Contents

Val Williamson competed as an archer in the British team between 1980 and 1992 and won the silver medal at the 1980 Arnhem Games.

Val Williamson with her medals from the Arnhem Games in 1980

Early Life

Val was born in Northampton, prematurely, weighing just 2.5lb and with brain damage from a difficult breach delivery, her parents were told at first that she was dead.

She was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She couldn't walk until she was 10 so she crawled everywhere instead. But when she reached school age, officials told her parents "it was not worth it" to send her to school and be educated.

I did go to school. And I passed the 11 plus exam. And the comment was 'My God, she's got a brain'. Because you were spastic you were thought to be a 'mental retard' in those days. 

In grammar school, Val decided she wanted to be a surgeon in the Wrens. She studied maths, biology and chemistry at A Level but was then told that due to her physical instability and lack of balance, she was not fit to take the practical exams in science.

Determined to live as "normal" a life as possible, Val found office work that used her scientific background, lived independently in lodgings and later married the man of her dreams, Bernard.

She discovered archery and became so skilled that she competed for Britain in the 1980 Paralympics, winning a silver and bronze medal. To this day she is honorary president of the Newport Pagnell Archery Club. She recalls,

In the days of 1980, we were looked upon as people with disabilities trying to do sport. By the year 2000, Paralympic athletes were recognised as athletes with a disability - and that's a very different way of looking at it.

Life as a Paralympic Athlete

Val began archery in 1977 and by 1980 was invited to compete at the 1980 Paralympics in Arnhem. In this competition she won her two medals, a silver in archery and a bronze in dartchery.

Recollections

Val recalls her early experiences competing in Archery with a story about Stoke Mandeville:

In the mid-1970s my husband and I were instrumental in setting up a disabled sports group in Northampton and the different sports organisations came and gave us the opportunity to have a go. I had a go at archery, and I was bitten. That was in 1977. I went to Stoke Mandeville to the BSAD Sports with a group from Northampton and we got absolutely trounced. We thought we knew it all, but we got absolutely trounced across the patch. But I met people from Newport Pagnell archers and one of the well-known Bucks archers of the time, his comment was “Well, Williamson, who coaches you?”. Coaching? What’s coaching? “Come to Newport Pagnell, and we’ll have a look at you.”. That’s the beginnings, 1978 I’d still got an invalid three- wheeler and I used to come backwards and forwards to Newport Pagnell and that, plus the encouragement I got from Don Gould Pauline Betteridge.

She also remembers her first meeting with Sir Ludwig Guttman:

I married a paraplegic in 1962 and we were instrumental in forming a disabled sports club in Northampton, in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Then we decided we wanted to be competitive and this is how we came to be in contact with Stoke Mandeville. So, it was in 1977 that we first went to Stoke and that’s where we met Poppa. Bernard was classified as a ‘T5 incomplete para’ and Poppa’s comment was ‘What’s wrong with her?’. To which Bernard replied, ‘Well, she’s been disabled from birth, and her disability is brain damage rather than spinal damage.’ Poppa’s answer was ‘Let’ s give you a medical and see, because the effect is lower limb paralysis ‘. So therefore, I got a Paralympic rating of L1. And Bernard and I joined SPAC, which is Stoke Paraplegic Athletic Club. I’m not sure if its even in existence now. And we had many, many happy hours down there. Every fortnight we’d go down there on a Saturday afternoon and stay in the old huts in the old hospital. Sheep and goats, men in one hut, women in the other hut. But it was brilliant; and we got to know a lot of really inspiring people, and it gave us the encouragement to see others, which you didn’t get that chance very often. And, it was in 1980 that I first got the chance to go to the Paralympics. That was through Don Gould who used to run the archery training, and Pauline Betteridge who was a physio, and I think is still connected with the organisation now. 

