Monday, 13 June 2016

I'm going to Rio!!!!!

It's official - Ive been selected and I'm going to Rio!
I recently received an email asking what being selected for Rio means to me.
I sat there numbly staring at that email as the words slowly began to sink in - "selected for Rio"...
It's the first time I've stopped and realised what a massive deal this actually is. It sounds odd but I've been so focused on taking each step at a time, on learning how to paddle while trying to compensate for my limitations. I've been so busy learning to be the best paddler that I can possibly be, that I haven't really had the chance to think what going to Rio would actually mean to me. 
Being the best that I can be - world champion!

In practical terms it means that I’m the fastest KL3 200m paracanoeist in Great Britain, and that come September I'm going to be representing my Country at the Rio Paralympics. This makes me incredibly proud and also hugely nervous –Yikes! I’m going to be performing on a global stage!

But reflecting further I realised that "being selected for Rio" means much, much more to me than that.

Four years ago I was prompted to aim for a bold, impossible, crazy and, let’s be realistic, unlikely dream. But knowing all that didn't put me off wanting to go for it. I had been in a bad place after my injury and wanted to pull myself out of that.  Volunteering at London 2012 had been a step in the right direction, but in going for that new dream of aiming for Rio I was looking to prove to myself that optimism wins; that a door forced closed didn't mean that all my doors were closed.

I chose to walk through a different door and aim for something completely new. Working at London 2012 and seeing incredible examples of human resilience had inspired me. So I decided, following a suggestion from a fellow Gamesmaker that I was going to learn how to paddle a boat and aim for Rio.
Working at london 2012 

I have gained so much more than Rio selection from this journey, (one that could have ended at any time because that is the fickle nature of elite sport), that even not making it or not being selected would have definitely made it worth going for. 

 What being selected means is that even the most unlikely dreams can happen if you can find and open the right door and have the right team around you.   

Being selected for Rio motivates me to work even harder. Come September I want to know that I've done everything possible to put me on the start line saying, "Yay, I'm here. I’ve done the work. Bring it on, I'm ready to race!!!" 

And whatever the outcome I hope that my selection – a 49 year-old working Mum competing on the biggest stage in the world – confirms to others watching that optimism and bold dreams will always power through the barriers we put up ourselves.

Race lake in Rio

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

I can now pronounce Quinoa!!!!

People might think that training within the GB paracanoe team produces nothing but the obvious performance gains… getting faster in a boat. And yes, I guess this is the main focus of all our training, but there have been other  surprising but none the less 'important' added benefits to my life since I starting kayaking .... 

Here’s my top 10:  

Friday, 22 April 2016

Curve balls and Tandems

3 - 2 - 1 GO!!.... No this wasn't the start of a race. It was Simon - the pilot - tying to coordinate with me - the stoker - as we pedalled off on our debut ride on a tandem bicycle.   This may seem like an odd thing to do in the middle of a training block in the run up to Rio, but I'll get onto that later... The bottom line was that I was in a forced break from training, and I had also been missing riding my bike -a lot.
A forced break from training-My coach and an empty boat...
We had headed up north to the Yorkshire Dales for a mini break, to visit a tandem shop that had been recommended to us.  In my mind we were just going to look, and maybe take a spin around the block, but before I knew what was happening a trial off-road tandem had been picked out for us and we found ourselves in the car park, wearing bike helmets, and receiving instructions on how change gear, how to dismount without Simon tipping me onto the floor, and (most importantly) how to get to a good café a couple of valleys over.  I was really curious to see how the two of us would get on. 
learning how to brake safely 

It's worth mentioning here that both of us have the ability to be quite headstrong and we have very, very different approaches to bike riding. Simon likes taking short cuts at speed, seemingly without caution (in a "who cares about broken ribs and a punctured lung" kind of way- see my Mongolia post.  I on the other hand am much more deliberate and I like to be in control, so this experiment where I couldn't even see where I was going was going to be 'interesting'. Potential arguments and accidents aside, I was really excited to think that we were going to be out cycling together on a crisp, sunny, spring morning through amazing scenery in the Yorkshire Dales, to a café for tea and cake!! It had been soooo long...

cycling and cake...
I won't say we were slick through all the gear changes, and some of the dismounts were simply hilarious, but amazingly we had no arguments and had an absolute blast. Admittedly there were some moments when I wished I had control of either the brakes or the steering, but these were fairly minor negatives compared to the absolute exhilaration I felt in being able to ride a bike at speed again without the worry of my weak leg letting me down. The very best bit was that anytime I needed a rest I just stopped putting in any effort and Simon (who is much stronger than me) just put down a bit more grunt.  The added bonus for him was that he had a great workout without having to wait for me to catch up. (couples who ride bikes will understand this). There were many other added bonuses besides, including the benefit for me of being able to take in all the views rather than just focusing on the trail and for him being 'entertained' by my constant chatter. Most importantly we made it to the cafe without getting lost because (according to Simon) I wasn't in charge of steering or navigation. So all in all a huge success and we can't wait to order our first tandem.
We made it to the cafe!!
But back to paddling and the road to Rio... As I mentioned earlier, this may seem a slightly odd thing to be doing in the final season before the Rio Paralympics, but things don't always go to plan.  One of the lessons I have learnt in life is that it's the curve balls which, although really tough to deal with at the time, can often give unexpectedly positive twists and turns to your journey. I'm not sure I ever feel as if I have genuinely achieved something or had  that massive adventure if everything has always followed the plan!!

