Paralympics Champion on living with MS
I was diagnosed in September 2014 and to begin with it was quite hard. I'd just done a placement, as I'm a physio student, so I saw a lot of stroke patients and MS patients and obviously saw the more severe end of things and it scared me. I was horrified that my life was going to be revolving around not being independent. But I managed to use sport to give me a goal and give me something I could control, and it was kind of what allowed me to get over it in a relatively short period of time.
The diagnosis has definitely changed the way that I think about things and my outlook. I think now more about living each day as it comes and taking every opportunity that's in front of me. You don't know when things are going to change, you don't know when your life's going to end, you don't know what's going to come as a challenge, so if you've got an opportunity, I always think take it while it's there, because you might not ever have the opportunity to do it again.
I get a lot of muscle spasms, so mainly through my right arm and in my right leg, and then when I'm quite fatigued I get them in both legs and arms and that's when I spend time in my wheelchair. I also have altered sensations and a lot of pins and needles and burning. And then I also have problems in terms of memory and thinking, and just fatigue in general. A lot of my symptoms come when I'm fatigued.
A lot of the symptoms are quite invisible. People can't see fatigue, you can't see any of the sensory issues that people have got, you can't see any of the cognitive issues, and that's quite tricky, especially for someone at work, or for me in terms of my sport and my classification. So how do we deal with it? By raising awareness so that people understand the symptoms that we have and people know about it, and they're able to then make adjustments to help people, whether it's within school life, university life, or in the workplace.
All my achievements in Rio felt amazing, but I think my cycling race would be my highlight, because that was the performance that kind of achieved the two sports. I'd set out to go to Rio to become successful in two sports to show people across the world who have got MS, or other chronic conditions and invisible illnesses, that we can still achieve things, and if you put your mind to it and try to do it in a different way - it won't be the same way as what it used to be - but you can still achieve things and MS is not the end of your life. It doesn't put a full-stop after your name. You can still continue to do things. I think it was a very emotional performance and it meant so much to me because it wasn't just for me, it was for everyone else and I felt like I'd achieved that and not let them down.
My inspiration used to be an athlete called Allyson Felix, who's an American 400m runner. She runs so amazing and so graceful, and she's a lovely person. But then I became a Paralympic athlete and I'm surrounded by people that are doing amazing things every single day, these are the people that became my inspiration. When you're with people that have got everything against them and they've had so many setbacks but they still go on to push through things, they're the people that become your inspiration.
Getting involved in sport is different for every person with MS and I started quite steadily because my balance was really bad when I first began and so I did a lot of work on a stationary bike. I then started lifting weights in the gym, but it was just squatting with someone supporting me.
But I’d say just take your time to get into it and find something that works for you. Find something you enjoy, a lot the time it's going to be stuff that's not weight-bearing, so getting in the swimming pool or getting on a bike, but then those things lead on to things where you're weight-bearing and you've got coordination going on. So then you're getting involved in your running, your skipping, and your Pilates classes. Yoga and Pilates, plus lifting in the gym, are the things that allowed me to be able to get back into sport. It just helped me to gain back the coordination and balance, and then I was able to go on and achieve great things, so yeah you‘ve just got to work really hard and then find what works for you.
I do see an MS nurse and they've helped me a lot in terms of the medication I'm on and controlling my MS, and just knowing the symptoms. I suffered with a lot of UTIs and they've helped me to be able to know the symptoms of that. I used to panic thinking I was having a relapse every time I had a UTI. I have an injectable medication and I really struggle with injections and all the stuff that come with it, but they've helped me to be able to manage it. It's really important to have a specialist nurse because they kind of bring everything together, they look at you as a person and they work with the rest of the team to help you to be as well as you can be.
I would just say don't panic, and don't go scrolling through the internet to try and learn information. There's a lot of information out there that is very negative, you type things into Google and you tend to see the horrible side. I'd say try to find networks of people that have the condition, rather than seeing what you can find on the internet. It’s a lot better to speak to individuals who are living with the condition. Approach charities like the MS Trust that can signpost you to different kinds of networks that can help support you. And speak to your MS nurse. It is a very scary condition to have, especially when you're first diagnosed, but it's not as bad as what people think and especially in this day and age with all the research that's been done. So I'd just say don't panic, find a good network and communicate with people who have the condition.