5 disabled women on their love of sport

“I feel completely myself”: 5 women with disabilities on how exercise has improved their confidence

Posted by for Wellbeing

Fitness and sport offer so many benefits that we often overlook. Writer Bec Oakes talks to five athletes living with disability about what moving their bodies has taught them.

From increased lung capacity to a potentially calmer and more stable mood, the benefits of exercise are well known. But for people with disabilities, the importance it holds in our lives can be far deeper.

I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) at 24 years old. It’s a chronic multi-system disease with symptoms including extreme tiredness, muscle or joint pain, problems with memory and concentration and post-exertional malaise — an exacerbation of symptoms following physical and/or cognitive activity. It’s also a condition with no easy fix. You don’t simply take medication and it goes away. The only advice out there is to pace yourself, manage your pain and learn to cope as best you can.

It’s a bit of a paradox considering that the most important coping strategy I’ve learnt for managing post-exertional malaise is exercise. I’ve danced my whole life and shortly after being diagnosed with ME, I joined Team England Adaptive Abilities Pom, a unified team of disabled and able-bodied athletes representing our country in the sport.

We train for hours each week, pushing our bodies to be more flexible, stronger and fitter than ever. It’s exhausting. Sometimes, after a particularly hard training session, I can barely form sentences and have to sleep for the rest of the day. Occasionally, this debilitating fatigue lasts much longer. But dancing provided me with a real lifeline when I was struggling to come to terms with my diagnosis and ultimately made me proud of my condition. I’m not an international athlete in spite of having CFS/ME, I’m an international athlete because of it. And as I prepare to travel to the ICU World Championships next month, I’ve never felt stronger.

Using movement to manage conditions and wellbeing

For others, remaining physically fit is vital for managing their disabilities. Nicole Luongo, writer, speaker, disability advocate and founder of What Cerebral Palsy Looks Like, has spastic diplegia – the most common type of cerebral palsy (CP) — and does regular at-home workouts, trying everything from barre and HIIT to kickboxing.

Nicole Luongo has been able to undo some of the damage caused by spasticity.
Nicole Luongo has been able to undo some of the damage caused by spasticity via HIIT and kickboxing.

“I exercise not only because I enjoy it,” Luongo says, “but also because it’s so beneficial for my cerebral palsy. It wasn’t until I had surgery and later became a disability advocate that I learnt the damage spasticity does to our bodies.” 

She explains that it can cause a decrease in endurance as well as muscle and joint pain, leading to increasing numbers of people with CP needing wheelchairs. Physical fitness somewhat prevents this and is truly one of the best gifts I’ve given my body and CP.”

Finding freedom through fitness

Freedom is a common theme disabled women bring up when talking about what exercise means to them. For Kali Holder, a visually impaired player on Great Britain’s national women’s goalball team, sport has taught her vital, transferable skills. 

“Sport has enabled me in so many different areas. For example, when I go to training, I’ve always taken the train – so now, I’m more confident using public transport.” Between goalball and her guide dog of four years, Blake, Holder now has a real sense of independence.

Sport has boosted Kali Holder's confidence to use public transport.
Sport has boosted Kali Holder's confidence to use public transport.

For Paralympic swimmer Susie Rodgers MBE, being in the water itself is very freeing. “I don’t wear any of my prosthetic limbs and am completely myself. It feels natural for me,” she tells Stylist.

Rodgers, who was born missing the lower part of her left arm and left leg as well as with some malformations of her right leg and foot, started swimming as a child as a way to keep cool in the extreme heat of Egypt, where she lived with her family. She started taking the sport seriously when she went to university – the start of a decade-long career during which she won 30 international medals including three bronze and one gold at the Paralympics.

But beyond sporting success, Rodgers explains how important movement has been for her mentally – something she became very aware of during the pandemic. “When they shut all the pools down, I felt quite isolated and went to quite a dark place. It gave me a real awareness of the fact that I need to swim; wherever I am I need to be able to get to a pool and swim. Beyond the elite stuff, beyond the medals, it’s just so valuable for my health.”

When all the pools shut down over lockdown, Susie Rodgers found herself isolated and without her usual confidence-booster.
When all the pools shut down over lockdown, Susie Rodgers found herself isolated and without her usual confidence-booster.

Clare Rutter, who suffered a traumatic brain injury following an unidentified medical episode in 2017, has also benefited greatly from the mental wellbeing sport brings. She works at an outdoor adventure company as a canoe, kayak and standup paddleboard instructor and finds great healing in paddlesport. It’s an activity that she can adapt to her varying energy levels. 

“It makes me feel alive and free,” she explains. “Having a traumatic brain injury and experiencing symptoms such as migraines, tics and tinnitus can really impact my mental health, but the water is such a great healer. I still battle my condition every day but paddling takes my mind off it – something no medicine can do.”

And like me, swimmer Claire Cashmore MBE also finds that sport has helped her accept her condition. Cashmore has competed in four Paralympic Games — winning four bronze, three silver and a gold medal — before transitioning to the triathlon, adapting the disciplines involved to suit her limb impairment (she was born missing the lower part of her left arm). Last year, she competed at her fifth Paralympics in Tokyo.

“It has been a real catalyst for change for me,” she explains. “I was a very self-conscious teenager and getting involved in sport changed my outlook and perception. 

“I dread to think about what I would’ve been like or if I would’ve been as comfortable with my disability. I can’t thank sport enough for that!”

For more sport and fitness stories, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: subjects’ own

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