A decade done!
As ever, I apologise greatly for the enormous gap between this post and my last post. I think it's fair to say that life most definitely got in the way. Although it's been a very hectic and busy 6 months with plenty to blog about, as we have little over 24 hours to go of not only 2019, but also this decade, I thought it was more appropriate to blog about the past 10 years - not because I want to talk about myself, but because I think it relates and ties in nicely with the overall message that CP Teens UK tries to deliver!
So, let's start right back in 2010. I was 15-years-old and I was at secondary school doing my GCSE's. Although I tried to ignore it at the time and 'brush it under the carpet', looking back this is when I perhaps started to realise that things weren't always going to be plain sailing for me.
My self-awareness was growing, as it does when you're a teenager, some of the GCSE options I was considering weren't open to me because of my disability (e.g. French - I wouldn't have been able to pass the speaking exam I was told due to my difficulties with pronunciation!), and my able-bodied peers were becoming increasingly independent and were drifting slowly but surely away.
As I said, I tried to ignore this and stuck my head in the sand, going on to pass all my GCSE's - 5 A's, 2 B's and a C! Even though I was aware deep down of the 'problems' bubbling away and starting to wonder what on earth was out there for me beyond the school gates, I was content for the time being; I had my GCSE's in the bag, despite people's doubts, and therefore I had my 'golden ticket' into my school's Sixth Form - the next 2 years were sorted, at least.
Me at school in 2010
Sixth Form came in 2011 and I had high hopes. I could leave the school grounds for lunch - a very exciting concept for a 16-year-old after 12 years of schooling where you only were granted permission to leave after the bell at 3pm each day! Except for it unfortunately didn't live up to expectations by any stretch of the imagination. I was shot down in flames on my very first day when the form group allocations were announced. I quickly learned that my group of 'friends' had not put me on their list before the summer to all be in the same form. I vividly remember thinking "surely they haven't done this on purpose?... No, of course they haven't!". Looking back, I am pretty sure it was deliberate with what the next 2 years entailed. But, nether the less, I reasoned with myself and told myself it didn't matter, it was literally only for the purpose of registration for 10 minutes each morning anyway...
During my time in Sixth Form between 2011-2013, I became increasingly socially isolated. My able-bodied peers were coming and going as they pleased from the school grounds during the day, and especially over the lunch period. I was unable to do this because of my disability and it wasn't even just the mobility/because I'm slow to get places; even if I got my 'friends' to take me out at lunch, I needed them to physically handle my cash for me, hold my sandwich and drink for me etc.
Even at the age of 16, I recognised and accepted that it was perhaps unfair to expect my 'friends' to accommodate me everyday, but once a week would have made all the difference. When the novelty of being allowed to leave the school grounds wore off with them, they started having lunch in school. I thought, "great, at least I'll get my lunchtimes back now!". But, it wasn't the same, something had changed. I used to sit there and although I was obviously most definitely there, it was like I wasn't. They used to talk about their nights out and parties etc. - all stuff I wasn't included in or invited to. One of my 'friends' even took great delight in telling me that "night clubs were no place for me" because of my disability!
Making up for the lack of dancing on sticky floors now, haha!
Combined with the increasing issue of social isolation, the question looming over me of "what is out there for me as a person with quadriplegic CP beyond the school gates?" was becoming more and more pressing. That question terrified me. I think it terrifies anyone if I'm being honest when you're that age whether you're able-bodied or not. One thing I did conclude was that it'd definitely be significantly reduced if I didn't pass my A Levels, so yet again I brushed the question under the carpet as they say and pushed on with my A Levels.
