I had the privilege to shoot a lovely article for today's Sunday Express magazine, about three remarkable young women and how they overcame adversity. So if you're feeling a little down, maybe feeling a little worried about Brexit? Just take a few moments to read exactly what these girls have had to go through and ultimately triumphed by representing the UK at the forthcoming Paralympics in Rio...and then count yourself lucky!
I'm so fortunate to get to meet people such as this, who are truly inspirational.
Dreaming of Rio: Paralympians about their plans in Brazil
TEENAGERS at the top of their game were destined for sporting glory when their hopes were shattered by illness and injury. Now Paralympians, they have their sights set on success in Brazil – our writer meets three inspirational heroes.
Twisting her ankle had horrific and life-changing repercussions for teenage sprinting champion Rachel Morris. Although a double amputee, 36-year-old Rachel, of Farnham, Surrey, is now preparing to take part in her third Paralympics.
“As a child I dreamed of being an athlete and would write, ‘I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics’ in schoolwork. When the 400m Olympic silver medallist Roger Black visited my school it made me even more determined.
At 16-plus I was sprinting at county level and at 18 I was representing Great Britain on the track. And then I twisted my left ankle on a dry ski slope. It was an innocuous injury but the consequences were huge.
My ankle swelled up painfully and I used crutches to get about. But as weeks passed with no improvement I sensed something wasn’t quite right. The swelling never eased and my leg became hypersensitive.
Even a breeze or the lightest brush of fabric against the skin was agonising. It would change colour and temperature, going from red and hot to cold and dark blue.
I’d developed a rare and aggressive condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RDS), now known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a malfunction of the nervous system that causes extreme pain and inflammation.
Today far more is known about it. The key is prompt physiotherapy. As soon as the pain patterns become ingrained, causing the body to ‘reject’ the limb, it is much harder to treat.
By the time I was getting the right treatment the condition was advanced. Damaged circulation led to cracks and ulcers in the skin and my leg literally rotted away. When life-threatening septicaemia developed in 2002 there was no alternative but to amputate from the knee down.
Losing my leg was hard. Not only did it end my Olympic dreams but I felt I’d lost my identity.
I wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone play sport. And things were about to get worse. I still had horrendous pain from the CRPS and phantom pain from the amputated leg.
Even worse, although incredibly rare, I suffered a ‘mirror image’ effect. Just six days after the amputation my right ankle felt sprained. To my horror, it followed an identical pattern right down to the colour and temperature changes of skin. Watching it deteriorate was freaky and terrifying – like déjà vu.
Two years later doctors amputated my right leg.
The condition continues to affect what is left of both legs. I’ve had three more amputations over the years and there is very little of either leg now.
Slowly, I realised that staying active took my mind off the constant, gnawing pain. So when a local sailing club set up Sailability for disabled people, I joined. Founder member Eddie Pickering, a paraplegic following an accident as a teenager, needed a racing team-mate. He taught me to sail and live independently again.
Together we won the national and world championships – and got engaged. Sadly, Eddie’s health failed and he died in 2012. I miss him terribly, but his legacy lives on.
After reaching the top with sailing, I switched to paracycling. Pushing myself in training and racing flooded my body with endorphins, helping me cope with the unbearable pain.
In 2007 I was spotted by a British cycling disability coach and joined the GB squad. Within just 12 months I became national, then world champion and won Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008.
Standing on the podium while the Union flag rose and national anthem played was the most incredible feeling. All the blood, sweat and tears shed since the accident rushed through my head in an instant, like my life playing in fast forward. I still get a cheesy grin thinking about it.
I was set to defend my title at the London Olympics. But with six weeks to go, while out training, I was hit by a car at 70mph, dislocating my shoulder and cracking a bone in my skull.
Thanks to an incredible physiotherapist I made the starting line and battled excruciating pain to win bronze. It was so hard to see the gold slip away. But today the bronze actually means more because of what went into it.
Afterwards, my physiotherapist suggested rowing in the gym to strengthen my injured shoulder. The GB Para Rowing Squad agreed I showed potential and, after winning trials, I joined the team.
