My journey so far in sport has been neither short nor easy. You can read my previous posts to catch up with the story so far, but suffice to say I have been a late bloomer and finding out how it all worked and what I should do took me a while. The picture at the top of this post comes from a video filmed in September, showing me winning a 100m race in Grantham. It’s not a picture I felt I could legitimately share until now, because I won a race, a gold medal and a national title while not knowing whether or not I had the right to have those things.
In disability sport, you need a classification to compete. You may remember from watching the London 2012 Paralympics that it’s a complicated business. In some sports, such as archery, it’s quite simple. As long as the athletes meet the minimum impairment requirements, they are divided up into those who can stand to shoot and those who can’t. In swimming, classifications are decided based on the impact of their impairment on their swimming, not the impairment itself. That’s why races in which tiny superstar Ellie Simmonds, who has achondroplasia, was competing in the same class as people of full height but missing limbs, puzzled many.
Athletics has many more categories. It’s not just about what impairment you have, but exactly how it affects you while doing your sport, and lots of people want to do athletics so the classification process is quite mature, and you can find out about the cerebral palsy classifications, where I fit, and all the others at the easy-to-understand LEXI site and at this page from Scottish Disability Sport which has fuller explanations. As in the other sports, you can be “classified out” and ineligible to compete without that meaning that you are not disabled or that your medical information is incorrect. The classification you end up in is not just about being fair. It can drastically affect how competitive you are as an athlete and some people can end up in the wrong classification and go from number 2 in the country to outside the top 100 in their sport. Usually, this is later corrected via re-classification.
For example, the classifiers had to work out whether I was a T36, my actual classification, or T38. They had to observe sufficient characteristics of the former to rule out the latter. As a T36, and following the retirement of legendary Paralympian Hazel Robson, I was the fastest competitor in my main event (100m) in the UK last year. Don’t get excited, I’m currently seconds behind what Hazel could do and the speeds of the women near the top of the international rankings, it’s just there are fewer of us in my classification competing compared with T38, where athletes run close to mainstream times and I come nowhere. It’s hard work to run when your body fights you as much as mine does, which is why not everyone who would be in my classification is not currently in the sport, but I love it.
However, Hazel’s past success as a high level sprinter, and her current achievements as an endurance athlete running for fun, give me something to aim for. I want to get down to about 16s for my personal best this year, and 15s next year, which is pretty ambitious. I want to show that it’s not just about being a promising 14 year old in this sport, or the likes of Usain Bolt, but it’s also OK to be over 30 and trying to make your feet go straight and hips not sway and work out how to make arms with strange reflexes and muscle tone bend to your will. Not all running for adults is Parkrun and marathons, despite the massive industry that has grown up around distance and fitness runs.
I guess you’d like to read about the classification process itself, because nobody really writes about it. I was on the waiting list for about a year, which gave me time to work myself up about the idea of the wrong classification or the process being horrible, based on horror stories I had heard from friends and in the press. I had an appointment back in November, but it had to be postponed. Then I got a call from Jan at British Athletics a week before my new appointment in Sheffield, explaining that the doctor who filled in my medical diagnostics form while my GP was on holiday had made me ineligible by putting down all my other medical conditions and disabilities apart from the crucial one, cerebral palsy. Cue a mad rush to get that sorted out in time – Dr O’Shea, you are a legend.
The process goes something like this. You get on the waiting list for a classification clinic. When you’re near the top, you are asked for your preference from a range of proposed locations and dates and they try to accommodate that. Your doctor has to fill in a diagnostics form so the classifiers know more about your medical background and to show that you have an eligible disability for classification – conditions like Asperger Syndrome, dyslexia etc. don’t count. Then you are sent an appointment time. You are asked to wear a t-shirt, shorts and trainers and told that there will be a range of “bench tests” by a panel consisting of medical professionals and people who know about your specific sport and then the panel will watch you doing activities related to your sport. That’s about all I knew before I turned up.
