"Chuffed to bits" Briscoe sets sights on improving ParalympicsGB performance at Sochi 2014 after Vancouver blank

Monday, 21 January 2013
By Tom Degun

Tom Degun ITG2It was no real surprise earlier this month when the British Paralympic Association (BPA) appointed their performance director Penny Briscoe as the ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

For over a decade now, Briscoe has helped mastermind the British team's performances at the Paralympics, where they have maintained a top three position for the three consecutive Summer Games she has been involved with.

A former international canoeist who represented Great Britain, Briscoe was also a coach for the British Canoe slalom team that competed at the Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Olympic Games before she joined the BPA in 2001 and quickly became the director of performance services in 2002.

She has been part of team delegations at every Paralympic Games since 2004, having held the position of Deputy Chef de Mission at London 2012, Vancouver 2010, Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004. She was also part of the senior management team for Turin 2006, meaning Sochi 2014 will be her sixth Paralympics in a senior role.

That CV makes Briscoe, as BPA chief executive Tim Hollingsworth says, "one of the most experienced people working in Paralympic sport".

Penny Briscoe 3Sochi 2014 will be the sixth Paralympic Games that Penny Briscoe has been involved with in her time at the British Paralympic Association

The appointment of Briscoe as Sochi 2014 Chef de Mission also illustrates the new method of thinking at the BPA under Hollingsworth.

Since taking over the role from Phil Lane in 2011, Hollingsworth has been keen to separate the role of ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission and BPA chief executive. Lane himself had combined the two by doing the role at four consecutive Paralympics at Athens 2004, Turin 2006, Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010.

Hollingsworth applied his blueprint by appointing former swimmer Craig Hunter as ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission at London 2012 and said he wanted to continue that trend at Sochi 2014.

"Separating the Chef de Mission and chief executive functions worked extremely well in London and we were keen to replicate the model for Sochi," Hollingsworth said.

An astute move from Hollingsworth and for Briscoe, finally securing the top ParalympicsGB role for a Games, was simply an honour.

"I must admit, I was chuffed to bits to be appointed ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission for Sochi 2014," Briscoe told me as we spoke shortly after her appointment was publicly announced.

"It really is an honour and a privilege and something that I'm very excited by.

"I have built up a lot of experience working at previous Paralympic Games and that will be crucial but it is obviously a new challenge in terms of being the Chef de Mission. I think the relationships I have managed to build with the sports in my time has BPA performance director is something that is critical and I know that the team that will be put in place around me will be world class.

"Our real ambition is that at Sochi, every athlete and staff member in ParalympicsGB will have the mental and physical toolkit and the support framework to thrive in the Games environment. That is much bigger ambition than it may sound, because the Paralympics is so much more complicated an environment than a World Championships. But we already have detailed plans in place to develop those skills and that support."

Tim Hollingsworth 3BPA chief executive Tim Hollingsworth has looked to separate his role with that of ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission

One of the obvious challenges facing Briscoe is the fact that ParalympicsGB are far weaker at the Winter Paralympics than they are at the Summer Games. While Britain secured three top three finishes at the Paralympics with Briscoe on board, the team failed to claim a medal at Vancouver 2010 four years after winning just one silver medal in Turin four years earlier. It is perhaps understandable given that Britain is no winter sport nation but Briscoe is certainly not looking for any excuses.

"We know that this isn't going to be like London 2012 in terms of medal success but we are certainly going to Sochi to win medals," she said. "Vancouver 2010 was disappointing because our wheelchair curling team were good enough to medal and our alpine skier Sean Rose has won medals at World Championship level before missing out at the Paralympics.

"But our goal now is how we can go to Russia and get on that podium. There are currently four sports at the Winter Paralympics - alpine skiing, nordic skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling - and we at ParalympicsGB are looking to compete in the three sports of wheelchair curling, alpine skiing and ice sledge hockey.

"That in itself is not easy because simply qualifying for the Games itself is very difficult. My job is to monitor performances of all those winter sports at their upcoming World Championships events as they look to qualify and once we have achieved that, we can really start focusing in Sochi and at how to secure the best possible result out there."

In terms of Sochi itself, Briscoe admits there are perhaps more obstacles to be faced than usual given the Russian language and cultural barrier that still exists but it is a challenge she appears more than happy to take on.

Sochi 2014 venueSochi is likely to provide logistical challenges for ParalympicsGB 

"We know that working in Russia will be challenging, potentially more so than at either London or Vancouver, but that does not change our commitment to providing the same world-class support we have had at previous Games," she said.

"It is still early stages but in terms of looking at Sochi, these next few months will be crucial for us. Perhaps most important from my point of view is the Chef De Mission seminar being in Sochi in March 2013 but there are other key things we need to look at.

"One example is the logistics of getting there will all our equipment because there is no direct flight from the UK to Sochi. We will have to look at whether we go via Istanbul or via Moscow as they are the two options and things like that do have a real impact on performance.

"But that is one of the many things we will be looking at over the coming weeks and months and by the time Sochi comes around you can be sure that no stone will left unturned in our performance preparations."

But despite all the preparation one fascinating intangible that might confront Briscoe's ParalympicsGB team is the participation on it of a certain Heather Mills. The former wife of Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, Mills have never been far from the headlines whether it has been through her  protracted divorce from the former Beatle, being called to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry investigating allegations of newspaper phone hacking or appearances on both Dancing on Ice and the American version of Strictly Come Dancing.

The 45-year-old from Hampshire, who had her left leg amputated below the knee following a collision with a police motorcycle in 1993, announced in late 2010 her ambition to qualify the Sochi 2014 Paralympics in Russia in a revelation that was received with plenty of scepticism.

She has since shown real commitment which has seen her train with the British disability ski development squad. She also purchased a ski ­chalet near Goldeck am Millstätter See, in the Austrian Alps, for £1.4 million ($2.5 million/€2 million) as a training base for the Games.

Heather MillsHeather Mills has stated her ambition to be part of the ParalympicsGB team for Sochi 2014

But Briscoe is careful when discussing the prospect of Mills at the Paralympics.

"At this stage, it is a bit of a hypothetical question and from a performance basis, I dodn't really like to look at hypotheticals too much," Briscoe said.

"We know Heather has stated her ambition to make it to the Sochi 2014 Paralympics and that she is training to try and qualify. That is still a long way off. But if she can qualify and is selected to the ParalympicsGB team, she will just be another member of the team.

"She will be no different to any of the other athletes in terms of the fact that she will have performance targets that we will expect of her as we do of all our athletes. Obviously there will be big media interest in her which we would have to handle properly so it didn't distract her from her performance or distract the rest of the team.

"But we will be able to handle that. We have had what you might call big stars in the ParalympicsGB team before and we have been able to help them achieve their performance goals and deal properly with their media commitments.

"They are not really different from Heather only that they are perhaps sporting stars rather than celebrity stars. So we will have systems in place to deal with it all. But at this stage, it is still hypothetical."

As for Biscoe herself, a strong performance at Sochi 2014 could well lead to the sought-after top job again at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. But for the woman herself, that is a long way off.

"I'm just incredibly grateful to be given this opportunity for Sochi 2014," she said. "That is my focus right now.

"What happens in the future for Rio is a decision that will be made elsewhere by the BPA chief executive and the Board so isn't one I can really answer. I am just looking for ParalympicsGB to produce their best possible performance in Sochi.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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