I had picked up a virus, which hadn't seemed so bad, but it left me completely exhausted. Having seemingly shifted the virus the exhaustion remained and I wondered if I had turned into a hibernating bear.  I found myself falling asleep in the gaps between daytime training sessions, and yet I still needed 12 hours sleep every night. I slept so much that I thought the pillow creases in my face were going to become permanent! Initially I thought the exhaustion was a normal part of training so hard, and even getting in from training and  not making it past the first step in the hall didn't seem that odd to me. I would just sit down and fall asleep -right there - until my son would come home from school waking me up with the offer of a cup of tea.  
Bullishly carrying on...
My coaching team was getting worried.  My heart rate wasn't slowing down properly and my resting heart rate was up- a sign that my body wasn't recovering properly.  I couldn't even go through a gentle warm up without my heart rate shooting through the roof. Any normal person might have had a week in bed, but I didn't want that. Training makes you faster, right? So I bullishly carried on, pretending to everyone that I was OK, and deluding myself that everything was going to get better. The team doctor didn't share any of my optimism, and in a very blunt conversation said that if I carried on like this I wouldn't be able to train... at all... ever.  She banned me from all training and sent me home with instructions to rest and keep my heart rate below 120 at all times until my resting heart rate returned to normal. 
 I hit a bit of a low, but if there's something I've learnt along the way is that if you can't do one thing, don't be miserable, just do something else! So when Simon phoned me up on my second morning of 'house arrest' saying  "You know we have been talking about getting a tandem after Rio well how about we go and look for one??..."   Well my bag was already half packed!  
Waking up in the dales...

And this kind of explains how we found ourselves on a tandem in Yorkshire. It was an opportunity to get away from the stresses of being at home but not being able to train.  I could get some gentle cross training exercise in whilst keeping my heart rate well below the designated 120 (so me not peddling hard was actually Dr's orders, not just me being lazy).  But most importantly it gave me the opportunity to change my focus and to see opportunities beyond Rio - an exciting opportunity to get back into riding bikes together, which is something we haven't even been able to imagine since my injury. Having proved tandem riding was possible and fun, I allowed myself to dream about all the incredible adventures we could have and the places I could see from the back of a tandem. This change of focus made being forced not to train much less stressful and almost certainly lifted my mood which then no doubt helped me to recover quicker.
Some cross training.
Returning back to the "now" I am happy to report that I am back in training, which feels amazing. OK my lungs are now hanging inside out, my muscles feel about 2" short for my body and I still have a way to go to get back up to full strength. But the good news is that my heart rate is back to normal and I can easily stay awake until a grown-up's bed time! 
Back to Training!! whoop!

It scares me quite a lot that that I'm going to the World Championships in 4 weeks, when I'm not convinced I will be anything close to race ready. But race ready or not, it will give me a great opportunity to practise all my racing processes, otherwise GB Rio selection (two weeks later) would be my first race of the season, which would be less than ideal.

This last three and a half years have not been easy, with some really big curve balls, but I'm definitely having an adventure, and definitely getting the opportunity to practise my resilience skills at the same time, which is never a bad thing!

 Beautiful Dorney lake on a winters morning
So my favourite coaching quotes, which have helped keep me motivated despite knowing I was falling behind, have been:

"If you cant paddle fast you may as well paddle perfectly slow"... Hours and hours of slow paddling could have been frustrating, but we have used the time as an opportunity to work on some technical areas I have been struggling with.  I'll say it again, kayaking is the most technically difficult sport I've ever been involved with.

"Don't look at how far you have to go, just see how far you have come"... Each session we would look for improvements from the week before, not just stress about where I might have been if I had not been ill so keeping my perspective positive.

I also feel very lucky because I've been given something to get excited about beyond Rio. I have found that there is a way for me to safely ride a bike at speed without fear of damaging myself despite my wobbly leg. 
Happiness is....
 I know the World Championships are fast approaching, and Rio is just around the corner, but the question that I find myself thinking about in idle moments is not, "I wonder how I will get on", but, "Which tandem do we want and where shall we go first?"

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Adventure Awaits...

There's nothing like a New Year to focus the mind. It's a time for reflection and goal setting. So what happened in 2015 and what’s my goal for 2016?  …. Is anything important happening this year ;-) ?