On the classification day, I met my coach Katie Mapplebeck in the reception area at the EIS in Sheffield. I hadn’t really slept, due to anxiety. We went into the athletics arena and met Shelley Holroyd from British Athletics, who knows me well and did all she could to assuage my nerves. Shelley showed me the form the classifiers would be using and explained that although it was quite extensive, it was there to cover all impairments and they would only use the sections that were relevant to me. She told me the panel were mostly physiotherapists and were very nice, and that they knew about my Asperger’s and the anxiety it causes and would let me take breaks. I had to sign a form to confirm that I understood what was going to happen and that I was going to try my best – i.e. not try to cheat the system by being dishonest with the tests – and then it was time to go.
Katie and I entered the seminar room with Shelley, and I was immediately relieved to see that one of the classifiers was Phil Peat, who had been so lovely and helpful to me at CP Sport. The panel introduced themselves to me, and I was so nervous that I’ve forgotten all their names already (sorry guys), but everyone was indeed smiley and reassuring and very, very nice.
We started with Phil asking my date of birth, and then writing down that I was born in 1998 (very flattering) and correcting it swiftly to my actual date of birth. We then went through my background in training and the sport, and then moved on to the head classifier talking to me about my diagnosis and medical background. I was asked how I felt cerebral palsy affected me in everyday life and in athletics. I had to walk up and down the room normally, then quickly, then on my heels and on my tiptoes with eyes open and eyes closed. Then we went over to a physio bench and the tests began.
I don’t think it would be hugely helpful to classifiers if I detailed every test, and to be honest it was all such a whirl that I can’t remember all of them. It involved testing my muscle tone, reflexes, balance and co-ordination and apparently I pulled an amusing range of faces. I have very poor proprioception, which was demonstrated very clearly when I had to perform tasks with my eyes shut where my eyes couldn’t compensate for that, so I also nearly stabbed the classifier in the eye with my finger and also nearly head-butted her. Proprioception problems make correcting things in training very difficult for me, as I can’t sense where my body is and what it is doing without looking.
I also learned other things about my CP. Because I was diagnosed late and wasn’t even expecting a cerebral palsy diagnosis when I went to see the neurologist, I know very little about my condition in a medical sense. I know I have ataxia, I know I don’t have clonus, I know my hands and knees sometimes “jump” and sometimes “writhe” without my say-so. I know I can’t control my arms properly or my right leg and my muscle tone is a bit wrong and I remember from diagnosis that my reflexes aren’t quite right.
The tests in classification showed how different each limb and each side of my body is. One is not overall worse than the other limbs; they’re all a bit rubbish in their own ways. That’s why T36 makes sense as a classification for me, as it’s in all four limbs and it affects my running quite a lot even if you wouldn’t spot it in everyday life. Although people do spot oddness in my walking and so on, and shout at me from cars, it’s always those people who are attuned to any difference and enjoy bullying others who comment. Most people don’t even see it. Apparently the ataxia component of my CP is also why my feet are so narrow, which is interesting.
After these tests, the panel told me that they were trying to decide between two classifications and it was time for Phil to take me out to the track and observe me doing movements related to my sport. I warmed up and then did some starts and short sprints, and because I also do a little bit of long jump I also performed a couple of jumps into the pit (feet together, not proper running long jump). The panel were then fairly certain of my classification and asked me to sit down in the arena while they went and had a short discussion to make sure they all thought the same thing. A few minutes later, I was called back into the room where they told me I was a T36, why they thought that and that this classification would be confirmed by observing me in competition at a later date.
This has been a long post, so back to that photo right at the top. That still is taken from a video of the CP Sport National Championships in September 2013. It was the second of three 100m races for ambulant women. The first race had mostly T35s, my race mostly T36s with some guest athletes and the third was T37s and T38s running superfast times. I pushed myself to another PB and won that race, and CP Sport treated me as a T36 and gave me the medal and title. I felt guilty for months in case the classifiers didn’t agree that I was a T36. I didn’t want to take anything away from the other women racing alongside me. But now I can be proud of my achievements and go on to defend my 100m title in 2014. I can also run in many other competitions that were not open to me before classification.
Now I need to find the resources for a strength and conditioning programme and the money to attend races across the UK. I’ve come so far already; I reckon I can do it. Don’t you?
I know, everyone thinks of high-waisted jeans as “mum jeans”. But think of my pain – I have narrow hips and a long torso. Low-rise denims slip to my thighs and that’s no fun in cold weather. I need longer tops and higher waists.