Oh gosh, now what? Summer 2013, 3 B's and nothing to go on and do. My 'friends' quickly disappeared, as I expected deep down. It hurt that they could go off, move away and be fully independent. I couldn't even go into town shopping by myself. After a few weeks of wondering "What. On. Earth. Am. I. Going. To. Do?" and being put down as a NEET by my school, 3 key things changed for me:
1. I remembered London 2012...
London 2012 happened at the beginning of my second year of Sixth Form. I was trying not to stress and panic at the thought that the following summer I would have left school. Even though school was not the most of enjoyable experiences at that time for me, it was something to do, it gave me purpose and it sat well within my comfort zone. However, even though it sounds cliché, the Paralympics in London in 2012 gave me a glimmer of hope and made me think "maybe I just need to broaden my horizons?". I found myself with an urge to get out there and do a sport, which was a very alien feeling for a girl who never did PE at school. I remember Sophie Christiansen winning Gold - a female with the same type of Cerebral Palsy as me with a Gold medal around her neck on TV; I felt so empowered! I unfortunately didn't have the time whilst at school to investigate taking up sport, but it stuck with me and as soon as I left school, I decided to give the 'mission find a sport' a go!
Me with Hannah Cockroft, who later in the decade would be one of my team mates, at a Sport Taster Day
To cut a long story short, I fell into Athletics and I had the privilege of meeting Andrew who coached me until 2018. Unfortunately, Andrew passed away last year in 2018, but he was such an important figure in my decade, and to be honest, my life. Andrew said he would coach me without a single hesitation - it was as new to him as it was to me. I quickly forgot about my so-called 'friends', I felt as if I had a purpose again and I felt that I was getting to do something because of my disability instead of having to miss out. I started making friends as Andrew was keen to include me in all of his sessions, including with his able-bodied athletes. I felt as if I had really fallen on my feet and like I had finally found 'my thing'
Andrew & I
More about my sporting journey later into the decade!
2. I got a PA...
Throughout my 14 years at school, I had 1-2-1 support. When I left school, I felt as if something was missing, but I couldn't really work out what. I wanted to do stuff for 'myself' (i.e. without parental input) but I couldn't really do many things independently, I couldn't/can't drive (the number of crashes with my startle reflex would probably make the Guinness World Records, haha) and I had crazy cabin fever! It suddenly occurred to me that if I had 'my person' just like I did in school, i.e. a PA, I wouldn't have to rely on mum and dad, I could 'do me' and be much more independent.
This was a game changer for the next 18-months. I had my training with Andrew, which I didn't need mum and dad's support for and I was free to go shopping, to the cinema etc. - cabin fever no more! As I grew more as a person and certain elements in my life grew with it, unfortunately this PA could no longer meet my needs. However, at the time, it opened up my life appropriately and gave me much needed independence at a point in my life where I thought I'd always be restricted to mum & dad... as much as I love them, but you know what I mean!
More about my recent very exciting adventures with Jess, my PA, at the end of the decade!
3. I founded CP Teens UK...
A big one! I won't go on too much about how CP Teens UK came about because you most probably already know and a very big thanks to my 'friends' from school - without you I wouldn't have felt the need to setup CP Teens UK and in the long run, you've actually changed my life for the better! I also quickly realised that unless I got up, shouted a bit, and did something, probably not a lot was going to change either for myself or for other physically disabled young people.
But, I do want to just say what an honour it has been and continues to be to connect with all you wonderful people. This decade will always be the 'CP Teens UK decade'! My whole perspective of myself and Cerebral Palsy has totally changed for the better because I've met some incredible people. I hesitate to use it and I probably will get some feedback for it, but you all inspire (sorry!) me to be the best I can be... cheesy I know, I'm sorry! I wish 15-year-old me knew about what was to come with CP Teens UK and actually had that support network - I tried to always fit into an able-bodied world 100% of the time no matter what and actually, it wasn't necessary and I only made things harder for myself by doing so.
A random collection from CP Teens UK over the past 6 years!