So it’s New Year's Eve and Simon has surprised me yet again with a random final memory for 2015 – Viva Blackpool (How did I find a man as random as I am?)!  And randomly, who would have thought that the printed pillow in our B&B room would predict my 2016 goals so accurately?

profound and random pillow
Looking back, 2015 will be immortalised for me for two reasons - the year I qualified a place for my country at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and the year Simon and I got engaged. Hooray and Whoop!  Planning a wedding alongside training for Rio has proven to be my worst nightmare, so no wedding plans as yet, but it does give me something exciting to plan post Rio - watch this space!

Getting engaged on the beach in South Africa.

In fact qualifying a place at Rio was my only written goal at the beginning of 2015.  On the face of it this sounded like a reasonably modest goal. Modest because I was the current World Champion and world record holder, and all I needed was a top 6 placing at the world championships 2015 in order to qualify that boat for team GB.  But there is never any room for complacency, and this 'simple' goal very nearly didn’t happen.  I end the year as world silver medallist, and reflecting back I see this as a positive because I have learnt far more this year from my obstacles, challenges and failures than I did the previous year when I won gold.
Silver at the worlds and a whole lot of learning!
The first obstacle was the changes to the paracanoe classification system.  I have already written about this, (link) but it was easily possible that due to these changes I would no longer have classified as a para athlete. As it turned out I still do, but I had faced the real threat that my journey to Rio would come to an abrupt end. What I learned from this was how much I wanted to carry on. The commitment required to this journey is considerable and puts a real strain on me and my family, but I really love training and finding out what my body can do and what extraordinary levels I can achieve.  I realised that I love this adventure and it ending through being declassified, rather than because I had reached my potential or through injury, wasn’t the ending I wanted.  Sadly my squad lost 40% of its paddlers through the changes, which was truly horrible, and I feel for each and every one of them. The only positive I take from this time is that it taught me to appreciate and make the most of every single day of my journey.  It's very easy to see the negatives or to moan about life but I now choose to look for, see and savour all the fun things about my training, because who knows when it will end?  I want my memory of this journey, and of this adventure, to be full of the happy memories, rather than anything negative.

Some of the reasons I love paddling
Friendships, catching the sunrise and giving back.
2015 was also the year that my motion sickness got the better of me. I had tried to ignore it and paddle through it, because I and everybody else was convinced it was just mind over matter. However it became obvious through the year that I couldn't override the symptoms and it was affecting my performance. It came to a head at the World Championships in Milan with its strange bumpy water where I almost couldn't paddle.  Luckily I still managed to qualify a place for Rio and because I always try to see the positives I appreciated the experience of loosing this race.  Admittedly my ego took a bit of a bashing but It made me realise that I had to do something about my motion sickness prior to Rio, which being on a lagoon next to the sea is renowned for its wavy water.

The water isn't always flat in kayaking
For those who have never had serious motion sickness, it's horrendous. Imagine trying to stay upright in a wobbly boat whilst feeling like you have the worst hang over ever.  All your body wants to do is to keep absolutely still and sleep it off quietly, preferably with your face on a cold hard floor.  Apparently this isn’t the way to win races, so “operation sort motion sickness” became a priority.

There are two obvious treatments for motion sickness: Avoid being on the water or take medication. As neither of these are acceptable in my elite sport I ended up seeking out a variety of specialists, undergo all sorts of testing, and pulling together a treatment program that is actually re-programming my brain. 
It turns out I have a vestibular disorder (and I thought it was normal to see the world how I see it but apparently not!) This isn’t common at elite level (nobody else with it would be silly enough to take up a water based sport let alone continue with it!?!) So I have had a steep learning curve in pulling together advice from the experts in order lead my own treatment.

Getting my vestibular system tested

Part of this treatment program is a type of acclimatisation therapy, which has been both amazing in its results and horrific to undertake. The progressive exercises I have been prescribed have kept me in varying degrees of nausea since about October, but the progress I have made in coping with motion sickness has been remarkable. Not only has my motion sickness in my boat eased considerably, but yet again my journey has given me wider benefits. For the first time in my life I can now look at stripy shirts, go down escalators, go to loud concerts, watch 3D movies and be a passenger in a car without feeling ill. Apparently my driving has also improved, but we won’t go into that. ;-)

So back to Blackpool and New Year’s Eve.  I sit here looking at the printed pillow in our B&B feeling a sense of excitement for 2016. The pillow says, “Adventure Awaits”, and this is coincidently exactly my goal for 2016 - to continue to see and appreciate the adventure in everything I do - to turn the lessons from the challenges of 2015 into real positives.

2016 is going to be an incredible adventure for me. Wish me luck, but better still, reflect on your 2015, take your positives and plan your own epic adventure!

Seize the day and Enjoy your adventure!