Val also notes the significant progress made in the Paralympic events from her experience in Barcelona 1992 to her watching the 2012 Games:

The Opening Ceremony in Barcelona was dramatic. I’ve got some photographs of that. It had just grown. More countries, more sports, more disabilities being recognised; so that from a small beginning and look at this year. As a retired Paralympian I was offered a free ticket to go to the London Paralympics. I went to the Excel with my niece’s husband and we had a fantastic day, watching sitting volleyball, fencing, table tennis. So, we were actually there when the British teams won some medals. And it was wild; the noise was incredible. I also bought tickets to go to Woolwich Arsenal and watch the archery. The format of the competition had changed.”

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Val has filled her days with volunteer work ever since she retired from her job in a bakery office. She is currently a trustee and volunteer for the city's Centre for Integrated Living (CIL), which provides free and confidential information and help to people with a disability and their families or carers. At least three days a week are filled to the brim working there.

Although she retired from international competition in 1994, she is still involved in her local archery club, which is Newport Pagnell Archers; arranging tournaments, and participating (not competing) a little bit. She is also on Bucks County Committee and arranges County tournaments.

Achievements and awards

In the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honour List, at the age of 81, Val was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for her services to the community in North Buckinghamshire. 

Interview with Val about competing at the 1980 Arnhem Games

Interview by Catherine Turnbull-Ross, November 2012

When I started it was, pat you on the head, “Have a go.” Now they are as good as the rest. And within archery as a sport there are a number of county champions who are disabled archers.

Extract of the interview where Val describes her first meeting with Poppa Guttmann and her impressions of Stoke Mandeville…..
 
Interviewer: “I understand that you met Poppa Guttman”

VW: “Yes, my husband was also paraplegic and one has a medical to decide what level of disability you are, so you’re competing in an even competition. So, we went down for the medical, and obviously Bernie was T5 para, no discussion. Then Poppa said to Bernard ‘What’s wrong with her?’.

Bernard said, ‘Well, she’s been disabled from birth’. I was a miscarriage that lived; so therefore, it

was brain damage, rather than spinal damage. Poppa’s comment on that was, ‘Well, we’ll give her a medical and see  where she fits.’.

He was brilliant. He was so understanding. And he taught us so much in that twenty minutes. We realised prior to that we were green as grass.

VW: “I married a paraplegic in 1962 and we were instrumental in forming a disabled sports club in Northampton, in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Then we decided we wanted to be competitive and this is how we came to be in contact with Stoke Mandeville. So, it was in 1977 that we first went to Stoke and that’s where we met Poppa. Poppa’s answer was ‘Let’ s give you a medical and see, because the effect is lower limb paralysis‘. So therefore I got a Paralympic rating of L1.

And Bernard and I joined SPAC, which is Stoke Paraplegic Athletic Club. I’m not sure if it’s even in existence now. And we had many, many happy hours down there. Every fortnight we’d go down there on a Saturday afternoon and stay in the old huts in the old hospital. Sheep and goats, men in one hut, women in the other hut. But it was brilliant; and we got to know a lot of really inspiring people, and it gave us the encouragement to see others, which you didn’t get that chance very often.

And, it was in 1980 that I first got the chance to go to the Paralympics. That was through Don Gould who used to run the archery training, and Pauline Betteridge who was a physio, and I think is still connected with the organisation now.“

Download a pdf of Val's full interview here

References

  • https://www.miltonkeynes.co.uk/news/people/disabled-milton-keynes-woman-written-doctors-birth-awarded-british-empire-medal-aged-81-3007992
  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/documents/Val_Williamson.pdf
  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/page_id__92.aspx?path=0p4p31p
  • http://www.mkcil.org.uk/meet-the-team
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/val-williamson
  • https://www.livingarchive.org.uk/content/news/local-british-empire-medal-recipient-valerie-williamson-on-film-here
  • https://www.bucksarcheryassociation.org.uk/post/val-williamson-awarded-bem-in-queen-s-birthday-honours