In 2014, I decided to go for something that I thought I'd never go for. Andrew encouraged me to go for it, which is another reason why he'll always be a massive influencer in my life, as well as this decade. I started University, and not only this, I found myself going to do a Sports degree - Sports Development with Coaching to be precise! It was always in the back of my head that I might not be took seriously as a disabled student on a sport course and for this reason, I was absolutely terrified when it actually came down to starting in the autumn of 2014. But, I really do not know what I was worrying about! Although a different experience for me compared to your 'normal' student experience (e.g. I commuted instead of living in) I still had a blast and got so much out of my time at University. Even though I perhaps wasn't experiencing the same levels of new found independence that my fellow students were, I was benefiting from new levels of independence for me. It was at this time that I learned that life isn't a timeline where you have to reach certain things/milestones at certain points - everyone is on their own personal timeline. Once I accepted this and managed to drill it into my head, I was able to really enjoy my time at University and embrace everything it had to offer me. My time at University certainly gave me a lot of confidence, opportunities and laughter!
I graduated in 2017 with a 2:1 and proudly wobbled across the stage on Graduation Day! I was gutted to leave my University days behind. However, I was keen to now concentrate on CP Teens UK as I had kind of been running it in the background between 2014-2017 whilst I was at University. During this time I had steadily been growing it in a manageable way. In 2017 just before I left University, to my great surprise (in fact, I was flabbergasted, haha!) the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, recognised CP Teens UK with a 'Point of Light' Award for the 'outstanding contribution to the lives of disabled young people'! It was this that made me sure of my decision to concentrate on CP Teens UK.
Into an office at the Proact Stadium in Chesterfield CP Teens UK then went! We did a launch night and played 'how many people can you fit into a small office?'! Since then, the office has become the hub of CP Teens UK - it's where all the events get put together, including where all the prizes for the annual Ball collect and each October you can't see the door for prizes and rolls of cellophane!
As I mentioned earlier in the post, sadly 2018 had a pretty devastating start with the unexpected loss of Andrew. Not only was it a massive personal loss for myself, in 2016 Andrew had took on the coaching and delivery of RaceRunning for CP Teens UK. After I had a bit of time out, I spent the rest of 2018 trying to get the CP Teens UK RaceRunning back up and running (no pun intended!). Unfortunately, by the end of 2018 no willing individuals with the necessary coaching qualification had come forward and regrettably we had to discontinue the RaceRunning. This was a really tough decision but unfortunately one that we didn't have much choice in - as CP Teens UK works on such a small infrastructure (i.e. me, my Mum, my PA Jess and a small Board of Trustees!) everything else was suffering as a result and we were struggling to meet what we actually exist to achieve, i.e. social events, interaction, support etc.
On a personal level, I went on holiday in the summer of 2018 with my best friend, Chloe, who I met through CP Teens UK in 2015. We had a few relaxing days in Portugal and this was my first proper holiday abroad! I also represented England for the third time at the 2018 World Cerebral Palsy Games - I honestly didn't know whether or not this was going to be the kill or the cure after just missing out on GB selection a few weeks before and loosing Andy who was meant to be there. It turned out to be the cure! I really enjoyed my second World Games experience - I was reclassified to my original classification, I made new friends including Amy & Charlie who are still making me laugh and smile on a daily basis a year later, and I came away with 2 Gold medals! I was very unsure about the World Games in 2018 after the previous 8 months, but it turned out to be just what I needed.
Now at the end of the decade, 2019! I mentioned earlier my adventures with Jess, my PA, earlier in this post. 2019 started with a massive adventure... New York, New York! Ever since I was little I have wanted to go to New York and there I found myself stood in the middle of Times Square. Beyond amazing! I honestly can't thank Jess enough for taking me and for putting up with essentially Buddy the Elf in New York for a week - yes, I was that excited, and yes, she had to stop me from pressing all the buttons in the lift in the Empire State Building, haha! What a way to start 2019.
New York, New York!
But, the adventures did not stop there. You may recall that I mentioned earlier that in 2018 I just missed out on GB selection. I am very fortunate, grateful and lucky that following Andy's passing, Jess rolled up her sleeves and also took on the role as my coach as well as my PA - 'Team Jellie' was formed! In 2019, we were aware of another opportunity for GB selection for the 2019 World Championships in Dubai. However, if I'm being completely honest, we had cleared it from our radar; following how upset and disappointed I was last year after missing out, combined with the fact that there were only 2 spaces and I had been continually ranked at number 3, we felt there was no point in getting high hopes again when I still had a little way to go to possibly move myself to a position for selection. We were confident that would come, just not in 2019...
