The Para Vaulter: Welcome to the world of para vaulting!

Hi! My name’s Lizzie and I’m a para vaulter. Since many people haven’t heard of my illness or my sport, I spend a lot of time explaining!

Me riding a horse called Gem at my local riding school, c.1998. We won a red rosette in the gymkhana!

Me riding a horse called Gem at my local riding school, c.1998. We won a red rosette in the gymkhana!

Explaining the ‘para’ part is tricky, since most doctors I've met struggle to explain quite what goes on inside me.

I have a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or EDS, which affects pretty much every part of my body.

My GP is basically a PA who helps me to manage my appointments with around twenty hospital departments, all because my collagen is faulty.

EDS is progressive, which means that I wasn’t too badly affected as a child, but will become worse as I get older.

It affects everyone differently, but my major symptoms relate to mobility (I'm a wheelchair user) and cardiac and gastric health.

I take an exciting array of medication that's so complex my mum has a separate calendar just to keep track of when my various prescriptions need to be ordered!

By and large, these pills keep me functioning, so although it’s a pain, I’m lucky to have them.

EDS means that I'm pathologically clumsy. I have very limited co-ordination and proprioception (awareness of body positioning), which, combined with funky neurological symptoms and weak joints that are prone to dislocation, means that I fall over a lot.

Sometimes it just causes some impressive bruising; other times it breaks bones even in a minor incident. Having limited sensation is a blessing in these circumstances (I have an amazing pain tolerance!), but it isn’t always so great for my body in the long term.

My personal best (or worst) for this was probably when I broke my back in several places at the age of 13, and we didn’t even find out for six months. The doctors were horrified!

Getting back in the saddle

My back injury has caused permanent pain and damage. At the time, my main resentment was that it stopped me from doing my favourite thing - riding.

Jumping with RDA horse, Rolo, at the College of West Anglia, Cambridge in March 2017. Rolo is a 14.2hh cob who's getting on in years but is enormous fun to ride.

Jumping with RDA horse, Rolo, at the College of West Anglia, Cambridge in March 2017. Rolo is a 14.2hh cob who's getting on in years but is enormous fun to ride.

I couldn’t even lead or groom a horse, let alone tack up and ride. Over several years I tried repeatedly to get back into riding, but each attempt ended in months of agonising pain.

I’d almost given up on the idea, but a chance encounter at a para-rowing event led to me contacting my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) group and going along for a trial.

This is the bit where my life changed!

The RDA took things slowly. Early sessions were very restrained, and I was surprised but delighted when my body appeared to cope with it.

The RDA helped me to adapt to the changes in my body: I have special reins for one-handed use (my left arm is very weak) and toecap stirrups since I can’t feel my feet or control them properly.

I have limited use of my legs, so I’ve learnt how to use my body more. I ride better than I ever did before even though I’m much more broken!

That was two and a half years ago and I haven’t looked back. I do lots of dressage and jumping, but vaulting is my calling!

It’s best described as a combination of gymnastics and dance on horseback and, when it was initially offered to the RDA, I was sceptical. It was something I’d always wanted to try, but I couldn’t see how it would work - a wheelchair user doing vaulting, really?!

How things have changed

That was just over a year ago and in the last year I have accomplished more than I ever thought possible.

I started out thinking that there was so much I couldn’t do, but I’ve learned to be creative and to approach my physical impairments with a, “what if we tried…?” attitude that seems to have paid off!

Some of our vaulting group who helped get me up on board Boris - it's a team effort just to get me on the horse!

Some of our vaulting group who helped get me up on board Boris - it's a team effort just to get me on the horse!

In 2016 I mastered feats I’d thought impossible, and won the RDA National Championships, the English Vaulting Championships and the British Vaulting Championships.

Involvement in the sport came at a time when ill health meant I’d abandoned a PhD, and, despite finding part-time work, I felt like a failure.

Vaulting gave me a different focus; a positive one where the harder you work, the more you benefit.

It demands extreme strength and flexibility combined with creativity and artistry. The discipline required helps me enormously, and has taught me the power of the word ‘yet’: there’s a huge difference between, “I can’t do that”, and, “I can’t do that yet.”

It’s a crazy world and it can seem incomprehensible from the outside. My aim, therefore, is to demystify what goes on in a vaulting competition and in training sessions, whilst also (of course!) spreading the word about para vaulting, and the motto of the RDA: it’s what you CAN do that counts!

Keep up with Lizzie on Twitter: @TheParaVaulter