Achieving Paralympic Success following a Life-changing Injury
This episode of Our Voices shares the survivor story of Alexandra, a woman who suffered a life-changing injury as a teenager and went on to become an award-winning Paralympian. Her story shows her ability not only to adjust to the circumstances of her disability, but to find a way to prosper.
Childhood memories of Jamaica
Alexandra grew up able-bodied and spent much of her childhood in Jamaica. Describing her impressions of the island, she says “The colours are very vivid, the blue of the sea versus the gold of the sun, and the green of the fields and then also the diverse mix of people on the island and the skin colours.”
A life-changing injury
In the summer of 1995, when Alexandra was 13 years old, she suffered a life-changing injury following a diving accident. She and her family and friends had decided to go to the ocean for a swim.
“It was a really bright, sunny Sunday morning and we got to the beach and my sister and my two friends slowly walked into the water. And I, in typical fashion, instead of walking like everybody else, decided to run.”
Alexandra was extremely familiar with the beach as she had visited it since she was young. So familiar in fact that she knew exactly when there would be drop-off. She would do a little dive as soon as she reached that point.
However, this year there had been a number of hurricanes and this had affected the depth of the water near the shore. “I basically ran into the water and dived. And the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and I was looking at the sea floor… I tried to move, I couldn’t, I tried again to move, I couldn’t. And at that point in time, I knew what had happened.”
Unable to move after that diving accident
Despite undergoing what would have been a terrifying experience for most people, Alexandra did not panic. She drew strength from her mother’s approach to adversity.
“My mum is a problem solver, so the minute anything goes wrong, she just goes into how do we fix it mode. And I definitely have that quality of hers.”
So Alexandra just held her breath and waited for someone to come and assist her. Eventually her sister arrived and flipped her over. Alexandra looked at her and told her she was paralysed.
Fortunately, a nurse was present on the beach that day. So the family got Alexandra onto a boogie board and the nurse began asking her questions. Alexandra describes not being able to move any part of her body from her shoulders down. “I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t feel anything.”
An agonising rehabilitation
Three days later, Alexandra was air-lifted to Miami where she would have a series of operations. “The first time they sit you up is incredibly painful. Your body just is in complete shock because I’d been lying on my back for a week or 10 days, and it’s amazing how your body just degrades so quickly. You atrophy, everything seizes up.”
Eventually, the nature of her life-changing injury was confirmed. She was diagnosed with tetraplegia, which is paralysis in all four limbs. She would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
At the age of 13, this must have been devastating news to hear and yet she was somehow able to quickly focus on her life after paralysis.
“I kind of went into emergency problem solving mode of, okay, what’s the next step? How do we deal with the next thing? Rather than: let’s dwell on the situation because it’s out of my control.”
Adjusting to life after spinal cord injury
Adjusting to life after her spinal cord injury proved to be difficult. Alexandra spent months in hospital followed by a complicated process of rehabilitation. She had been able to regain some hand function which meant that she could feed herself. But gripping objects proved to be extremely difficult.
“I used to drive the OT mental because I used to have grapes for breakfast and then chase a grape around the bowl for about three quarters of an hour and she’d be like “Please give up.” And I wouldn’t.”
Life after paralysis
Alexandra quickly went on to build a life beyond her injury. Before her life-changing injury, she had always had a love of sports. This would not change and, as part of her recreational therapy, she went sailing. “I really enjoyed it, because it was a very different sport. It was nice to be out on the water, it was nice to be out of your chair, just in different surroundings.”
A unique opportunity
Initially she had no intentions of pursuing sailing beyond anything but a hobby. However, her life-changing injury coupled with her interest in sailing meant that Alexandra found herself being contacted by the Back Up Trust, a UK charity that supports people with spinal cord injuries.
They were looking for a helm to train up. The helm needed to be a 1.0, which is the most severely disabled in the Paralympic classifications. The helm also needed to be female. Alexandra found that she was ticking all of the boxes and so she accepted the opportunity.
Becoming an award-winning Paralympian
A year later, in 2007, Alexandra had the chance to team up with Niki Birrell, an Olympic class sailor who has cerebral palsy. Together they went on to compete in 3 Olympic Games in Beijing, London and Rio. Alongside Niki, Alexandra became an award-winning Paralympian as they both became world number one for six years and won a Paralympic Bronze medal as well as 5 consecutive world titles.
A hero’s reception
Alexandra speaks particularly fondly about her experiences after becoming an award-winning Paralympian at the London Olympic Games. She noticed that for these games there had been a real shift in the Paralympics in terms of coverage and appreciation.
“You have this double decker bus parade going through London, every bus has a different sport on board. A million people turn out across London – all you could see were people on either side of the buses. You’re there with all your teammates , people are screaming, crying. It’s literally something I will never again experience in my life.”
Alexandra saw that more still needs to be done despite experiencing such euphoria to create a more equal world for disabled people outside of the Olympics. When she went to enter an underground club in central London to celebrate after her performance, they told her that she couldn’t go in due to the lack of provision for wheelchair users.
“The earth just came fully crashing back… because of this egalitarian, beautiful kind of Olympic bubble that we’d all been existing in, suddenly the realities of being disabled again, and what that meant, came slamming straight back into me like a wave.”
Ambitions for the future
Alexandra is now working in sustainability within the sport and she is in the process of becoming head of sustainability for World sailing. Her ambitions continue to be at an all-time high.
“A focus for me is how do we use sport as that platform for change and for good as well as intrinsically changing the industry as a whole.”