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My Clients Story: From Spectator to Paralympian in Four Years

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Carly got in touch with me in the summer 2013, she wanted to work with a sports psychologist to help with competition nerves and performing in front of crowds. For some reason, she just could not focus her mind and do what she knew she was capable of.

I agreed to meet Carly at her home in Manchester to make it easier for her, she has a condition called Cerebral Palsy, which mainly affects movement and coordination and is caused around the time of birth.

Carly was not a wheelchair user but the sport she was competing in required one – 100M wheelchair racing in the T34 classification.

When I meet a client for the first time, I want to understand as much about them as possible – their story, their life journey and what they want to achieve from working with me.

Carly’s story had me gripped.

Carly was 26 years old and she had only been competing in her sport for a few months. The year before, England had been blessed with an incredible summer of sport as the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games came to London.

At this time, Carly was not interested in sport whatsoever. You see, growing up for Carly in a mainstream school was difficult to say the least. They didn’t understand much about Cerebral Palsy in the eighties and so Carly had to just do her best in a mainstream school while all the other children had none of the difficulties that Carly did – this made school difficult.

One of the most difficult parts was PE. Carly had some obvious limitations and the format didn’t help things. School can be a brutal place at times and it certainly was for Carly. When she left, she was happy to never play any sport ever again.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and Carly was working in marketing for a company in Stockport. She was intrigued why everyone in her office seemed to be so enthused by the buzz of the Olympic Games which seemed to sweep the nation.

When the Paralympics came round, she was even more surprised by how many people were interested in it, she never felt disabled sport would attract such attention. She started to think this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see an incredible spectacle in her own country.

She went online to search for tickets and the only ones available were for the closing ceremony and they were nearly five hundred pounds each. She managed to convince her best friend to pay the huge fee and join her for the experience.

They headed down to London and thought they would make the most of the time there with a little shopping. A bit carried away with the amount of walking around London and Carly ended up in hospital with exhaustion in her legs. The Doctors nearly refused to release her so she could attend the closing ceremony she had paid so much money for.

Eventually, they agreed and took her to the stadium in an ambulance and the incredible volunteers (Games Makers) helped Carly into the stadium and into her seat. Phew!

Once settled, Carly concentrated on what was happening on the track. One of the first races that grabbed her attention was the 100M Wheelchair race.

Carly was stunned to find out that several of the athletes in the line-up also had Cerebral Palsy. This challenged all of Carly’s pre-held beliefs about the limitations you face with a condition like CP.

Immediately the cogs were ticking in Carly’s mind – “if they can do something as incredible as that, does that mean I could too?”. “Why them and not me?” and “what am I really capable of?”.

After a short time, she turned to her best friend and shared some of her thoughts. “If they can do something like that, why couldn’t I?” and this was when her best friend reminded her that she was 26, smoked 20 cigarettes a day and was out partying every weekend – not exactly the life of an athlete!

But Carly was not deterred. Something had really shifted in her mind in that moment – she suddenly became aware of the limitations she was placing on herself.

It’s not surprising however, given her early childhood experiences. All she ever saw was children being much better than her at sport, she attended a mainstream school because her parents didn’t even know what her condition was – there was so little research and information available at the time.

Carly never even knew wheelchair racing existed. After all, Carly was not a wheelchair user – the thought had never entered her mind.

And frankly, she couldn’t wait to get as far away from being made to participate in sport as she could. She was always selected last and experiences like this just reaffirmed the doubt in her sporting ability.

But in this moment inside the national stadium, all of that was being challenged as she saw for the first time what could be achieved.

Carly was inspired. She was enthused. She started to see exciting possibilities. She didn’t have to buy into all of the doubts and the limiting beliefs she had been doing for so long.

Carly left the stadium that day and said to her best friend “you may laugh but in four years time, I am going to be lining up on the start line of the Paralympic Games in Rio, Brazil”!

He must have thought “yeah yeah” and who could blame him – talk about a pipe dream!

But people with dreams are dangerous – because they are the ones who change things, they change the world and inspire others to do the same.

Carly returned to Manchester and thought she better start looking for a coach if she is going to have any chance at all. It turned out that there were only five wheelchair racing coaches in the country and fortunately for Carly, one of them was based just down the road from her workplace at Stockport Harriers Athletics Club.

Carly turned up on a cold, dark Tuesday night in November to begin training. Upon her first meeting at the club, she quickly realised she could not fit into the race wheelchairs as she was too overweight.

