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Most Britons would consider Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson the Team GB doyenne of medals. Her speciality was wheelchair racing.

However, there is another British Paralympian who holds a record 16 gold medals and two team relay silver medals before there was such a thing as Team GB or the Paralympics.

Back in the day — and with us today, living in Greater Manchester — is former swimmer named Mike Kenny, MBE. He is Britain’s most decorated athlete.

Forgotten today, Kenny happened on the scene too early. The International Paralympic Committee and the British Paralympic Association were not established until 1989, a year after his retirement. Kenny’s medal record got lost in the shuffle.

The Telegraph recently interviewed him. Although he feels somewhat forgotten, his family are more upset than he is (emphases mine):

Kenny, who isn’t one for seeking the limelight, didn’t feel the need “to spoil anyone’s party by saying anything”, and threw himself into his career as a magistrate. The Paralympic equivalent of Sir Chris Hoy didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until a week ago, and has played no role in London 2012 – not even, he remarks with some amusement, presenting a bunch of flowers.

I’m disappointed by what’s gone on,” he tells me. “But I don’t want anything to sound like sour grapes. Quite a few of the others are on the TV now, and I don’t take anything away from people like that. They are enhancing the Paralympics, and that’s all that matters.”

Kenny dealt with adversity from childhood through his early adult years to become a world-beater. Born in 1945, he lost his mother at an early age. His father was absent from the scene. As a result, Kenny and his sister had to go to an orphanage. In time, a foster family took the children in.

Growing up, Kenny enjoyed swimming. In 1971, he fell from a ladder at work. The accident paralysed him to the extent that he could only move his eyes. Gradually, he regained some upper body movement. His physiotherapist from the Southport (Lancashire) spinal unit suggested that he resume swimming as a means of building up strength. Later, he came to the attention of Dr Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the birthplace of the Paralympics. Guttmann gave Kenny a physical and it wasn’t long before the young man was on a plane to Toronto to represent Great Britain in swimming at the 1976 Games.

There — in his first-ever Games — he won three gold medals. Back at home, his delighted wife rang the newspapers. No one wanted the story.

The Telegraph details Kenny’s other golds and games:

Kenny went on to win three more golds at Arnhem in 1980, and bagged five golds and a silver when the Paralympics returned to Stoke Mandeville in 1984. He replicated that feat at his last Games in Seoul in 1988. He broke so many world records that he says he lost count – but at least seven, according to his Wikipedia page. However, he tells me that success couldn’t be taken for granted in the era before television coverage made it easier to gauge the opposition.

Back then, when they were popularly known as the Wheelchair Olympics, swimming and other Paralympian sports were in the Dark Ages compared with those in the 21st century. There were no real time targets to beat, no Paralympian celebrities and no expert coaches. You couldn’t watch tapes of your opponents; often, as Kenny relates, you didn’t know who they were.

Crucially, there was also no funding.

Kenny’s wife Marcia was his makeshift coach and trainer. She would stand poolside timing his performance.

In the 1980s, Kenny gained recognition at home and met then-Prime Ministers James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. He also met royalty, including Princess Diana, and collected his MBE at Buckingham Palace for services to paralympic sport.

Since then, Kenny has been forgotten, even though he was a roommate of Sir Philip Craven, IPC president, at the Toronto Games in 1976.

Today, Kenny’s family — one daughter and three grandchildren — are intent on reminding the world about him:

“He deserves a lot more recognition, and it upsets me that he isn’t mentioned much,” says his 20-year-old granddaughter Hannah. “My grandad is my inspiration in life, and I am very proud of him. More people should know about how far he has come and what he has done for himself and Britain.”

At London 2012 Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Simmonds is the swimmer to watch. A Channel 4 commentator said yesterday that every time Simmonds dives in the pool, she comes out winning another medal — so far, two gold and one bronze.  This adds to her two golds in Beijing (2008) and to her many golds in other international Paralympic events.

Simmonds’s story is very different to Mike Kenny’s lonely road to the top of the medal table.  Much of that, thankfully, is because of established funding which, in turn, enables better coaching, state-of-the-art facilities and improved recognition of the Paralympics in Britain.

Simmonds has achondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism. One would think this would put her at a disadvantage against other women swimmers who are all much taller than she.

Yet, Simmonds swims with precision. Many have likened her style to a metronome, and they are not wrong. Every stroke is perfect and faultlessly timed. What length she loses on the dives into the pool, she gains through strokes which she executes with textbook precision — methodical and unwavering.

Out of the pool, she is poised yet affable. Her smile is like sunshine after a month of rain. She lights up a room — even a place as huge as the Aquatics Centre. And there is a giant hoarding with her photograph on it in the vicinity of the Olympic park. Oh, that smile!

The other day, Prime Minister David Cameron presented her with a gold medal. Afterward, she said:

having already met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, it was time to “schedule a meeting at my place”.

Simmonds entered the Paralympic Games at the tender age of 13. The following year she became the youngest ever Briton to receive an MBE — and from Queen Elizabeth herself. Yet, when Simmonds isn’t training, she reads a lot and is preparing to take her A-levels next year. She also gives motivational speeches around the country.

As Paul Hayward put it, writing for the Telegraph:

Simmonds is hailed as a heroine of British life, not for some perceived triumph over adversity so much as her tenacity, enthusiasm and smile, which somehow conveys more than the happiness of a professional non-disabled athlete. You can see this across the sport being played out here in early autumn.

Ellie Simmonds is a sterling role model for young people in our country. She demonstrates what hard work, determination and a well-rounded personality can achieve.

For Simmonds, the sky’s the limit. Whatever she ends up doing post-Paralympics you have no doubt she’ll turn it into gold. For now, let’s enjoy the show!

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