Lancashire para-athlete Claire Buckle: the inspirational record-breaker who refused to let the bullies win
The Claire Buckle story is one of determination and persistence, a lifetime of achievement defined by her iron-clad will and refusal to be cowed by anyone. It’s a success story, but a success story whose edges are tinged with prejudice and discrimination. What she has accomplished has been realised in spite of the society in which she exists. She’s a fighter.
Born with cerebral palsy, Claire was subjected to bullying as a child and faces discrimination to this day. Despite the unconditional support of parents and teachers, she still found elements of herself eroded by the sharp societal stigma surrounding disability. Her sense of worth faded, her confidence was shaken. It’s an experience which lives with her still.
“In school, I was just different,” says Claire, from Penwortham. “You always had a few kids who just didn’t understand and who bullied me. It was really hard and, at that age, you just don’t know what to do about it. It still hurts a lot, but I look back and it made me who I am today - I don’t stand for bullies and I don’t stand for it because I know what that’s like.
“I was generally told to carry on and ignore it and, because I was the only disabled child at the school and the first one the school had had, nobody knew how to deal with me,” adds Claire. “It was brushed under the carpet and, if I ever said anything to the bullies, the bullies themselves would say I was bullying them, so it was easier just to be quiet about it.
“It’s so much easier now than what it was in the 1980s and ‘90s, but life is still incredibly hard,” Claire continues. “You have your ups and downs, but I want to help inspire people - if you can see a path past things, anything is open to you. If I can change even one person’s perception of what a disabled person can achieve with my story, then I’ve done my job.”
Which brings us back to the Claire Buckle story, and there are few better places to start than back in 1997.
“I used to trampoline - it was my everything,” says Claire. “It helped with my balance and coordination and, one day, this woman who was helping out at the gymnastics club took me to one side and told me she was a special needs support teacher who was starting a disability athletics session. She asked if I’d like to have a go. Immediately, I said ‘absolutely’.
“I’ve always been really sporty - I was forever out on my bike and playing football - so I went down in the May and, by June, I was taking part in my first athletics comp in Lancaster,” adds Claire, 42. “It was the first time in my life that I’d ever met other people with cerebral palsy, people who were the same as me. There were hundreds of them; I wasn’t on my own anymore.
“All of a sudden, I wasn’t the odd girl out with splints on her legs, everybody had them on. I was just like everybody else and that realisation opened a huge new world for me - a world I’d never seen before.”
And it was a world which very much suited Claire: trying her hand at the shot put and discus, she thrived in an environment where she was finally on a level playing field and where she felt she could express her obvious natural talents. She blossomed, quickly qualifying for and competing at the National Junior Championships before being fast-tracked into the England Cerebral Palsy athletics team.
“Sport was life-changing,” says Claire, who broke national records in both her events in her first year as a para-athlete. “From there, it was an absolute rollercoaster: I’d always watched any sport which was on telly and I loved the Paralympics, so I always wanted to take part, but finding a sport I could do was always quite hard. I ended up falling in athletics, really.
“I went from having never thrown in May 1997 to being at England training in the November,” she adds. “I was training with guys who I’d watched on TV a year earlier competing in [the 1996 Paralympic Games in] Atlanta. I was just like ‘wow!’ because here I was messing about, training, and having an absolute laugh!”
The sky really did appear to be the limit: in 1998, Claire took part in the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) European Championships in Nottingham, finishing second in the discus and third in the shot put, breaking national records in both disciplines. She was performing at Paralympic standard.
But selection for Team GB never quite materialised.
Putting the disappointment of not making it to Sydney 2000 behind her, she went to the 2001 CPISRA World Games, winning bronze in both her events and setting a new national record in the discus. A year later, she competed at the IPC Athletics World Champs, coming sixth in the discus before featuring at three consecutive Paralympic World Cups between 2003 and 2005.
On top of her rigorous sporting schedule, Claire was also undertaking some pretty arduous academic pursuits, too. Never one to rest on her laurels, in 2003 she graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a degree in Business Management with Sports Studies and had her eyes firmly fixed on the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
But, despite her tandem educational and athletic dedication, she was once again not selected, instead going on to compete at the 2005 CPISRA World Games in the USA where she came fourth in both her events. She officially retired from athletics in 2007 after a glittering decade as the country’s foremost discus thrower and shot putter.
“I always trained hard with the dream of representing GB at a Paras in mind,” says Claire. “I’d say that, while I’ve achieved quite a bit, I didn’t achieve everything I set out to all those years ago but, at the same time as training, I was also doing a degree. I always knew I had to forward-plan because world-class funding wasn’t anything like it is now.
“I slogged my guts out and, ultimately, I tried for Sydney and Athens but, after that, I’d had enough,” she adds. “I’d achieved everything else under the sun, it was just that one dream. So I turned to coaching.”
Having worked with athletes at every level from grassroots to Paralympic standard, Claire is now putting her decades of experience in promoting equality to good use in a completely different setting: diversity education. In 2019, she founded Ability Consultancy, an equality and diversity training company which works to educate people about disability discrimination.
Offering online and in-person workshops and bespoke training, Ability Consultancy works to fundamentally break down the societal barriers of disability through education. Their workshops are led by disabled people and actively show participants how discrimination is built into society whilst showing them how subtle changes in attitude and environment can considerably enhance a disabled person’s life.
And Claire Buckle’s story even has a hint of Paralympic vindication to it, too.
“In 2009, met a 14-year-old girl [named Anna Nicholson] in Carlisle who had something about her,” explains Claire. “She wasn’t great but I coached her and, in 2021, she came sixth in the discus in Tokyo.” A broad smile breaks out across her face. “So, in a way, I still have that little bit of Paralympic representation!”