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Disability in Sport – Resilience is Key

Professional swimming

Keira is the Print Manager at Fortis Sport but also an incredible inspiration to us all, as well as being the Wife of one of the Directors. So we asked her to write a blog to shed some light on her extraordinary life, the life of a Para-athlete…

Kiera’s Story

In 2009, I contracted NMDA Encephalitis. This left me with a brain injury, which affects both temporal regions of my brain and the cerebellum, the right side has more damage than the left. Which, in turn, gives me a ‘stroke-like’ or ‘cerebral palsy-like’ appearance. I have a ‘spastic’ gait when I walk and struggle with balance and coordination. My left side of my body is more heavily affected, my left hip and knee turn in when I walk, and my left foot is pinned inwards. I suffer from dystonia and spasticity, and sometimes have trouble swallowing. It took a year and a half to reach this diagnosis and figure out what actually happened to me.

I used swimming as a way of helping me through the transition of becoming disabled, swimming gave me something else to focus on, away from hospitals and misdiagnosis. It made me focus on what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t do anymore. In the water, I don’t feel so much of what I can’t do, so my disability takes a back seat. Meaning I can channel all my focus of other ways of using my body to achieve the same thing as an able-bodied athlete. Then I just became addicted to making myself faster, stronger and achieving within something again. So, in a short and concise answer; I used sport to help me overcome adversity.

Kiera Nash – 50m Freestyle Gold ASA Nationals 2014

The Pain

No matter what sport an athlete does, whether they are able-bodied or disabled, they all experience DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This is one of the most sickening muscular pains athletes encounter, but in a somewhat twisted way, it’s also the best pain. It’s a pain that cripples you, (I’ve been known to take painkillers just, so I can get through my next training session!) But it’s also a pain that tells you that you have performed to your highest capabilities, which means you’ll be getting faster and stronger. Athletes have a love-hate relationship with DOMS, or at least I do! For able-bodied athletes and para-athletes alike, DOMS is the norm. However, DOMS with a disability is a completely different kettle of fish! They bring unrelenting spasticity, horrendous spasms, shooting/stabbing pains, and sometimes dislocation. They make it even more difficult to get around and perform normal day-to-day tasks and also increase your ‘normal pain levels’. Which, in turn, makes you feel sick, groggy, agitated, and exhausted. While all of this is going on, you’ve had a snippet of rest and before you know it, you’re back in the pool swimming through what feels like treacle. With shoulders that feel as if they will snap off with any pressure, and hips that feel like your legs are going to burst out of them. Then, your coach drops it on you that the session is a sprint session, so you can throw some lactic acid build up and a few chunders into the mix for good measure too! All at 6am, after a 4am wake-up and an hour and a half’s drive. An Athlete life is by no means glamorous!

It is extremely easy to throw yourself into your constant training, feel that the sport rules your life, that you can’t do the other things you enjoy in life, and gradually become more despondent with training. Having a healthy balance of training and life outside of your sport is a key factor in athlete life, a rule that my coach always believed in was ‘a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer’. Having time away from your sport, being able to do what you enjoy and what makes you happy outside of your sport gets reflected in your training. Mentally you’ve had that time away (even if it’s just an afternoon coffee with friends) to forget about training, and feel refreshed and ready to hit the pool again when the time comes. However, balancing an athlete life is not an easy task, especially if you work full time, here is a brief example of my typical day:

4am. Wake Up.
4:30am. Make a coffee, drive to Mansfield for training.
6am. Training begins.
7:30 am. Training ends, stretch off, hop in the shower, get ready for work.
8am. Journey back to Telford for work.
10am. Arrive at work, shift begins.
10am-5pm. Work.
5:30pm. Second pool session begins.
6:30pm. Session ends, time to relax!

As you can see, my day is full on and when the end of the day comes, going for a meal with friends or other activities, is at the back of my mind as all I want to do is sleep!

‘Figures from our Active People Survey on 10 December 2015 show that 1.58 million people aged 16 years and over with a long-term limiting illness or disability (17.2%) played sport once a week’ – Sport England

I once had a coach that told me that 90% of training is mental and only 10% was physical. I still feel that this is true. Mentality is everything in elite sport, you must be resilient. You have to expect that there will be sessions, or even months, of training that may not go to plan, there will even be competitions where you don’t perform how you wanted to. Typically, I always had a week within my taper period, (this being the two weeks before competition day, your training becomes more event-specific; sessions become less meterage and more sprint based, with more recovery time) where it felt as though I’d completely forgotten how to sprint. It is times like this, and when trying to get the healthy balance of training and life, where you need a strong mindset, to be able to accept that this is the life you chose to attempt to become a Paralympian.

