The Life of a Paralympian
How years of training for the Paralympics helped me accept my identity as a disabled person
Competing at the Paralympics and winning a bronze medal for New Zealand at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games would not have happened for me had I not been born with my disability – Sacral Agenesis.
It’s one of my life’s proudest moments, and not just because it was the Paralympics, but because at that moment there was absolutely nothing I would do differently or change, not even my disability.
Don’t get me wrong, life with a disability isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and great parking, it’s also hospital appointments, fighting against the system and also fighting against ancient stereotypes and stigmas that say we’re less than.
For me, however, my disability is something I’ve grown to be proud of and proudly wear as a badge of honor on my Instagram account bio – and in real life, too.
It hasn’t always been that way though, I’ve struggled with my identity, of not wanting to be disabled or trying my best to be as “normal” as possible.
When I reflect on my journey, something that’s really stood out to me as being a contributing factor to my confidence and positive self-identity as a disabled person is my sporting journey to get to the Paralympics.
Sport was always an equalizer for me when I was younger. Swimming, in particular, was something I was good at from a young age. I always wanted to be the fastest, and it made me feel good that I was faster than most of my peers without disabilities.
When I got to club level, things changed a bit. I was around 12 years old, and just about to hit puberty, so not a fun time to be a girl anyway. I wasn’t the best swimmer in the
“For me, however, my disability is something I’ve grown to be proud of and proudly wear as a badge of honor on my Instagram account bio – and in real life, too.”
class anymore, and I struggled to keep up with the swimmers in my squad who were not only faster than I was, they were also a bit older.
I didn’t realize at the time, but I had been put in a fitness squad, even though my intention was to compete. My squadmates were lovely, and I made some great friends, but over time they quit to do other things, and I stayed put.
Eventually, I started swimming with a coach who saw my competitive potential and brought me into his squad. It was nice to be working with someone who wanted to get the best out of me. The catch was moving into a squad with a group of swimmers who were a lot younger than I was.
All of a sudden I felt out of place, not only was I the only disabled swimmer, I also couldn’t relate to my teammates because I was focused on winning, and they were focused on who was dating who in the squad.
I should also mention at the time I was attending an all-girls Catholic high school which meant I wasn’t being exposed to guys my own age. As a heterosexual female who had a thing for Hollywood romcoms, boys were definitely on my radar, even if I couldn’t find someone around me.
Through these phases, I don’t remember my disability bothering me. I think I was too focused on being a good swimmer, but I was also headstrong. I didn’t acknowledge my difference and would get incredibly offended if anyone tried to question my ability.
I saw power and prestige in the fact that I was a Para swimmer, it made me feel special and important, therefore I didn’t see my disability as an issue or something that would hold me back.
Then I turned 20.
It was 2013, and I had just attended my first Paralympic Games in London and was at the beginning of my journey to the Rio 2016 Games.
This was the year everything turned to crap for me.
I had struggled with bothersome injuries leading into London, but the worst hit in March 2013. I woke up one morning and couldn’t bend or straighten my arm, even trying was incredibly painful!
I saw a doctor immediately who was also concerned and referred me on to a specialist who then sent me to a surgeon.
I had a lot of surgeries growing up, but never anything that threatened to take away my ability to swim. At this point in my life, my identity was tied to my swimming, it gave me value and purpose. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t Rebecca, the swimmer.
I remember my surgeon telling me there was a possibility that if something went wrong, my career was over.
told what you
can’t do, and
not what you
I was terrified. Thankfully, the surgeries went well, but it definitely knocked my confidence and made me realize I needed to develop who I was out of the pool as well.
Another knock to my confidence that year was because I started dating. I’d always wanted a boyfriend, but not having boys around at school and also not being interested in the young boys I swam with, meant I didn’t really have a dating pool to choose from.
Dating apps became all the rage, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to jump in and join the masses.
Good idea in theory, but it very quickly made it clear to me that most men without disabilities weren’t here for a girl using a wheelchair, and it was the first time in my life that being Rebecca the swimmer didn’t help people see past my disability.
My confidence took an even bigger knock because the constant rejection from men made me feel unlovable. For a time, I put all my value into trying to establish why I felt that way. The conclusion I drew was that it was my disability holding me back.
I didn’t have a very positive view of myself or my disability for a long time after I started dating. Every time I would get rejected, it was like any progress I made was just diminished.
The only thing that would make me feel good was swimming well, and winning medals.
Being a disabled person, growing up, you’re always told what you can’t do, and not what you can do. Swimming, for me, really helped me push the boundaries of what I was capable of, and after a while, I started to realize my power came from making myself proud, and not anyone else.
Every time I swam a personal best or won a medal, I would reflect on the journey I had made to get there, and I could be proud of everything I had overcome.
It also dawned on me that I had these opportunities because of my disability, which made me appreciate the uniqueness of my situation and appreciate that my disability is and will always be a part of me, and if I couldn’t love myself or my life as it is, how was I ever going to be happy?
The Paralympics in Rio 2016 was a defining moment for me because without even realizing it, I was for the first time in my life 100% happy with who I was in every aspect.
I achieved what I wanted to as a swimmer. I knew in my heart of hearts that if it all fell away tomorrow, I would be okay, I wouldn’t just be Rebecca, the swimmer, I would be Rebecca, a disabled woman capable of many things with a lot of value to add to the world ahead of her.
It’s funny how something that was once such a source of anxiety for me was also the thing that helped me realize who I was, and to harness that.
Now that I’m retired from swimming, I can truly appreciate everything it has given to me and my life, and how it shaped my values and showed me what I was capable of all along.