Sunday, 8 March 2015

Being a disabled gymnast

*Disclaimer- this is how MY disability effects MY gymnastics and in no way represents any other disability gymnast. I have a doctors permission to do gymnastics and I am not putting myself at any extra risk*

Gymnastics is a tough sport for anyone, but add in the fact your allergic to exercise and it's a whole new experience!

Allergic to exercise. Sounds like a joke right? Something you might say to get out of that dreaded school cross country run or a trip to your local swimming pool.

But this is my reality; and I am an elite gymnast.

I do disability gymnastics, the amazing side of gymnastics that not enough people see.

I do beam, bars, floor and vault, just like any mainstream gymnast.
I do conditioning, I get bruises and bumps and rips, just like any mainstream gymnast.

But I'm not a mainstream gymnast, I am a disability gymnast, and this is why:

So as I briefly mentioned before, I am allergic to exercise.

I don't mean a little rash or anything like that, I'm talking airway swelling, collapsing and difficulty in breathing- anaphylaxis.

The tough thing for me is that one day I could managed a 4 hour training session with minimum issue and another day 1 run around the gym floor can trigger a full blown anaphylactic reaction.

Let me talk you through how I do gymnastics, and how it differs from mainstream.

Warm up:

I run to warm up, like most gymnasts, and when I run I make sure I don't breathe too fast or too slowly in order to maintain a healthy breathing rate and keep my oxygen levels up. I know how far I can run each day, some day's I can do 20 laps of the floor, other only 3 or 4, but it's a vital part to get my body up and running ready for the training session. As I start running everything feels normal, but as I run I soon start to loose the feeling in my toes and fingers and that will slowly spread up to my knees and elbows, occasionally past. By the end of the run the feeling will have gone so I can't feel when I'm touching the floor with my feet, I can only feel the physical motion of my weight shifting. There is normally no pins or needles, it's complete numbness, like my legs and arms aren't there, yet I still have perfect control of them. My limbs will feel cold and can go a purplish tint with whiteness around my joints.

 Picture from dismounting on bars at British Championships


Beam is the piece of equipment I find most difficult. When I stand on it I can't feel where my feet are placed. This scares me most connecting jumps, for example I take off and land back on the beam before pushing off again to the connecting jump and I have NO idea if my feet hit the beam correctly before pushing off again, so it leads to some rather interesting attempts. Acro's are a bit crazy's too, I competed a backwalkover at British Champs and training that skill before hand wasn't always pretty. When I go back and place my hands down, I can't actually feel my hands touching the beam so it isn't always easy to know where I am or if I am in line, it's literally just repetition and pure luck if I stick it. It's perfectly safe, I just get frustrated when I fall off.


I love bars, and I would love to try some more difficult skills, but the inability to feel my hands presents a slight challenge. A good example of this is when I jump to catch the high bar, I can't actually feel my hands catching the bar, I have to wait until the downwards pull to know if I'm actually holding the bar or not, if not I'll flip off and land on my back. Also if my hand guards move about during the routine, I have no idea until it makes me slip off.

Fainting is also included in my bar routine. I faint when I stand still for a long time, for example at awards during competitions. However bar's is fast pace for me, not only making it difficult for me to breathe sufficantly during the routine but when I complete a full routine and land my dismount, all the blood is still rushing to my muscles and not to my head so I have between 3-10 seconds to present and lie down to prevent myself fainting. It can be a little embarrassing because people see my land fine on my feet, and then just lie down in the same spot because unless I actually faint, people think I'm just a bit strange. I'm not just being lazy, honest!


Vault is probably the easiest piece for me to compete. I get tired doing repetitions in the gym, but at competitions it's over quickly and I just have to focus on where I put my feet. Due to the inability to feel my feet I do a bit of a strange run to try and get my pacing right, and I can't feel where I hit the springboard or how much power I have behind myself, so I either pike up my vaults or fly over it, it's extremely difficult to find the middle ground.

Let me tell you about landing. Once I push off that vault I have absolutely no idea where I am, and where as most gymnasts would feel their feet hit the floor, I don't, I feel the force just after I have hit the floor so there is a slight delay in my reaction to 'oh look the floor is back let's try and stick this'.
I have only ever stuck one vault that I can recall, and that was at British Champs, my face was priceless.


I love floor, it is my favourite piece of apparatus. I love to dance, show my personality and tumble.
My lungs don't love floor quite so much! I work off a lung and a half after complications from a respiratory arrest last year, so I try to breathe as much as I can in between skills while I flap my arms around in an attempt to be artistic. It's been known the past that I just stop mid routine and have to walk off either because my throat starts swelling or I just can't get enough air into my lungs to continue. This is a rare occasion as I'm usually good at knowing if I will make it through my full routine or not.

A big part of your floor routine is tumbling, and I do enjoy flipping across the floor. The only issue I have is that as I come out of a round off into a flick I can't feel my feet to know the angle I'm taking off at, this makes me reluctant to put a lot of power behind my tumbles or connect skills. I'd rather do a round off tuck than a round off, back handspring into a back tuck because there's an extra hand and foot placement to worry about. I manage leaps reasonably okay when I have the energy and I work spins purely of sight because I can't feet how my foot is spinning or the angle I am at.

With my disability, you can't see it. It's invisible. Unless I've collapsed on the floor or fighting for breath, I look like any other gymnast. So next time you see a disabled gymnast; keep an open mind, we are overcoming obstacles you don't even know exist.



  1. You are such a tremendous role model!! Your determination to do what you love despite chronic illness is flat out incredible. Thank you so much for sharing your story!! Reading it definitely invoked a sense of hope within me that I can return to Irish dance someday despite CRPS, MCAS, EDS, and dystonia keeping my life 'interesting' lol. As they say, "Keep on, keepin' on!"

  2. How incredible that you are still doing it. Way to go! Sorry that you're limited. Another Irish dancer here.

  3. You inspire me so much! Thank you for this great post giving us a glimpse into what your everyday experience is like. Gymnastics is hard enough to begin with, I cannot imagine trying to do it with a condition like this. If you ever feel down remember that there are countless people all around the world whom you have inspired that you will never even know about!

  4. Wow.. You are a truly inspirational athlete and a figure head for disability gymnastics. As a coach, it is hard to explain to my young disability gymnasts that the word 'disability' does not mean wheelchairs and limb loss, but instead opens the doors to new experiences within the sport. Thank you for helping me do this. Best of luck with whatever your future holds. xx