I don't even know how I did what came next! I was at a small club competition in June - nothing big, nothing important, just practice with my startle reflex and the gun more than anything! I whacked out a 19.89s for the 100m. For those who aren't familiar with RaceRunning, going sub-20 is when things start getting up there with the 'big boys'! I had finally broken 20s! To be honest, I remember thinking, 'well, I've smashed my goal for 2019, just now enjoy the races to come this season'. Half an hour later, I chose to do a second 100m race; I had nothing to loose, I was doubtful that I would beat 19.89s, but it didn't matter. I then ran a stunning (if I do say so myself!) 19.34s - what on earth?!
Looking back, I ran how I ran on that sunny evening in June because I was relaxed; there was no pressure whatsoever on me after performing 19.89 half an hour before. I wasn't clenching on the start line, something my muscles seem to love to do when I'm stressed, which is really not helpful when you're trying to run the 100m!
In July, I had a race that was big and was important. Following my performance of 19.34s, which at that time ranked me at #1 in the world, the thoughts of Dubai and selection were starting to re-enter my head. However, after my narrow miss last year, Jess and I were still wary of having such thoughts, especially as I hadn't yet raced the girls originally ranked #1 and #2. Was it just a fluke and/or a very good day for me I kept asking myself?
That myth was soon cleared. I raced #1 and #2 sweaty palmed and stressy pants to match, haha! I moved my usual firm placing of third to second in two rounds of 100m races. I still was keen to believe it was fluke. I started thinking about selection for Dubai even more, whilst trying not to think about it too much at the same time. Could I really be in with a chance of representing GB? Me?!
The following day, an even bigger surprise came. I am rubbish in acknowledging how fast I actually am apparently, and July 28th was no exception - I broke the 200m World Record!! It still feels odd now! I couldn't believe it at all! Perhaps now was an appropriate time to start allowing myself to think about Dubai a little bit more?
Fast forward through a few more races with times consistently below 20s, selection day had arrived - Monday 16th September 2019. The phone didn't ring once. Come 6:30pm, I assumed I hadn't made it and headed off out to a local bar with Jess. As we thought I once again had missed out, we were drinking cocktails like they were on happy hour! At 9:30pm, my phone rang. Jess and I exchanged a look - surely not, it's too late? But it was! British Athletics wanted me on the GB team for the 2019 World Championships!
The next 2 months were crazy. We also had the 6th annual CP Teens UK Ball to put on just 2 days before we flew out to Dubai. On Wednesday 6th November 2019, at 4am I put on my GB kit and with Jess and the rest of the GB team, met in Manchester Airport and set off to Dubai.
I ended the decade stood on the World Championships podium for Great Britain with a Silver medal around my neck after running 18.87s (sub-19!!) ranking me firmly at #2 in the world
I suppose the message I'm trying to say is that at the beginning of the decade I was at school with what I thought was a life not very full on options for me ahead. However, sometimes options and opportunities lie in the most unexpected of places, e.g. for me this was my so-called 'friends' isolating me, which led to CP Teens UK, and also having a go at sport, which led me to University as well as representing Great Britain. If someone had said this to me in 2010, I would have said a) you're bonkers, and b) I don't/can't do sport.
I urge anyone, disability or no disability, to grasp opportunities as you come across them and also, to never be afraid to go looking for opportunities. Sometimes it can feel like a massive, overwhelming step to take, but it can sometimes be game changing or even life changing. If it turns out to be not what you expected or if it's not for you, then it doesn't matter - if nothing else, you will grow from it.
Go for it!
I wish you all a very happy new year, as well as a happy new decade. Let's see what 2020-2029 has in store for CP Teens UK in its second decade! Isn't it scary that babies being born around now, in 10-years time when we're rounding up another decade will just be starting to maybe get involved with CP Teens UK?!