Sunday, 25 October 2020

Boy crowned world champion

Boy crowned world champion

A BOY from Henley came first in his class at this year’s wheelchair motocross world championships.

Ben Sleet, 10, of Gainsborough Hill, was competing in the junior division of the annual contest, which was supposed to take place in America but was moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of competing in front of a live audience, Ben filmed himself performing at the skate park at Makins recreation ground off Greys Road, which he has used regularly since he got a specialised motocross wheelchair two years ago.

His parents, Michael and Angela Sleet, helped him choreograph the 60-second routine and filmed it repeatedly over a period of two days as he needed time to perfect it.

Ben, who has spina bifida, began by dropping down the quarter-pipe and scaling the ramp opposite, which was tough as he had to build up enough speed during the descent to get to the top.

He tackled several other obstacles and bounced down the steps, then finished with a manoeuvre in which he tilted his chair backwards and touched the ground with his hands.

He emailed the clip to the judges who broadcast it over the internet, along with footage of Ben’s eight rivals from across Europe and the Americas, before declaring him the winner.

Ben expects to receive a trophy or medal in the post in the next few weeks.

It was an improvement on his wheelchair motocross debut at Cologne last year, when he was placed second in his qualifiers and fourth overall in the same age group.

He now hopes to take part in next year’s championships in Florida.

Mr Sleet said: “Ben put a lot of effort into his routine.

“Because of his condition, he doesn’t remember everything so he’d leave things out and we had to do it again and again. In the end we had about 20 takes until he thought he’d done the best he could.

“We made a few suggestions based on our experiences last year, when we noticed most of the entrants’ parents were acting as their coaches.

“They were at quite a professional standard, videoing the routines and watching them back to see how they could improve.

“This year there were a few entrants where you thought ‘that’s going to be tough to beat’ but we were confident he’d at least place in the top half.

“The competition was very, very good but we’d have been proud no matter where he was placed. It’s great just to see him having fun and taking part, especially in such a major event.

“There was no build-up to the announcement — they just put all the results on Facebook and let people look for theirs.

“Ben was on cloud nine when he realised he’d won — he was bouncing off the walls and it took days for him to calm down.” Mrs Sleet said: “I’m sure his mates at school have been told about it because the mothers have all been calling him ‘champ’ every time he goes to school.

“It started out as a social thing with his friends but now it’s how he spends most of his time.

“Wheelchair motocross is really taking off in this country and Ben has met so many amazing and inspirational people through the scene, including others with his condition.

“It’s great for him to have won this time but what’s more important is that he has found something which makes him happy.”

Ben, who attends Valley Road Primary School, became interested in wheelchair competitions after watching YouTube videos and started by going down the ramps in his regular wheelchair, which started falling apart under the impact.

In 2018, Mrs Sleet set out to raise £2,500 for a specialist model but he was later given a £5,000 one following a £4,000 donation from a Fareham management company and £1,000 from the Henley Skatepark Initiative.

Ben is now friends with GB athlete and world champion Lily Rice, 18, who gives him advice and encouragement when they chat via Instagram.

He hopes to get a new sports chair soon as he is outgrowing his current one.

Last year, the Henley Standard reported how he was too scared to use the Makins site following incidents of antisocial behaviour and was instead using the facilities at Guildford, 40 miles away.

Now he is back at least two or three times a week after Henley Town Council held talks with residents, Thames Valley Police and the Soha housing association to address the issue.

Mrs Sleet said: “Everyone’s really nice to Ben — they all look after him and cheer him on and they’re always really happy to see him. It’s a really lovely crowd and they make it a welcoming place for him to go.

“He was witnessing fights and arguments between other kids, which was quite upsetting and I didn’t want him to have to put up with that, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem any more.”

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