I’m currently silver world medallist and a gold medal at Rio de Janeiro would be incredible. I’m lucky to have excelled in three different sports and would love my achievements to encourage others to chase goals and dreams, too.
Mine was to be an Olympian, but for other people it could be standing on the starting line of the school sports day 100m race or playing in your first match.
Every cloud has a silver lining is one of my favourite sayings. You might not see it at the time but something good always comes out of something bad. If an obstacle gets in the way of your dreams you just have to work around it and get there another way.
I’m living proof that you can get there.”
'David Beckham sent me a signed shirt saying ‘stay strong'
Young footballer Lauren Jones dreamed of playing for England until a fall from a tree left her paralysed. Now 21, Lauren from Worthing, Sussex, is a GB wheelchair tennis champion.
“I have no recollection of the fall that changed my life. It was June 13, 2009, a month before my 14th birthday, and I was climbing a tree with my best friend, Kirstin, on a day out with her family.
I was in high spirits, looking forward to my trials with Brighton & Hove Albion FC two days later.
My dream was to play for England. From then on memories come in brief flashes. In one I’m lying on my back unable to move, in another there’s a glimpse of light and a deafening noise, which I now know was the air ambulance. My next clear memory is of lying in a hospital bed while a doctor gravely told me I’d never walk again.
As strange as it sounds my first reaction was to laugh. Some nurses were crying and it was all so intense, like a scene from a movie. I honestly thought they were joking.
Then I saw that my parents were crying as well. Looking up at Dad, I asked, ‘Will I be able to go on a plane?’ I’ve no idea why. But it’s ironic, now, considering how much time I spend travelling to competitions
When it comes to breaking your back I’d done a thorough job. Normally, patients break the cartilage, spinal cord or bone. I broke all three.
Falling forwards I’d ‘banana-ed’ over a thick branch (my spine literally came out through my back) before falling 20 feet and hitting the ground. The impact of that split second left me paralysed from the waist down.
When I was left alone and the enormity of it all sank in, I cried. My football dreams were over. But there was never a point where I sulked or wailed, ‘Why me?’ From the word go I was thinking of what I could – rather than what I couldn’t – do.
After six weeks I was transferred from Southampton General Hospital to the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital for rehabilitation and physiotherapy. I worked hard, determined to get my life back to as near to normal as it could be.
Between physio sessions I’d screw up bundles of paper and aim them at the wastepaper basket in the corner of the room. Eventually, amused nurses fashioned a basketball net from a drip stand for me to use.
As well as relieving boredom the exercise helped reactivate my core muscles and built upper body strength. Doctors were impressed at how quickly I progressed. After mastering sitting up, eating and getting dressed, I learned how to get around in a wheelchair, manoeuvring up and down kerbs.
A huge part of rehab revolved around being active and within three months I was playing wheelchair sports like basketball and table tennis. Physiotherapists told me I had potential and arranged for me to attend a Paralympics trial day.
Others nudged me towards wheelchair football, but I liked the idea of developing my own style and techniques with wheelchair tennis, which is played in manual, rather than electric chairs.
I quickly discovered you needed far more than good hand-eye co-ordination. I was up against people who had been disabled since birth and who had developed brilliant wheelchair skills.
I was overwhelmed to learn that my football team had started fundraising after the accident, with star players sending shirts to be auctioned. The whole community became involved, raising £40,000 for physio, a specialised wheelchair and tennis lessons. David Beckham sent me a signed shirt saying ‘stay strong’.
Early in 2010, while on a training camp, I was spotted by a Team GB coach. Just 12 months later I was national junior girls’ champion and finished 2011 with my first national senior doubles title.
After becoming world junior singles number one and world champion in the World Team Cup I turned professional. I compete all over the world for Great Britain and travel with an assistance dog called Koda.
Back at home I’m an ambassador for Sussex Tennis and also support spinal patients at Stoke Mandeville.
Earlier this year I broke my hip falling out of my wheelchair but I’m back competing and hope to make the team for the Rio Paralympics. Winning a medal for Great Britain would be a dream come true.”
Lauren’s sponsors include Tennis Sussex (LTA), the Tennis Foundation and Pets Corner.
