Margaret Maughan never liked sports. “I hated it when I was at school,” she says ruefully. “Hockey and tennis and everything. I was just no good at it.” As a 30-year-old teacher, she played no more than “a bit of social badminton”, until a car accident paralysed her from the waist down, and changed her life forever.
“They said they were going to send me to a very famous hospital,” she says, “and I soon found out that it was a very different sort of hospital.” Stoke Mandeville spinal unit was the brainchild of Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist with firm ideas about the value of sport who started the first English wheelchair games. “He and his family left Germany with nothing, so he knew that life had to be got on with,” Maughan reflects.
She soon found that she had a way with a bow and arrows. “Archery is brilliant,” the 84-year-old says, slowly raising her arms in imaginary aim at the wall of her home in Hertfordshire. The movement now takes some effort, but her posture speaks of years of practice. “When you first use a wheelchair you haven’t got any balance. Archery makes you stretch out and sit up straight.”
She participated in the National Wheelchair Games of 1960, and then went to the inaugural Paralympics in Rome where she became the first British gold medal winner. Wheelchair accessibility was still in its early days and the 70 British competitors were moved on to the planes using forklift trucks. Maughan pulls out pictures of the trip, pointing to the wooden houses on stilts that the team were expected to use. The army had to be called in and pairs of soldiers stationed to carry competitors up and down the stairs. “Italian soldiers,” she recalls with a meaningful smile, “we all loved them, I can tell you.”
She left the archery event with no idea of her score. “It wasn’t until evening, when we were already in coaches to go home, that someone said ‘Where’s Margaret Maughan? She’s needed for a medal ceremony!’” Her face lights up as she recalls being unexpectedly lifted to first place. “It was the very first thing I’d ever won.” She took another medal for swimming the 50m backstroke, despite being the only competitor. “I’d never swum 50m before in my entire life. It was terrifying.”
“It wasn’t for the elite, that’s the thing about it. We were all amateurs, we had other jobs. It was to get us to have a go, and enjoy doing something.” It was this sense of being part of a community that she feels was the greatest reward. “Little things we shared, like tips on how to get in and out of a bath more easily, really helped me through my first year in a wheelchair,” she says. “There was such a sense of camaraderie. It’s more just an athletic competition now.”
Maughan continued to compete in the Paralympics until 1980, winning four further gold and silver medals. But she is more proud of the sports club that she ran at Stoke Mandeville until she retired. “We used to have several members selected for the Olympic teams every four years.” This year, she will be performing the first leg of the Paralympics torch relay from Stoke Mandeville. But before that she will attend the unveiling of a statue of “Poppa Guttmann” in June. “Because of him, sport became a big part of my life and lots of other ordinary people’s lives,” she says.