Margaret Maughan, Medal-Winning Wheelchair Athlete, Dies at 91

Margaret Maughan, Medal-Winning Wheelchair Athlete, Dies at 91

Her back was ramrod straight, her arms steady and her aim true. When Margaret Maughan pulled back the string on her bow — from her seat in a wheelchair — she shot her way into Paralympic history.

Ms. Maughan became Britian’s first gold medalist, winning in archery, at the world’s first Paralympic Games, held in Rome in 1960. She then won a second gold, in swimming (she had no competition). Over the years, she won a total of six medals at the Paralympics, four gold and two silver.

Ms. Maughan was 91 when she died on May 20. Nick Webborn, chairman of the British Paralympic Association, announced her death. No further details were provided.

After winning her first gold medals, Ms. Maughan remained a fervent promoter of and participant in the Paralympic Games, a firm believer that sports could be a valuable aid in rehabilitation.

She competed in archery and swimming, as well as dartchery, a combination of darts and archery, and lawn bowls, which is like alley bowling with balls that are not round but oddly shaped. She skipped the 1964 Games but participated in 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 before retiring.

Ms. Maughan lost the use of her legs in a car accident in Malawi in 1959. After surgery, she was flown home to England and treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London. The hospital’s spinal injuries center, which became world renowned caring for wounded soldiers during World War II, was run by Ludwig Guttman, a dynamic and innovative neurologist who had fled Nazi Germany.

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He used sports as therapy, a revolutionary concept at the time, and in 1948 he organized the Stoke Mandeville Games — essentially an archery contest — at which 16 patients in wheelchairs competed against injured veterans, also using wheelchairs, who came from another hospital on the Stoke Mandeville grounds. The event, which coincided with the opening of the 1948 Olympic Games in London, is considered the birth of the Paralympic movement, and Dr. Guttman is considered the movement’s father.

He organized other such games annually. They were held outside Britain for the first time in 1960, when more than 400 disabled athletes — including Ms. Maughan — from 23 countries met in Rome, just after the Olympics. The 1960 Games later became known, retroactively, as the first Paralympics. They have expanded greatly from there, with the most recent Games, held in Rio in 2016, drawing more than 4,000 competitors from 159 countries.

Margaret Maughan was born on June 19, 1928, in Much Hoole, Lancashire, to Madge (Holt) Maughan, a teacher, and Charlie Maughan, a miner. She trained as a teacher at the University of Edinburgh, then found work as a home economics teacher in Jamaica.

She eventually moved to Africa to teach in the British protectorate of Nyasaland (now Malawi). Six months after she arrived, a car accident left her with a broken back, and she was paralyzed from the waist down.

At Stoke Mandeville she met Dr. Guttman, whom she regarded as both a stern taskmaster and an inspiration. She told him at one point that she was bored and frustrated. A tough disciplinarian, he told her to get a grip and look on the positive side — even though she would never walk again, he said, she could do many things with her life.

And he introduced her to archery. She found she had an innate talent for the sport and joined the monthly competitions. After she was discharged from the hospital, she moved in with her parents in Lancashire and joined a local archery club.


Credit…Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Several months later, Dr. Guttman called her back to Stoke Mandeville to try out for the British team at what would come to be called the 1960 Paralympics in Rome. To her surprise, she was invited to join the squad of 42 men and women.

Those first games were almost an afterthought, nothing like the highly choreographed, televised spectacles of today. Few plans had been made to accommodate people in wheelchairs. When the players flew to Rome, they had to be put on the plane by forklift. Their sleeping quarters in Rome were built on stilts, so they had to be carried up to their bunks by soldiers.

Scores were not announced in real time. Only when Ms. Maughan was riding the bus back to her bunk was she informed that she was needed at the medal ceremony.

“Even as I was wheeling onto the podium,” she told The Daily Telegraph in 2011, “I didn’t know which medal it was. There was no time for tears when they gave me the gold and played the national anthem. I was too bewildered.”

Despite the chaos, Ms. Maughan described the experience, and the camaraderie, as “marvelous.” She was hooked for life.

She was always modest about her accomplishments. But as a legend among Paralympians, Ms. Maughan was given the honor of lighting the flame at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

The moment was “very emotional and impressive,” she said. Referring to her first win, 52 years earlier, she added, “Who would have thought that my gold medal, which has been kept in a bag in the drawer, would have brought me such fame?”

She continued teaching home economics and also remained active in her local archery club, where she served as a volunteer. She also helped establish the Stoke Paraplegic Athletic Club in Buckinghamshire.

She is survived by a younger sister.

“Although her passing is extremely sad,” Mr. Webborn of the British Paralympic Association said in a statement, “the fact that she lived until the age of 91 is testament to the work of Sir Ludwig Guttman, who transformed the care of people with spinal cord injury, and that through sport, people with disabilities can enjoy rich and fulfilling lives.”

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