out of her chair. Her hip needed operating on, but she was worried that the anaesthetic might reflect negatively on her during a drugs test, so she asked the surgeon to operate without it. Unfortunately, the injury took its toll, and she only managed a sixth place finish in the final of the Women’s Air Pistol SH1, and she withdrew from the Mixed Free Pistol .22 SH1 event.

Isabel went on to win gold in the Women’s Air Pistol SH1 at both the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Paralympic Games.

Isabel was aiming to compete at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games but sadly passed away in 2007 following an illness, she will be remembered for being an extremely talented athlete who was focussed and ahead of her time and for her skill in air-pistol shooting, for which she won three Paralympic gold medals.

Isabel competed at the Paralympic Games for over two decades. She was a great ambassador for wheelchair sport, an outstanding role model and an inspiration for up and coming athletes.

Seeds of Diversity banner honouring Isabel Newstead at the London 2012 opening ceremony

Seeds of Diversity banner honouring Isabel Newstead at the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony

Isabel Newstead's obituary

Written by Robin Macdonald, published in Target Sports Magazine, 2007

Isabel Newstead, nee Barr, died of cancer at Harlow Hospital on Thursday 18th January 2007.

Isabel was born in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1955 and lived in Renfrewshire. She swam for her country until an ear infection at the age of 15 forced her to give up. 

In 1974, while at Glasgow University, she caught a flu virus which caused damage to her spinal cord leading to complete paralysis from the chest downwards, and partial paralysis of her hands.

Swimming was to be part of her rehabilitation, and needing to keep fit, she started a strict training regime. There were not many tetraplegics swimming competitively but Isabel, always a fighter, dropped a class and competed as a paraplegic.

She applied and won a job as a Systems Analyst with Rank Hovis in the late 1970s and moved into a ground floor flat in Harlow, near to a swimming pool. She managed to persuade Harlow Council to open the pool for her early in the mornings, and trained before work. In 1976 she swam in the National Championships, and when the 1980 Paralympics was held in Arnhem, Holland, Isabel won three individual swimming gold medals. In 1984 when the Paralympics came back to Great Britain (at Stoke Mandeville), she again won three individual swimming golds.

Sadly, swimming the last leg as a GB team member in her effort to win the silver, she collided with the pool wall. Doctors told her, no more competitive swimming, but having tasted success and enjoyed it, she looked around for another challenge.

Most paraplegics have upper body strength from propelling themselves in a wheelchair, and Isabel started training for discus, javelin throwing, and putting the shot. Wheelchairs are anchored, and great effort with shoulder and arm swimming is needed to propel the discus. When Isabel trained (in a wet field) someone needed to lie on the ground and try and hold the chair steady, then measure the throw. Isabel's aim was beyond the Paralympic record of that time.

She won the ladies' discus gold at the Paralympics in Seoul, as well as ladies' 10m air pistol. She also managed a silver at javelin and a bronze at shot put, all against very strong competition.

While she was in Seoul, a friendly Korean Police Officer took Isabel and myself to see the Championship Shooting Range on the other side of the city where the World Championships had been held two years earlier. There and back in the fast lane through heavy traffic with horns, siren and lights flashing and with two motorcycle outriders, it was the most exciting ride of her life. She had already shot and won the pistol gold.

All her adult life, Isabel was in and out of hospital with infections and had several surgeons as friends. One Christmas holiday she decided to sleep in, forgetting that the central heating radiator came on high at the end of her bed, and one of her feet was resting on it. She could feel nothing and the result was that she woke up to a strong smell of burning, to find a very badly burned foot!

Isabel afterwards described how, sitting propped up on the operating table in a London hospital, she watched strips of skin being scraped from her thigh with what looked like a potato peeler and then stitched on to the underneath of her foot and toes. "I had to criticise his sewing prowess" she told me later.

On another occasion she offered her live body for surgeon training as a new technique was tried by injecting a toxic fluid into her back destroying exact areas which could then be examined and repaired.

Isabel was an extra special person, who didn't fully realise what an amazing effect she had on all who met her - other athletes, coaches, officials and especially children. She was the perfect role model - for everyone.

She was voted Disabled Sports Person of the Year in 1983 and I escorted a very excited Isabel in a long evening dress to the dinner and presentation at the Cafe Royal. As she was being lifted out of our hired limo in preparation for being carried to the top table, Isabel's shoe was knocked off on the door frame. I carried it in my pocket for the whole evening and no one noticed, certainly not Isabel herself. In April 1992 Isabel married John Newstead in Glasgow. He had been her shooting coach at her nearby range at Cheshunt, and they had got on extremely well from the start. As a team they both got more involved with the British Paralympic Association. For a time, she recorded a number of short diary features for the BBC, and these were broadcast on programmes such as Woman's Hour. Here are some quotes from people who got to know her at BBC Sports.

She showed huge commitment to her sport, attention to detail and the desire to win. But she was always willing to help and inspire others and share with them her thinking.

As a person she was one of life's genuinely lovely people.

She will be remembered as one of Britain's great Paralympians.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Between the Arnhem 1980 and Stoke Mandeville & New York 1984 Paralympic Games Isabel won six gold, one silver and two bronze medals in swimming events.

In field events, she won silver in the Discus Throw and Shot Put in 1984 and added gold in the Discus Throw, another silver in the Shot Put and bronze in the Javelin at the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games.

Isabel’s gold in the Air Pistol at the Stoke Mandeville & New York 1984 Paralympic Games was followed by a bronze in Seoul and two more golds at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Games.

Other sporting events

  • World Championships three gold and three silver medals.
  • European Championships one gold and one silver medal.
  • She held Paralympic, European and World highest scores, a rare feat for any athlete.
    In British Championships she regularly topped these scores by several points, but the true touch of the World Class Athlete is to - do it on the day. Isabel could, and did.

Other awards and recognition

  • Disabled Sports Personality of the Year (1983).
  • MBE in 2001 New Year’s Honours list for services to Disabled Sports.
  • Inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame (2008).
  • Inducted into the Stoke Mandeville Hall of Fame (April 2017).
  • Honoured in Scottish Women in Sport Hall of Fame (2018); nominated by the public and national sporting bodies.