Of course, the shops are all full of hipster jeans, unflattering Jeremy Clarkson “classic” cut, awkward tubes of fabric that deny the existence of a sprinter’s calf muscles (hi, Cheap Monday) and jeggings. But wait? This is what the internet is for. This is why ASOS exists. For clothes that are undoubtedly in fashion but cut how I want them, not according to the limited space and imagination of the high street.
Costiness: £30 from ASOS
So I wrote yesterday about my start in disability athletics and my first race. But that blog came from a piece I wrote for a newsletter, so it was quite short and missed out some things that have been really important in my journey so far.
1. Paralympic Flame Celebration, Leeds. There was a great event at John Charles Centre for Sport with lots of sports to try. I watched some brutal wheelchair rugby and had a go on the adapted bikes. I got to have my picture taken with the flame and volunteer Hameet.
2. CP Sport training days. I have been to two of these so far, in January and April, having just missed out on the November one when I heard about them. Laura from my previous post and Lisa from my disability athletics sessions on Tuesdays found out about these for me. A couple of months into disability athletics, I realised that I did want to compete after all, but the guys I was training with had the Special Olympics to work towards (and an impressive haul of medals). I, not being learning disabled, wasn’t eligible. I got a bit jealous.
CP Sport have been great for me. On the first training day, I was in the development group, and I enjoyed the morning on the track but not so much the other activities. For the second, I was in the sprints group straight off and began learning a lot from coach (and legend) Lincoln Asquith. He also gave me a target of getting to 18 seconds for my 100m by the end of this summer, my first year in the sport. I will do it!
CP Sport have also given me the chance to compete, despite my current lack of classification (on the waiting list!), and people like Sue Todd have helped me to relax and enjoy training. Having Asperger Syndrome as well as cerebral palsy means I can find new experiences and changes of routine very difficult, but I’m determined to succeed and am so grateful to the people who get why I get stressed or flap about and give me the information I need to get on.
3. Parallel Success. After my first CP Sport training day, I was keen as mustard to do anything. I wanted to find a pathway and find out what I could do and where I could go. I did lots of research online, as is my wont, and I found out that there was a Parallel Success Talent ID event coming up at the EIS in Sheffield. I didn’t manage to score a place at the Classification clinic, but I did find out about it quite late in the day so that’s fair enough. Shelley Holroyd was very helpful and answered all my questions and was a very friendly face on the day.
I had a brilliant time – I may have been one of the older participants and certainly not one of the fastest, but I got to train with Sam Ruddock and meet Hannah Cockroft – that’s two of my favourite Paralympians, right there – and it confirmed for me that I didn’t care how hard it was or how unlikely it seemed, I wanted to train hard and compete. I had a bit of an Aspie wobble at the end of the day and had to get my husband to help me go over to Shelley to ask about getting a proper coach. I needn’t have worried, she understood my anxiety completely and immediately put me at my ease.
We followed up the day via email, and while my first coach Pete didn’t work out just because a move of venue didn’t fit with my work schedule, Pete and Shelley found me Katie, who I work with now in Sheffield. I feel very lucky that these people put time and effort into making it work out for me. I’ve been training properly since May, and my body and my times have completely changed already. I wouldn’t be doing any of this without Shelley and Parallel Success.
4. Paralympic Sports Fest. This was great fun, again at the EIS in Sheffield, and I learned some new drills from Katie Jones that I do to this day.
5. Paralympic Potential. I applied for this event and was invited to Aston University in Birmingham to try a series of tests (20m sprint, static bike, jump, shooting, archery, rowing, lifting etc). I met some great athletes and worked hard. I’ve rarely sweated so much. I just wish I’d run faster on the day – I know I can do better, I do every week in training.
6. Anniversary Games. I went on Sunday for the disability day and saw so many Paralympians performing at the top level, plus world records were broken. I felt inspired by Graeme Ballard, who won gold in the T36 men’s 100m. He’s older than me and affected by CP in all four limbs. just like me. He lost his funding before the 2012 Paralympics because he didn’t get a medal in Beijing, but he went on to win silver in London. His funding has been reinstated for Rio in 2016, so it just goes to show that it’s not just the kids who need the support and you don’t have to be very young to be a medal contender.