Photo of Kiera Nash

Competition Time

As I mentioned earlier, athlete life isn’t a glamorous one. It’s gruelling, sometimes lonely, full of pain (especially for para-athletes), and uncertainty. I often question why I still swim, especially when I’m waking up at 4am, my husband is looking very cosy wrapped up in the duvet, I’m exhausted and in excruciating pain. Or over Christmas, when everyone is off work, at family gatherings and I’m having to leave early to get to the pool. That’s if you’re lucky enough no to get injured in the process of constant training. However, all of this is forgotten in a heartbeat when you win a medal or smash a PB (personal best) at a competition. Competition days always start with an early morning, are always hectic and full of mind games from other swimmers. My attitude completely changes when I’m at a competition, I’m quietly arrogant, appear relaxed, confident and extremely focused. You aim to get at the pool around an hour before the allotted warm-up time, to give you plenty of time to do a land warm up and stretch as much as possible. Once the pool opens for warm up, its every swimmer for themselves, you fight for clear water in your lane, keep aware of any faster swimmers that are quicker than you, because they will swim over the top of you. A warm-up pool at a competition is brutal, you expect to be kicked and punched by other swimmers. Once the warm-up is done, I’m out the pool, in a hot shower to reduce any spasms or spasticity and to keep the muscles warm, dry off and begin to suit up. Racing suits take me around 20-30mins to get into, they are unforgivingly tight and very awkward to get on after being in a pool! As soon as you’re suited up, you hop into your tracksuit as soon as possible, keeping your muscles warm is vital when you will need them to fire quickly in a race. It’s now time to head over to the call room to register for the race and wait until it’s time to get behind the blocks. The call room can be daunting, everyone is waiting for their race, some people sat silent and preparing themselves, others chatting and others trying to play mind games. For me, it’s where my nerves and adrenaline start to pump. As I hear the commentators announce my name and lane number, I start to walk to my block, my heart starts pounding, my hands are prickling, and my legs are starting to feel wobbly, all with anticipation. I take off my tracksuit behind the lane and see my coach approach the other side, he extends his arm out to help me on the block. I loosen my arms, visualise my start, bring my goggles down over my eyes and take his arm. With my hand on his arm, and my bad foot on the block, the two whistles sound (to signify it’s time to get up), I lean on his arm and use one big hop with the good leg, there’s always a very loud bang (my signature stamp) as my good leg lands on top of the block, this always un-nerves the other swimmers, not that I can help doing it. As I take my grip on the front of the block, I hear the words ‘take your mark’, everything falls quiet, all I can hear is my heartbeat and breathing, then the buzzer sounds. I launch myself into a dive from my good leg just as the buzzer sounds, and before I know it I’m gliding through the water and ahead of everyone in the heat. I’m cruising down the pool and feeling good, my feet hit the wall as I turn to come back for the last length, and I feel my legs starting to lose power and tremble. With 20m to go my left leg and arm have constricted and that’s my indicator that now is the time to push through the pain and force my muscles to stretch as much as they physically can. As I hit the finish pad, I look up at the finish board feeling sick and dizzy, I hang myself over the lane rope and look again. I’ve just hit the time I have been training for all year. The feeling of satisfaction, absolute delight and exhaustion is one of the best feelings in the world, nothing gives you that mix of emotions like medalling and hitting a new PB. This is why I train, day in day out, as much as I hate training sometimes, winning is addictive and makes it worthwhile, this is why I stick to it. As I swim my way to the edge of the pool, my coach is waiting for me with my wheelchair. After I’ve raced I can’t stand up, it sometimes takes two coaches to pull me out of the pool because my whole body is trembling. I stay like this for a while after a race and have a lot of spasms and spasticity for at least 3 to 4 days after a competition meets, it makes life harder for a short spell, but it’s worth it.

Superhuman

The media is right to call Paralympians ‘Superhumans’, hopefully this insight into para-athlete life will only re-enforce this. However, a ‘Superhuman’ (and I’m sure all of them would agree with me), cannot be a ‘superhuman’ without the support of their coaches, family and friends. Us para-athletes (able-bodied ones also), can be very grumpy at the height of heavy training, when training gets overwhelming, or when we are just in agony. It takes some incredibly supportive and understanding people to put up with us and to help us through those tough times, when we aren’t feeling particularly strong or motivated, or to physically pick us up when we are struggling, sometimes quite literally. My husband has had to pick me up and carry me to the bath after racing or a tough training session, due to my legs going on strike!

These people are also ‘Super-Human’.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the story of a Paralympian. Yet. Due to two very serious shoulder injuries, my journey with swimming has ended prematurely. However, a new journey with GB Canoeing has just begun! Resilience is Key.