Thursday 14 September 2017

Rio a year on..

It's exactly a year since that incredible day when I won the 100th gold medal of the Rio Paralympics and the 600th medal since funding began.

Lagoa Lake 15th September 2016
Anniversaries are often a time for reflection, and as the 15th of September approaches I find myself thinking about the Rio Paralympics and the promised impact of wining gold medals.
The term “Olympic and Paralympic legacy” gets banded around a lot and people seem to be focused on working out tangible benefits of funding elite sport- more specifically winning gold medals. As useful and important as this might be, I'm not sure if it’s possible to quantify all of the wider positive impacts.
winning the 100th gold medal
Mine was such a close race. I have never focused so hard or hurt so much as in those final meters paddling towards the finish. I crossed the line a mere 300ths of a second in front. But a win is a win and standing on the podium having won gold for your country is an incredible experience. 
Giving everything to my race
It still gives me goose bumps whenever I think about it.  My memory of that day on Lagoa lake is still vivid. I can feel ribbon pressing on to my neck from the weight of the medal, I can hear the National anthem playing and I can see my family standing there behind the barrier just in front of me. The Union flag reaches the top of the mast and Christ-the-Redeemer on the mountain behind forms a perfect backdrop.
The happiness I felt at that moment was in part pride, knowing that I had worked incredibly hard for this, but that feeling was easily eclipsed by seeing the infectious happiness of my family in front of me. My typically monosyllabic (ie grunty) teenage son Will was showing uncharacteristic excitement and emotion by punching the air while cheering loudly.  My normally chatty, smiley 20-year-old daughter Jess was speechless for the first time ever. She had tears rolling down her face making red, white and blue streaks out of her patriotic face paints.
Will and Simon watching my medal ceremony
 My amazing mum who hadn't been able to travel for 20 years due to poor health had trained hard as well to get strong enough to be able to make it to Rio. I watched as she hoisted herself out of her wheel chair, flanked by my amazing nieces who had come out to look after her, and she clung onto the barrier to steady her self while enthusiastically waving a small Union flag.
My Mum having the time of her life xx
 I locked eyes with my husband Simon and the world seemed to pause for a second. We smiled at each other.  I could feel how proud of me he was and also massively relieved that my journey had ended this way.  It could so easily have been silver, or nothing at all (as we feared after I contracted a virus just months earlier)…
Happiness is...
But the initial impact of me winning that medal wasn't just confined to those at the lake in Rio.  Channel 4 had managed to pull together last-minute coverage of the kayak finals and it was amazing to hear later about how people went to extraordinary efforts to watch my race.  My sister whose wifi went down just before the race ran into the department store next to her office.  She managed to persuade the shop assistants to turn on the entire departments demo TVs to enable her and the whole top floor of John Lewis to watch and cheer together. One friend insisted that the professional photo shoot for the spring catalogue of a well-known retailer should pause so that she and the models and photographers could be part of my support.
Supporters back home
Another friend who runs a hair salon dressed up in patriotic colours and served Prosecco to the slightly bemused clients, who thought they had just come in for a normal trim. Many of my friends and family said that following my journey for four years and watching that race had inspired them to believe they could also achieve their own goals, or it simply made them feel happy. And this is just the people I know, and just from my one medal.
Happiness is known to activate more happiness. I sometimes wonder how far this un-recordable ripple of happiness generated by all the medal success at the Rio Paralympics travelled?
The year since Rio has flown by and while I follow the progress of my ex-paracanoe team carrying on training for Tokyo, I have moved on and with the spare time created from not training I have said yes to all sorts of requests for inspire appearances and professional speaking opportunities.  I’m not convinced that gold medals on their own “inspire” people but a gold medal does open many doors. An athlete with a medal and a compelling back story seems to be a powerful combination and makes people want to listen. 
All the AMAZING gold medal winners at Rio paralympics
Since that day on Lagoa lake I have genuinely lost count of the number of people who I have done a talk to and who asked afterwards "could I hold your medal".  I don’t believe I will ever tire of watching peoples’ faces as I hand it to them.  Their eyes light up as I pass it across and again as they feel it's weight in their hands and hear the rattle of the para-specific medal audible beads. The gold appears to reflect up onto their faces causing a warm glow and everyone no matter how cynical or even socially awkward looks up and smiles ... 
The magic of holding a gold  medal
I have now had quite a few people approach me long after to tell how they have changed their lives since my talk, and this gives me a massive buzz  – probably more so than winning a race ever did.  
So although I doubt we will ever be able to measure the true “impact” of that investment in gold medals, at least I know in my own little world mine is spreading a little happiness.

