Going for gold: ‘We’re making history’
These remarkable women embody the real Olympic spirit – and next month will make their team debut for Great Britain at the Paralympics
From the left: Sam Bowen, Claire Harvey, Martine Wright, Emma Wiggs, Jodi Hill
We can expect to hear a lot about courage, heroism and true grit when the Olympic Games begin later this month. In the overheated language of sport, these words are scattered like confetti, from the plucky marathon runner who crosses the finishing line after everyone else has gone home to the boldness of the beach volleyball girls for their daring outfits.
But for real bravery it would be difficult to match the women pictured here. They are members of Great Britain’s 11-strong sitting volleyball squad, the first team we’ve ever sent to a Paralympic Games. Between them, they have been blown up, struck down by a mystery virus, paralysed in a hit-and-run accident and survived a fall from a balcony. The fact that they would be horrified if you called them brave or, heaven forbid, felt sorry for them just makes them more admirable.
Theirs is a fast and physically demanding sport which is played sitting on the floor of the court. In fact, part of its appeal is that it gets wheelchair users out of their chairs, which they
Volleyball England only decided at the end of 2009 to put a squad together, so it’s a remarkable achievement to have won a place at the Games, which start at the end of August. Almost as heroic is that they have done everything on a shoestring, paying for themselves to go to overseas tournaments. Official funding works out at 20 a day each between now and the start of the Games. ‘Even 10,000 would make a huge difference,’ says Claire Harvey, with a hopeful eye to attracting sponsorship. ‘We’re making history and we might shock a few people,’ adds Emma Wiggs.
From left: Sam Bowen, Martine Wright, Emma Wiggs, Jodi Hill, Claire Harvey
Sam Bowen, 26 – ‘Considering what I went through in Iraq, I think I’ve done pretty well!’
Gunner Sam Bowen of 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery was two months into her first tour of duty in Iraq in 2006 when her camp at Al Amara came under heavy night-time bombardment. Shrapnel from a mortar ripped through her right leg, severing an artery and leaving her paralysed from the knee down. It was a miracle that she didn’t bleed to death.
Within three days she was back in the UK, facing two years of hospital treatment and rehabilitation. Sam, a talented boxer (nine fights, nine wins), joined the Army on the promise of getting into the boxing team. She was injured before she had the chance to try. ‘I was totally gutted,’ says Sam, from Mountain Ash in South Wales. ‘The Army was my job, my home, my life.’
More than 20 operations have improved her mobility enormously – she refuses to use a wheelchair – but she’s still being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause nightmares, sweats and shakes.
‘Becoming disabled is really hard going,’ says Sam, who is a volunteer support worker for young children with disabilities. ‘But considering what I’ve been through, I think I’ve done pretty well.’ Playing volleyball has helped her recovery, not least because the camaraderie echoes her Army days.
‘I love it. I’ve lost weight, I’m fitter than I’ve been since my accident and my upper body is probably stronger than ever. Words can’t express how I will feel to be in the Olympic stadium.’
Olympic icon: Kelly Holmes
Martine Wright, 39 – ‘After 7/7 I thought my life was over – now look at me!’
On the day it was announced, in July 2005, that London had won the Olympics, Martine enjoyed
a celebration drink with colleagues at the technology website where she worked as international marketing manager. It meant that she left home later than usual the following morning. Sitting on the tube, thinking that she must get tickets for the Games, she was blown up in the 7/7 bombings. Martine spent ten days in hospital in an induced coma and lost both legs above the knee.
‘At first, I thought my life was over. But I had two choices: either I could lie there for the rest of my life or I could get on with it.’ She learned to fly, she learned to ski, she married her photographer boyfriend Nick, she project-managed the rebuilding of their new home in Tring, Hertfordshire, and in 2009 she gave birth to a son, Oscar.
‘If you’d said to me seven years ago that I was going to be disabled and playing a Paralympic sport at London 2012, I would have thought you were absolutely mad. But now I can picture Nick and my family at the opening ceremony and Oscar holding up a banner saying “Go, Mummy!” I truly believe that something wonderful can come out of the darkest depths of your life.’
Olympic icon: Tanni Grey-Thompson
Emma Wiggs, 32 – ‘Being able to do a competitive team sport out of my wheelchair is brilliant’
The last time Emma was able to run, she was 18 and chasing sheep around a farm in Australia’s Blue Mountains on her gap year. She went to bed one night ignoring the pins and needles in her hands and feet, and woke up the next morning unable to move. The virus that struck her down has never been identified, but it caused irreparable nerve damage to both legs.
After two years of rehab in London and her home town of Watford, she took up her place at the University of Chichester, got a first-class degree in sports science and fulfilled her ambition to become a PE teacher. ‘I wasn’t prepared to give up on the career I wanted, despite being in a wheelchair,’ she says. She spent six years teaching at an independent girls’ school in West Sussex, a career currently on hold to train full time for the Paralympics.
‘Being able to do a competitive sport out of my wheelchair as part of a team is absolutely brilliant. Hockey used to be my main sport and I was an OK player, but I certainly would never have been wearing a Great Britain tracksuit and taking part in the biggest sporting event on the planet. It’s that old clich about every cloud having a silver lining. Being an Olympian is something to add to my CV which might make me stand out more than having a purple wheelchair.’
Olympic icon: Steve Redgrave
Jodi Hill, 31 – I wouldn’t change what happened to me – lots of good things have come out of it’
Jodi is one of the few members of the squad who played standing volleyball, being a regular in a village team in Germany as a teenager when her RAF family was stationed there. Then, as she wryly puts it, she ‘was given a lesson in how gravity works’. At the age of 21, she fell backwards from a friend’s balcony (‘No, I wasn’t drunk’), landing upright on the hard ground 30 feet below and shattering her left ankle.
After nine years of constant pain and so many operations she’s lost count, she decided in 2010 to have her left leg amputated below the knee. ‘I didn’t really have any other option, and it has completely changed my life. I spent almost ten years not being able to walk properly, not being able to play sport and generally being grumpy.’
Jodi, who owns a coffee shop in the Hampshire village where she lives, adapted quickly to using a prosthetic lower leg and started playing sitting volleyball just a couple of months after the amputation. ‘I never imagined it would lead to a place at the Paralympics. I just wanted to get back into sport, lose some weight and get fitter.
‘To be honest, I wouldn’t change what happened to me. Lots of good things have come out of it and I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today, I’d still be bumbling along as I was before the accident.’
Olympic icon: Sally Gunnell
Claire Harvey, 38 – ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I’m going to grab’
In February 2008, Claire, an international rugby union player nearing the end of her career, was knocked off her bike in a hit-and-run accident while on her way to play for her local club, Tonbridge, in Kent. She suffered spinal injuries which left her right leg paralysed and movement in her left leg severely restricted. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.
Claire gave up her job as a prison governor (‘I was fairly easy to run away from,’ she jokes) and is now head of corporate responsibility at the Financial Services Authority. Establishing a new career with colleagues who didn’t know her before she was in a wheelchair has been an important part of her recovery.
‘If you had asked me before the accident whether I could have coped, I would have said absolutely not,’ says Claire, who has a son and daughter with her partner, also called Claire.
‘I have a lot more strength than I imagined.
‘Getting to the Paralympics is something I can give back to everyone who fought to keep me going when I wanted to give up and feel sorry for myself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I’m going to grab with both hands.’
Olympic icons: Tanni Grey-Thompson, Fatima Whitbread
To help fund or sponsor the GB women’s sitting volleyball team, contact [email protected]
The sitting volleyball tournament runs from 30 August to 8 September at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre in London