I’m a Paralympian!

Leigh is 43 years old and a dual citizen (US/UK). Having been born with club feet, which were rectified with a Dennis Browne bar, she was involved in a cycling accident in 1980 which caused a severe comminuted ankle fracture and meant having surgery to fuse bones and repair muscle, ligament and tendon damage.

Leigh WalmsleyAt the age of 30, in 1999, she was diagnosed with RA with inflammation in her hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees, ankles and feet and takes sulfasalazine and methotrexate to control the disease. She took up archery in 2006, and after a succession of illnesses and injuries took part in her first full season in 2008.

This is the story of her paralympic journey…

“If you had asked me a year ago if I would be competing in the Paraylmpics, the answer would have been "I hope so, but I doubt it". Fast forward a year and I'm now a Paralympian. Even thinking about it takes my breath away.

My first steps on the Paralympic path started back in 2009, but the Games were not on my mind then. I simply wanted to find my way in to the national para-archery squad. I attended a TID, classified, but nothing further happened, so just continued my archery. I applied to the UK Sport Talent 2012 programme for para-archery, and made my way through several tryouts and on to the programme which meant training camps every two weeks for six months. Sadly, although the only woman on the programme, I wasn't brought in to squad, but continued with my archery. In June 2011, I attended the BWAA IUnternational and not only qualified third, but won the bronze medal as a British independent against international archers. THEN I got noticed and was invited to represent GB in the Czech Republic where I won a tea gold, and was brought in to the squad in September 2011.

A lot changed. I started using a stool in February 2012 to help my balance. I changed arrows. I changed my technique. It seemed to help as I finished second in both selection shoots and was chosen for the team. After that, it was head down time. Between May and August was a whirlwind – lots of practice, competitions, meetings, launches, interviews. Wonderful and frightening.

All the competitions, meetings and advice in the world cannot prepare you for the Paralympics. The holding camp at Bath University was a good preparation buffer, but when the bus pulled into the Paralympic village, you knew it was something special and we were treated as stars from start to finish. Just about everything was geared towards the athletes and making our Paralympic stay amazing. The Gamesmakers, volunteers and staff were fantastic and couldn't do enough for us. The Village was the way the world should be – everyone happy, saying hello, everything clean and efficiently run.

Beyond the niceties was the reason for being there – the archery. Considering this was my first major international competition, I was pleased with my individual performance. As archers, we don't shoot in front of crowds, so we had two choices – soak it all in or be terrified. Having only two days before been part of the Opening Ceremony, feeling like rock stars at a sell out concert, shooting 70m in front of family and friends seemed relaxing. My adrenalin was pumping, despite feeling externally calm, but I took strength from family and friends cheering me on, and won my first match. It was like going on an exhilarating ride that you couldn't wait to go on again, and luckily I got to go on it again. Unfortunately, my next opponent who went on to win bronze, took me out. If I had to lose to someone, it would be her, as she is a fantastic archer and a sweetheart. After she won her medal, we shared a long hug and some tears. Her coach, who speaks only a little English said it was a victory for Europe. Judging by the strength of her hug, it certainly felt that way.

Following the Games, we had the amazing experience of the Closing Ceremony and even more exhilarating and emotional, the Athletes Parade. The outpouring from the public was amazing and had me smiling and in tears throughout the entire day. I had never felt more special or admired and certainly wished everyone who made my Games so wonderful had been up on the float with me.

Leigh Archery ShotOnce we packed up our kit, loaded the buses and returned to our homes, it wasn't long before normality returned despite trying to ride the Paralympic wave as long as possible. Sadly for some of us, the wave came crashing down only weeks after the Games ended. This is the side of sport many people don't see, but nevertheless is part of elite sport. While there are always changes after a Games, we did not expect the damage to be so severe. Just over half of our squad were let go, many of them past and present Paralympians. The good thing about archery is that we are all members of archery clubs and we can still be competitive in the sport. The hope is that by being competitive, we can keep our dreams for Rio 2016 alive.”

Leigh says ‘I have a great rheumatology team that looks after me very well. In January I started shooting from a stool, which has helped my balance. I can do more shooting if I do little and often, warm up and stretch. Most importantly I listen to my body. There is no point in trying to shoot when I’m having a flare or aching, as I won’t shoot to my best and it will not only hurt but get me down. It’s quality rather than quantity. As archery is a mental game, I can visualise or work on my own psychology if I’m not able to shoot.

Having RA also means adapting certain aspects of my archery, like using a stool, wearing supportive shoes and orthotics, wrist supports etc, as well as technique such as hand position and anchor. Paralympic archery is virtually the same as Olympic, what adapts is the archer, not the support.’ 

 Winter 2012: By Leigh Walmsley