I hated PE at school. Detested it, to the point I would deliberately leave my gym kit at home even though that meant I ended up in detention. I was the chubby girl in the class and found sport lessons so humiliating and embarrassing, wearing gym clothes and dealing with PE teachers who really didn’t seem to care about encouraging those of us who were not naturally gifted. I wasn’t too bad at swimming, and found that the most bearable activity as in the water I felt equal to my skinnier classmates.
It was therefore a big relief to me when I left school and didn’t need to do any sport at all. Then in my late twenties I started going to a local gym, basically because I was doing shift work and got bored on weekdays when everyone else was at work. By this point I had slimmed down, mainly due to vanity, not really because I wanted to be healthy. I love dancing, and soon discovered aerobic and step classes. Circuit classes soon followed, and then boxing circuits and before I knew it I was totally hooked and doing sport 5-6 days a week – and enjoying it! By this point I was in my early thirties and with my new fitness I felt I needed a challenge. I began competing in triathlons, and for the past 15 years I have been doing that, plus the occasional running race, and more recently open water swims. Then in September 2014 I was suddenly struck down by a condition called Labyrinthitis. It was the day after I had done a swim with some friends from Sicily to mainland Italy. I went from being super fit to not even being able to walk properly. The virus destroyed the hearing in one of my ears and totally disrupted my balance. For the next 3 months I had to use a stick to walk, and even after that it was several months before I felt totally confident out in public. It was like being permanently drunk all the time. It would feel like the floor was moving when I walked and I was scared I would fall over. My eyes were all blurry as well. All i could do was get myself to work and then home. I couldn’t visit anywhere, or drive, or go to the cinema. Most devastating of all I couldn’t do any sport. Exercise had been my rock, it was the thing I turned to when stressed and made me so happy. I didn’t even have that to give me support.
There is nothing doctors can do to help with the symptoms. Basically your body has to adapt to the damage done to the inner ear over time and learn how to balance again- which takes months. I was getting very depressed and frustrated and felt like I would never be the old me again. Three months on it was still a big struggle, but I decided I had to try and get back into sport. I began with yoga classes, though the trickiest thing was actually getting to the studio! I ended up spending a fortune on cabs as public transport scared me, even with my stick. Most of all I missed the pool, and so even though I was terrified how I would feel in the water, I got myself to my local lido. It felt so strange not jumping into the fast lane and then speeding up and down. I got in the ‘old grannies’ lane instead, and on my first visit managed ten lengths of head out the water breaststroke. It felt so wonderful to be back at the pool however slow I was. I was still struggling with walking but I started doing swimming sessions whenever I wasn’t too fatigued from the labyrinthitis. On my third visit I attempted front crawl. Breathing one side was fine – but the other send me spinning 360 degrees. Each visit though I tried breathing both sides and finally after about six months after being hit by labyrinthitis I could do it! I still felt so rigid in the water however and felt I needed help to get my confidence back. A friend of mine Salim Ahmed runs a swimming club called SwimLab and one of his courses is held in Cornwall. It seemed the perfect thing for me to do. The weekend was such a confidence booster as I began to realise that I really was getting better, that my swimming was not so bad at all, and it really inspired me to keep on doing the things that I love doing, even if I will never be 100 percent the old me. My attitude changed from being frustrated to thinking well, this virus will not beat me. Nowadays my attitude is I won’t let anything hold me back, least of all an illness. This past summer I returned to open water swimming with the SwimLab team at Shepperton Lake as well as a swim around St Michaels Mount and I believe I am now a better swimmer than ever before – and stronger physically and mentally as well. I’m back on my racing bike, running and even doing yoga on a paddle board. I’ve learnt from this experience that sport can play such a big role in giving people confidence if they are suffering from physical or mental issues. I am so grateful I am able to once again do the things I love. My balance is still rather wonky, my hearing impaired and I still get bouts of fatigue but I won’t let that stop me. Above all now I hope I can inspire and encourage other women (and men!) of any age, size or shape to not let anything hold them back. Just jump in at the deep end and have some fun. It’s not what other people think, but what you get out of it that counts.