'Inspiring others to realise their dreams is most important for me'
Stephanie Millward’s dreams of swimming for England at the Sydney Olympics were shattered when, at the age of 17, she was found to be suffering from multiple sclerosis. Now, 34-year-old Stephanie is in training for her third Paralympics. She lives in Box, Wiltshire, with her husband, Adrian, 50.
“Until I was diagnosed with MS my life was perfect. My talent for swimming had been spotted and developed at a young age. At 15, I became English schools’ swimming champion and national age group champion, breaking records both times, and began training with the GB Olympic team.
The following year I was selected to swim for England in World Cup meetings abroad. The Olympics in Sydney 2000 was a dead cert.
Then, while competing in China in 1998, I began to feel nauseous and wobbly and a ‘bounce’ in my vision left me tripping over and walking unsteadily. I was favourite to win the race – but came eighth.
I then developed a pain down my left side, as if my body was trying to break through too-tight skin. When an MRI scan showed swelling and scarring on the brain doctors said it was either an infection, lupus or multiple sclerosis. I’d never heard of the last two conditions and insisted I was fine. I’d still go to the Olympics. But my condition worsened.
I’d swim into the pool wall while training and was too weak to climb out afterwards.
Four days after my 18th birthday, in September 1999, doctors confirmed I had the relapsing remitting form of MS, an autoimmune condition of the central nervous system. Nerves in my brain and spinal cord had become damaged, disrupting the transfer of signals to the rest of the body.
Symptoms vary from person to person and usually wax and wane. But mine were continuous and even doctors were shocked at my deterioration. I was in constant pain, struggled to walk, talk, see and move, with terrifying spells of blindness and complete paralysis.
After failing my A levels and losing my university place, I survived on disability benefits. I couldn’t bear to watch coverage of the 2000 Olympics. Consumed by anger and rage, I sank into depression, drank excessively and self-harmed.
I believed that I had done something wrong and this awful illness was my punishment.
Steroid treatment made little difference and I had to fight for a treatment which finally brought the symptoms under control after four horrendous years.In 2005, Mum suggested swimming would help with my weight issues – I’d gone from a size eight to 18 – and helped me into the pool.
On land I could barely function but in water it was like coming home. I continued to swim and, with the help of a personal trainer, learned to walk independently. I also took up tae kwon do, which improved my balance and core strength.
Anger management calmed me and with holistic therapy, like reiki, I learned to accept rather than battle the MS. It was a part of me for life and I could either make it my friend or my enemy.
I’ve learned MS hates extremes of temperature, stress, anger and negativity and immediately worsens under those conditions. The best way of keeping it ‘happy’ was to stay well, follow a healthy diet, take regular exercise and think positively. It’s still with me every day but I’m able to manage it.
As my confidence came back I began to teach swimming at the local pool. Adrian was one of my pupils and we fell head over heels in love.
He suggested I competed again.I’d laughed off the suggestion, insisting I was too old and fat, but he kept encouraging. Gradually, I realised he was right.
I worried about coming off the MS drugs but knew I had to do this on my own. After 10 years, I started training again. I was aiming for London 2012 so was staggered to qualify for the Beijing Olympics 2008 just weeks later.
I didn’t win any medals but it was a dream to be competing and representing Great Britain again, supported by my family. The icing on the cake was when Adrian proposed on the Great Wall of China.
At the London Paralympics I won four silver and one bronze – more medals than any other GB athlete. At the time it was a huge disappointment that none of them were gold, until people told me how inspiring my performance had been.
Adrian and I married in 2013 and in that same year I won four world champion titles in Montreal. Now I’m looking forward to my third Paralympic Games in Rio. Swimming keeps me so well I’d like to be still racing when I’m 80.
A gold medal would be a dream come true. But inspiring others to chase and realise their dreams is still the most important thing for me. At 34, I feel I’ve lived three lives and it is hard to believe I’m the same person.
Those early years with MS were horrendous but they’ve taught me valuable lessons and made me a better person. I honestly think that is why I was given MS – to lose that easy, perfect life and become stronger and kinder.
I’ve heard there’s another athlete with MS in the Paralympics this year. I hope it was me who inspired her.”