I also got to watch Richard Whitehead run like a demon on his golden blades. I didn’t have a go at the agility area in the Spectators Village, as it was aimed at the under-10s. I did however get a bib printed with my name on and have my photo taken holding the replica 1948 Olympic torch.
This is an article I wrote for work’s newsletter – if you want a Paralympics legacy story, this is it. Part 2, which is just as important and has more photos, is HERE.
In Summer 2011, I saw a retweet by Tom Riordan, CEO of Leeds Council, of an LCC Sport tweet. Not that unusual, you may think, I’m on Twitter all the time. However, the content of the tweet itself intrigued me.
It linked to a flyer, inviting women aged 25-40 who did not currently take part in sport to join a 10 week Active Women programme.
At any other time in my life, I would have recoiled in horror. I avoided PE where possible at school and had a miserable experience whenever sport was involved throughout my youth. I was rubbish, and my disabilities hadn’t been diagnosed, so I was the reluctant Wing Defence/deep field/running forever up and down the sides of the hockey pitch/insert position for people who are terrible at team games here.
However, I had recently turned 30, and my body, to my horror had decided to change. I realised I was going to have to get active. I had followed the 30 Day Shred DVD, with adaptations, and that was the first exercise I’d done other than walking quickly as a mode of transport and the odd swim in a hotel pool for pleasure in 15 years. To be fair, I’d done as little as possible before that. Even on a summer holiday tennis week, my sister was playing with gusto and I was relegated to batting a ball against a line on the wall. Or failing to.
I emailed Laura, the lady running the programme, and she set my mind at ease. I found the Active Women programme difficult, but over time I started to really enjoy bits of it and was glad I had done it. I also went to a gym for the very first time, and Matthew at Armley who did my induction also has CP so he knew which machines to recommend.
I was even invited to an Active Women photoshoot for marketing future sessions.
I then had a degree to finish and self-employment to wind up and jobs to apply for, so it all got a bit neglected until I watched the Olympics and Paralympics and felt annoyed that I had never been able to properly take part in sport when I was younger. I loved watching athletics, and attended live events, but all the not-very-good people got to do at school was endless middle distance runs and cross country. No jumps, no throws, no sprints. I never got to have a go.
I contacted Laura and asked about disability athletics in Leeds. She said there were sessions for learning disabled athletes at John Charles Centre for Sport in Middleton, and I was welcome despite not being LD. The first few times I was nervous and she went with me. Then I found I loved sprinting, which is what I love to watch too.
I outgrew those sessions and got my own athletics coach in May, and now I train several times a week.
I ran my first 100m on 20 July, at the CP Sport Manchester Grand Prix at Sport City. Based on my PB in training, I was put with mostly T35 athletes. I only went and won my race! To be fair, when I am classified I will be designated as less impaired than those guys, but I also smashed my previous times and ran 18.91 seconds.
That sounds rubbish next to Usain Bolt, but I have CP and I only started serious training a couple of months ago. I was hoping just to run under 20 seconds, which didn’t feel possible.
Everything feels possible now.
Thanks to Sarra Manning linking to the Mail’s version of the Guardian story on catfishing/Sebastian Pritchard-Jones, and me hooking Sarra up with @C_T_C who features in the story, we both got to find out about this lovely dress Claire Travers Smith wore for the photoshoot. I’m still not giving the DM clicks, though.
Costiness: £42 from ASOS
I know, I know, it has been a long time. I have not had a moment spare for frocks and frivolity, which saddens me. But when I saw this dress, I just had to post. ‘Tis the season for prints and amazing dresses and a hint of kitsch. I’m back on it.
I love Christmas, and holiday-themed clothing. I love the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. I love prints. I love Fifties shapes and fit-and-flare. I want this dress so badly.
Costiness: $155.99 from Modcloth
I blame my friend Igg for this one, as she asked us to choose between two dresses on Twitter, and I just *had* to look at what else was on the website she linked to.
Oh, serious dress envy. I really want this one. No budget for it, like, but it’s stunning (if you wear the belt with it, otherwise it’s an attractively patterned sack). This Japanese Bird Print Drapey Maxi Dress does exactly what it says on the tin. Not for 18andEast the trend of giving frocks girls’ names or whathaveyou. No, full on Ronseal. Gawd bless ‘em.
Costiness:£30 (in the sale, so hurry) from 18andEast