AFTER 20 years away from the Paralympics, Hillingdon para triathlete Clare Cunningham will make her return in Rio, in September.

Cunningham won five swimming medals, including a gold, at Paralympics in the 90s, but retired in 1996, only to take up paratriathlon in 12 years later.

Now, eight years on, Cunningham has been selected to be a part of the ParalympicsGB team in Rio.

"I am really excited,” said the 39-year-old.

"This will be my third games but I have had a very long break from Paralympics sport.

"Twenty years is a very long time and I am really excited to be back. The whole Paralympics movement has changed a hell of a lot in that time.

"Public awareness has changed so much and it is so much more of a spectacle now.

"It is fantastic to see how the media are interested too.”

Cunningham, who was born without a left forearm and competes in the PT4 category, is being sent to Rio by the British Paralympic Association, which is a registered charity that is responsible for funding, selecting, and managing the Paralympics GB team.

During her swimming days she competed in the F9 category and won gold at Barcelona in the 50m freestyle, as well as silvers in the 100m freestyle and backstroke.

She went on to win two more silver medals at Atlanta 1996, but called it a day after that, aged just 19, to go to university.

Cunningham took up her current sport as a way of keeping fit and never intended it to become a serious sporting proposition, but things went awry and she is very happy they did.

"I had been swimming for six years and won every major championship,” added Cunningham. “I was world champion, European medallist, Commonwealth medallist and Paralympic medallist, so I had done everything I wanted to.

"I took up paratriathlon for fun in 2008 and just got sucked in. At the end of 2010 when it became a Paralympics sport I didn't think I would be here and set to compete.

"I'm 39 now so to be here is incredible. I worked for a financial services' customer services department for 14 years, which was my way of using my competitiveness, drive and communication but sport has always been my thing.

"Then when I came to triathlon I found a sport I loved and one I wanted to commit to in the same way I did with swimming as a teenager.”

Coming back into the Paralympic fold after 20 years away, Cunningham commented not only on how the perception of her fellow athletes has changed, but also the professionalism of Olympic and Paralympic sport in general.

"Now everything is a lot more professional. I retired in 1996 just when Lottery funding came in and UK Sport was established,” she added.

"Now we have a professional set up in Loughborough and it is great, we train full time. We have great facilities, everything is so much more professional.

"I feel privileged I have had the experience this and become a full-time athlete. That is what is so challenging.

"I would very much like a medal and I feel I can go and get one.”

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