Tuesday 25 April 2017


Top speed in my race boat was about 17 km /hour but today I'm aiming to go much, much faster ... Sprint kayaking wasn't scary or dangerous but my heart would beat really fast on the start line anyway.  Bizarrely this thought crosses my mind as I sit precariously on the top of a cinder cone volcano in Nicaragua, astride a wooden plank, staring down the 40 degree slope to the tiny backpacker bus far, far below...
Cerro Negro Nicaragua

Two weeks ago I announced my retirement from the GB Paracanoe team and immediately accepted an invitation from Simon, my husband, to join him on a work trip to Nicaragua. Simon travels a lot and for the last four years I have been so focused on that one single goal - getting to Rio - that spontaneous trips like this were unthinkable. So here I am, "boarding" on a live volcano?!    Am I nuts?! 
Staring down the 40 degree slope
My heart is beating just as fast as at the start of a race, but this time it's with pure fear as I prepare for my turn. Our safety briefing was minimal, "Is anyone allergic to bees? No? Good (!?) Speeds can reach over 90km/hour so you need to keep the board balanced otherwise you will topple over and it will hurt.... Don't EVER put your hands down and if you fall off, just roll...." The only items to protect me from the sharp volcano gravel and rock are a pair of poorly fitting safety goggles, a thin orange boiler suit, and a bandana over my mouth. 

Protective clothing!!

As I sit on my board waiting for my turn, I think back to the team up in Nottingham starting the Tokyo cycle. I know what they're going through and the sacrifices they have chosen to make in order to 'go' for another four years. Having reached as far as I could by winning gold in Rio, I have chosen to step away from elite sport and find new adventures. Knowing what it takes, I have absolute respect and admiration for those who have decided to carry on with an elite program. 
The Incredible GB Paracanoe Team In Brazil

Everything, and I mean everything I did in the last 4 years was a conscious decision based on a single quest, "Will this make my boat go faster". If it didn't fit this criteria then I simply didn't do it.

While I'm waiting, I start to think about the elite athlete 'rules' I'm 'breaking' by being here. Pretty much all of them! Holidays were called regeneration periods and had to be booked in the off-season. Regeneration preferably needed places which had a gym, proper nutrition, no diseases, no unsafe activities, no alcohol, etc. I start to chuckle as I make a mental list of all my transgressions. I'm sitting on top of a live volcano (I bounced here on the back of a dodgy open top truck) in the second poorest country in Central America. I had only a Coca Cola for 'breakfast' and I'm dehydrating rapidly in the heat. The  volcano boarding trip has a shot challenge prize and a beer and mojito reward (lunch?!?) on completion...

But it's not just holidays which were limited and I begin to wonder if people realise the huge amount of personal sacrifices elite athletes make every day in order to reach the top of their game. Once at the top it's even more ruthless as the expectation piles on more pressure and you know that the journey can end at any time, through being beaten or through injury. The risk is so high that you daren't do anything which might jeopardise achieving that one goal. I was fortunate to have had amazing support around me to get me to the top, and such luck that things fell into place at the right time .... the choices I felt I had to make to give me the best chance to succeed were really tough but these choices (along with my training) clearly worked! Although for me, the training was actually easier to deal with than the sacrifices I had to make! 

My Family.

I missed family holidays as regeneration periods don't usually coincide with school holidays. At home I would think about where I went or how I travelled to avoid people who might be infectious. I wouldn't go near anyone who sniffed or sneezed. This included distancing myself from my family if they turned up with a cold. I would often go to bed before my children in order to get enough sleep, I said no to my friend's invitations to parties and evening social events in order to optimise my recovery. I changed my diet and didn't eat or drink anything which didn't promote recovery or wasn't good for me. My take was that empty calories would only make me heavier not faster. I had to be wary about everything I put in or on my body, meticulously checking labels to make sure it wasn't contaminated with a banned substance.  And that's not to mention the loss of privacy, with every detail about me being recorded by the program on a daily basis, so the team around me could learn and adapt.  Nothing was spared and the team knew everything about me from the colour of my urine to the percentage of my fat.  Clearly it worked out for me - but looking back, it was incredibly tough. 

"Are you ready??" Oh no, It's my turn ... Help! I start off trying to go slowly but I rapidly gain speed and I soon realise I'm out of control. Keeping the board balanced when you have a wonky leg and asymmetrical butt cheeks is near enough impossible!!! Then, in a cloud of dust and debris, I start to slide sideways down the slope. Unable to stay straight, I fall and roll my way down the last section of the volcano. 

Just before I fell off......

Ouch!! this is going to hurt a lot tomorrow ... but I don't really mind - this is being alive!!!  As much as I loved being an elite athlete, I love being free even more. Free to do what ever I want, when I want, without worrying that I'm doing the wrong thing, letting someone down, wasting the Programme's efforts, or the public and sponsors' money. 

The 'After " shot

Having said all that, I am in total awe of all of our elite athletes, who sacrifice so much and live each day by strict rules so that they can train properly to be the very best that they can be. The reality is that being an elite athlete is incredibly hard and only the most dedicated and mentally strong, with the best support, make it to the top. 

