Published on 14 December 2016
Six-time Paralympian Stephen Miller has praised our facilities during a visit to our campus and highlighted the importance of offering more opportunities for people to take up sport.
Miller, who won bronze at the Paralympics in Rio last summer, is the co-founder of Smile Through Sport, which aims to offer sporting opportunities to disabled and under-privileged people and increase participation.
And the 36-year-old said facilities such as CitySpace in Sunderland represent the first step towards achieving that goal.
"When I started doing sport, we used to train in a car park at school. We didn't have any facilities at all," said Miller. "It's a different world now, and the opportunities are there for anybody, whatever your ability, to do sport.
"It's really great that we have these facilities in the North East, in Sunderland and all over. There is access.
"I was lucky enough when I was young, I had the opportunity to try lots of different sports, and eventually I found something that I loved to do and I was good at.
"From there, I developed into who I am today. But it's all about giving people the opportunity, because without that, they never know what they can achieve."
But Miller, who has won three Paralympic gold medals in the club throw event, also stressed more needs to be done to ensure the progress that has been made since London 2012 isn't wasted.
"The support isn't 100 per cent there. The Olympics and Paralympics in London were four years ago now and priorities have changed, there's not as much funding for grassroots sport. That's why it's important for Sunderland and other universities to try and fill the gap.
"It's not all about finding the next Olympian or Paralympian. It's showing people how much being active can improve their life, and giving them a better quality of life, improving their confidence. That's probably more important than finding the next star.
"What we found through [Smile], where we had the biggest impact was taking sport to the people and going where they are because it can be hard to get to these facilities. You have to get the sport to them so they can try it and get a taste for it, then they'll come.
"My parents helped me a lot when I was young, they paid for everything and brought me all over the country to do sport. But you might not get that with every parent."
Miller missed out on a podium finish at his home Paralympics four years ago after battling with a hip injury, and admits he had doubts over whether he would be able to compete at the top ever again.
But after working with Penny Macutkiewicz at The Performance Clinic, based in CitySpace in Sunderland, Miller went on to medal in Rio and has his sights set on a return to London for the World Athletics Championships in 2017.
"I probably had the hardest time of my life leading up to London, I had quite a serious hip problem - it was worn out and just had no function at all. So it was hard to manage that, but we just about got there.
"Just being in London was amazing. When you think about the kind of physical condition I was in, just to get picked for the team was a great achievement. Since then I've had a new hip, so Penny's helped me go through all the rehab and come back."
Macutkiewicz added: "If you compare the pictures of him in London to Rio, just his whole physical demeanour and the way he was throwing was so different.
"Stephen's very aware of his body and when it's moving well, but he trains really hard and he pushes himself so hard that he doesn't actually notice certain things. That's when I have to rein him in a little bit."
Their work is geared towards injury prevention, rehab and exercise, and the Cramlington thrower admitted he has no doubts about making the trip to Sunderland to take advantage of the facilities and expertise.
"Once you find a good one you need to keep them, so that's why I come over to Sunderland where Penny opened her clinic," said Miller.
"We didn't know whether I'd be able to continue doing sport after my hip replacement but I did the rehab in about six months, and ended up doing a full season a year after. I might have had to have a year off, but I didn't which was great!"
Article By Ed Syers, Editor of SportsByte and Sunderland (BA Hons) Sports Journalism graduate (2016)