Seeing as Carly was not a normal wheelchair user, the coach thought it would be a good idea for her to practice going round the track in a normal wheelchair to get used to the technique and the sole use of her arms for a start.

As much as this made sense, Carly was mortified! She felt secluded from the group, that feeling of being left out again. But she persisted with the exercise and eventually made it around the track. It took her 10 minutes – she was shattered!

This first experience may have been enough to give most a wake up call of how difficult this dream of Carly’s was going to be, but she persevered and kept on showing up to training and improving her technique and fitness.

To give you some context – she would need to get that time down from 10 minutes, closer to a single minute if she was going to make the Paralympic standard. A long way to go!

After some hard work she eventually managed to fit into the race wheelchair and keep improving her technique. A few months later, early in 2013 Carly entered her first few races.

Her time was near 50 seconds for completing the 100 metres. To give you context, the world record was 17 seconds and all of the athletes who competed at the Paralympics were sub-20.

Carly was some way off.

To top this off, when Carly went to her first race meeting where there was a bit of a crowd, she found herself incredibly nervous. She couldn’t concentrate, she couldn’t focus and now she suddenly couldn’t even do what she was doing in training.

This is when she thought about working with a sports psychologist and found me through a google search. She lived just round the corner in Manchester.

We started working together in that summer of 2013 and I was immediately inspired by her story and by her determination to improve. I wanted to help Carly achieve the dream!

I taught Carly about her brain and why I thought she was having some of the challenges she was, I was helping her to see how her mind works so she could take hold of it and make it work for her instead of against her.

Just like a muscle, we needed to train Carly’s brain for what she was trying to achieve.

I shared some tools and techniques with her and every few weeks we would meet up to discuss her progress. Carly was impatient and wanted immediate results and I had to manage her expectations, but she committed to the process with discipline and started to make progress.

As she felt more relaxed and confident, she started to improve and trust herself more on the track.

She started to focus only on what she could control and not on what was happening around her and what the competition were doing. We called this ‘staying in your own lane’ and it had more than one meaning.

Her times kept coming down until she got them really close to the 20 second mark she was aiming for. In the middle of all this training, Carly also got a new job at the Coop in digital marketing. Once they found out about Carly’s dream and the progress she had made so far, they funded Carly to train full-time for the final year leading up to the Paralympics.

In great pursuits, you need some fortune along the way and this was a pivotal moment for Carly as it allowed her to make training the number one focus in her life.

Fortune favours the brave, but you must be brave first.

Carly had done so well that in 2016 she was selected to represent Great Britain at the European Championships and she walked away with two silver medals. The dream was getting closer!

As the selection for the 2016 Paralympics moved closer, it was on a knife-edge whether she would be selected or not. Never mind the competition from around the world, in the GB team alone they had the double Paralympic and world champion Hannah Cockroft so it was always a very tall order for Carly.

At this stage, Carly had lowered her personal best down from nearly 50 seconds when she started, to 19 seconds and amongst the best in the world.

When the squad for Rio was announced on the 27th July, Carly found out she would not be in the GB squad to travel to Rio. We agreed to meet a couple of days later and I had prepared to reflect on all the progress she had made, the lessons learned, the amazing journey she had been on winning two silver medals for her country.

When we did meet, she showed me the news that had been announced that morning – GB awarded her a bonus place on the plane! The dream was no longer a dream, she was going to Rio.

Carly achieved her dream of lining up in the final of the 100M Wheelchair race four years after the day it first entered her mind. She finished 6th in the final that day, which was an incredible achievement from where she had come from.

One year later, Carly made it into the squad for the World Championships in London. That day she went one better and finished 5th, not quite achieving a medal but doing herself proud and showing the world there is incredible power in having a dream and acting on it.

After the World Championships, Carly was 31 years old and had plans to start a family. She retired from the sport that summer, capping an incredible five year journey and being an inspiration to many people.

I am just so pleased I was able to be part of it with her and can share the story with you now.

There are so many lessons we can learn from Carly’s story.

Dreams have power and magic in them.

It only takes on inspirational thought to set you on a new exciting path.

Never underestimate the power of persistence.

Always, always have a goal.

Dreams mean nothing unless you take action.

Don’t listen to the negative opinions of others. There are plenty.

Surround yourself by the people who have what you want.

Stay in your lane. Stop comparing yourself with others.

You can overcome the odds and achieve the unthinkable.

You can retrain your brain. You can smash through your limitations.

When you pursue your dreams, there will be people who want to help you.

You will always face setbacks. They are not signs to quit, just opportunities to learn.

Relax and trust yourself.


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