Talent Pride and Determination.
So having reached the bottom of the volcano (ignoring my bumps and bruises), picking grit out of my ears and hair whilst drinking a cool beer and accepting a strange looking cookie without asking what's in it, I feel happy that I can now live 'normally' again and have new adventures.I want to wish all our athletes aiming for Tokyo the very best luck for your futures. You and your support teams are all - each and every one of you - AMAZING.

Thursday 1 September 2016


I don't  know about you but I absolutely loved watching the Rio Olympics. The Olympics just exploded 'feel good factor' everywhere!  I found myself watching  sports that wouldn't  normally catch my eye and inexplicably shouting excited encouragement at the telly. Without thinking I used  1st names as if I really knew the athletes  (and as if they could really hear). I'm sure I wasn't the only one doing this and it must have made a difference right because we just kept on winning medals!  Bravo team GB 
GB Paracanoe Team

Now it's our turn - Yay!

I'm beyond excited that the Paralympics will begin on the 7th of September when more sports and more incredible athletes will showcase their talent! For me this is the dream that started four years ago at London 2012 - when I was inspired to try out for para sport and had that mad dream that I could compete in Rio.

My Supporters - credit Moya Slade Photography

I'm ridiculously excited that I'm taking part in this inspirational and perception shifting games. my next dream is to share and give back. If just one person watching us is inspired to "yes I can" my job will be done.  But I'm just as excited to think that the Great British public has another opportunity to get behind the  nation's athletes and support team Paralympics GB as they did four years ago in London.
Cheer at the Telly
You can definitely support us by cheering at the telly because that is just great and I for one will love feeling that we have an army of supporters back home. If you get a chance you could also support us and the next set of athletes through campaigns like "supercharge your shop". I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the funding we get from our sponsors and the campaigns they run for us.

I was lucky enough to be asked to help with the supercharge your shop campaign and it was so much fun. Who wouldn't want to do a photo shoot in Sainsburys at 7.30 on a Sunday morning? Especially when we were instructed to do all the things I've always wanted to do in a supermarket but never been allowed. Trolley races, sitting on the conveyor belt, pretend fighting a visually impaired judo player with my paddle... Well the last one wasn't on my wish list but it was fun for all none the less. 

please don't try this at home....

Trolley racing down the veg Isle

So look out for me in the press over the next few days but more importantly go shopping and then get  cheering knowing that you really have made a supercharge difference. 

As I board my flight to Brazil my dream is complete - I made it to Rio. Whatever the result, I did what I set out to do. Thank you all for supporting me to get here.

Monday 13 June 2016

I'm going to Rio!!!!!

It's official - Ive been selected and I'm going to Rio!
I recently received an email asking what being selected for Rio means to me.
I sat there numbly staring at that email as the words slowly began to sink in - "selected for Rio"...
It's the first time I've stopped and realised what a massive deal this actually is. It sounds odd but I've been so focused on taking each step at a time, on learning how to paddle while trying to compensate for my limitations. I've been so busy learning to be the best paddler that I can possibly be, that I haven't really had the chance to think what going to Rio would actually mean to me. 
Being the best that I can be - world champion!

In practical terms it means that I’m the fastest KL3 200m paracanoeist in Great Britain, and that come September I'm going to be representing my Country at the Rio Paralympics. This makes me incredibly proud and also hugely nervous –Yikes! I’m going to be performing on a global stage!

But reflecting further I realised that "being selected for Rio" means much, much more to me than that.

Four years ago I was prompted to aim for a bold, impossible, crazy and, let’s be realistic, unlikely dream. But knowing all that didn't put me off wanting to go for it. I had been in a bad place after my injury and wanted to pull myself out of that.  Volunteering at London 2012 had been a step in the right direction, but in going for that new dream of aiming for Rio I was looking to prove to myself that optimism wins; that a door forced closed didn't mean that all my doors were closed.

I chose to walk through a different door and aim for something completely new. Working at London 2012 and seeing incredible examples of human resilience had inspired me. So I decided, following a suggestion from a fellow Gamesmaker that I was going to learn how to paddle a boat and aim for Rio.
Working at london 2012 

I have gained so much more than Rio selection from this journey, (one that could have ended at any time because that is the fickle nature of elite sport), that even not making it or not being selected would have definitely made it worth going for. 

 What being selected means is that even the most unlikely dreams can happen if you can find and open the right door and have the right team around you.   

Being selected for Rio motivates me to work even harder. Come September I want to know that I've done everything possible to put me on the start line saying, "Yay, I'm here. I’ve done the work. Bring it on, I'm ready to race!!!" 

And whatever the outcome I hope that my selection – a 49 year-old working Mum competing on the biggest stage in the world – confirms to others watching that optimism and bold dreams will always power through the barriers we put up ourselves.

Race lake in Rio

Wednesday 4 May 2016

I can now pronounce Quinoa!!!!

People might think that training within the GB paracanoe team produces nothing but the obvious performance gains… getting faster in a boat. And yes, I guess this is the main focus of all our training, but there have been other  surprising but none the less 'important' added benefits to my life since I starting kayaking .... 

Here’s my top 10: