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?