When I was asked the question what does the Paralympics mean to me, it got me thinking about the incredible experiences I have had across all three Paralympic Games I have attended (once in the development squad – Beijing 2008 and the two which I competed in – London 2012 and Rio 2016) It’s the biggest stage we ever compete on as Disabled athletes and it provided an experience and atmosphere that no other competition in any sport can ever replicate.
When I had the opportunity to attend the Beijing Paralympic games in 2008 I’ll never forget the feeling of being in the crowds, the atmosphere was electric, but in truth, all I felt was a burning desire to be competing rather than watching. It was going there which spurred me on to work really hard to qualify for the next one in London four years later.
Qualifying for the Paralympics in London brought about the biggest challenge in my career that I’d ever faced. You have to be ranked inside the top 22 in the world to qualify for the women’s wheelchair tennis event and after that, you need to be selected too. I knew I had a big challenge in my hands, and actually, my year went really well in terms of gathering points towards my ranking, until my final event before the end of qualifying where I dropped to 23 in the world (due to others gaining points around me). I had worked out before my final event where I could gain points, the Israel open that I needed to win to qualify. I’d never won a tournament of that level at that point nor had a beaten two of the players who were also fighting for a spot to qualify. I know I’ve given the game away already but by winning that tournament and qualifying that way showed me that I have the mental strength to achieve anything I put my mind to, but it was a very stressful way to qualify for my first games with it being such a close call,
The feeling of coming into the stadium for the opening ceremony is one I’ll never forget, and that was the moment in my career where I had the ‘I made it’ feeling. It was a goal I had set my sights on for so many years and I’d finally got there after a lot of years of hard work, tears and also amazing moments along the way.
The final games I competed in was the last one in Rio. This Paralympics was a different feeling altogether and for so many reasons. I was in a much better position in terms of performance as I ranked inside the top ten in the world, plus I had gained the experience of very few athletes having competed at a home games. It was pretty incredible all things sports-wise but the real gold and take away for me was the fact that if it wasn’t for these Paralympic games I would never have met the love of my life and fiancé Chris. What more could you ask to find in your sporting career than that.
Sport has brought me some of the most amazing friendships and experiences I could ever wish for and that is something I’ll always be so grateful as I feel it’s really helped shape my perspective and educate me.
So back to the original question, what do the Paralympics mean to me? They have brought me friendships to last a lifetime, confidence, self-acceptance of my disability and the love of my life, and because of all those things, the hard work to get there makes it even more worthwhile. Sure the trophies and titles are great but the things I mentioned first are the things that help you grow and have a lasting impact. Those things are just what the Paralympics have brought me as an athlete.
I announced my retirement this year and since then, I’ve been asked to do many other roles around my sport which I never even dreamed of doing. This time around I will be commentating on wheelchair tennis during Tokyo 2020, so I think it’s about to give me a whole lot of new experiences and memories even as a former player. Of course, I’ll also be Chris’s number one cheerleader too.
If you’ve enjoyed Louise’s story, and haven’t caught up with the rest of our Paralympic stories you can view them all here.