I’ve always been sporty. I played rugby, gymnastics, trampolining, and was a multi-sport coach. Then in 2013, I had a stroke; that decided my fate.
The stroke changed my body (and my life) forever. I lost full function in my right side and was left with reduced speech and memory loss. Sport was such a big part of my identity, my freedom, but overnight everything changed. I wasn’t able to play all of the sports I loved anymore and even doing daily tasks like opening cans was a challenge.
It was a massive shock. As a person, I’m all about challenges, taking risks, loving life. To not be able to do that was suffocating. But it was either give up and resign myself to the fact I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, or man up and think ‘OK, so my life has changed, my body has changed. It’s sucks. But what can I do?’
‘‘I needed to be independent again and do something for me.’’
Almost everybody had written me off – or at least it felt that way. At times, it was hard not to myself. I’d lost half of my body. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life… The doctors said I’d never get the use of my right side back… It was a really negative environment to be in. I needed something positive; a challenge to give me focus and engage me with life. I needed to find a sport; something that would help to me to strengthen my body and find myself again, re-inventing ‘me’ as I am now.
‘‘My friend’s mum Karen said ‘Look, find a sport and be the best you can be at it. It doesn’t matter if your body is different, find something you enjoy that suits it.’’
I had no idea where I was going to go with it. Initially, I genuinely thought I was just going to use it to regain physical strength and improve coordination. First I tried athletics, then I tried wheelchair racing, but my right side is too weak. It doesn’t have good enough coordination so I couldn’t really propel the wheelchair anywhere – 8 year olds were overtaking me! Then I tried running – that was absolutely disastrous. I can’t run for toffee now haha. I waddle everywhere before face planting on the floor. I even tried with crutches, then without, but I was tripping over my foot constantly. It wasn’t for me.
Then it occurred to me… I’d actually used my bike when I was at a really low point in my life – 6 months after my stroke. I’d cycled 120 miles to my friend’s house. That was it. ‘If I’d managed to cycle 120 miles with a right side hemiplegia and epilepsy, why don’t I give cycling a go?’ I applied for British Cycling.
The next few years were a whirlwind. I had no idea I’d make it to Rio 2016. I was just focusing on being the best I could be and having fun. It took off. Perhaps by luck, perhaps because I kept trying, whatever it was I was really lucky. I fell into a sport that I loved and that was perfect for me and for my body. Everything moved so quickly. Less than a year after surgery, I was classified as a C3 athlete and accepted onto the British Cycling Paralympic Development Programme, then in 2015 I was asked to represent Team GB, and a year later (3 years after surgery!) I became Paralympic Champion at Rio, a double World Champion in 2 disciplines and had broken the World Records. It was crazy.
‘‘It’s really interesting because you must have been very cardiovascularly fit to begin with to go on that 120 mile cycle without training and just going for it.’’ It was quite a long journey to be fair. I didn’t feel fit in myself at the time. I was just going because I really needed to get away. I was pedaling away from it all rather than towards anywhere so that’s a pretty big motivation. I had neuro-fatigue and issues with my right side so I had to really focus to be able to do any tasks at all. Multi-tasking was impossible. But I must have had it in me somewhere, perhaps ingrained from the fact that I was so active beforehand. After the operations, a big benefit was that I was already physically fit. It definitely makes your body more resilient so I’d really encourage everybody to be active, healthy or not, because you never know what might happen. This will prepare you.
‘‘Before the stroke, I was a jack-of-all-trades. In a funny way, having it gave me a really positive outcome because I might never have achieved the things I have done or had so many incredible experience had it not.’’
It definitely depends on perspective though. Yes, good and bad things can happen to you. That’s life. But the biggest factor is how you respond to them. I turned a real negative into a positive and was lucky that my pre-existing skills were transferrable in ways that benefitted me at the time. I also had people around me who encouraged me and who wouldn’t let me sit there and dwell. It motivated me to do something, to feel like I could do something with my life. When you feel low, it’s easy to get stuck in that mindset. Having those people around helped massively.
‘‘I agree. It’s similar to Stephen Hawking. The life expectancy for most people with motor-neurone disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS))
is only a few years, but he defied all odds, living until he was 76 and continuing to break boundaries. The real difference between him and someone else who is fighting exactly same disease: he wasn’t focused on fighting the disease. Most people in that situation would have focused on trying to combat it, inadvertently giving up on other things in life. He had something else to live for. Instead of focusing on fighting the disease and letting that define him, he was fighting a different battle: a battle of research and physics, an adventure of universal discovery. It completely changes the perspective. And whether people believe it or not, the body and cells do listen and respond. The same with what happened to you. You had a different goal. It wasn’t the goal that people expected it to be and look what happened...’’
Oh, massively. If I were to have focused on the stroke and what I don’t have anymore, it would have eaten me up. I would have been very negative. Mindset is hugely influential in determining response. I’ve always had a very positive mindset naturally, even compared to my family. They’d agree. Most of them have openly admitted that if it had happened to them or anyone else in my family, they would have really struggled, or not even survived.
For anyone going through the same (or similar) situation: it’s tough to begin with. You can’t get away from that. But give yourself a new mission. Look at what you have and focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Your body might be different, but it can still do great things – just different to what you thought.
‘It wasn’t all about the stroke and the stroke isn’t what I am. What I am is my personality and how I develop that. What I am is anything I choose to be.’
The same with you.