Achieving Paralympic Success following a Life-changing Injury

Achieving Paralympic success following a life-changing injury

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Achieving Paralympic Success following a Life-changing Injury

This episode of Our Voices shares the survivor story of Alexandra, a woman who suffered a life-changing injury as a teenager and went on to become an award-winning Paralympian. Her story shows her ability not only to adjust to the circumstances of her disability, but to find a way to prosper.

Childhood memories of Jamaica

Alexandra grew up able-bodied and spent much of her childhood in Jamaica. Describing her impressions of the island, she says “The colours are very vivid, the blue of the sea versus the gold of the sun, and the green of the fields and then also the diverse mix of people on the island and the skin colours.”

A life-changing injury


In the summer of 1995, when Alexandra was 13 years old, she suffered a life-changing injury following a diving accident. She and her family and friends had decided to go to the ocean for a swim.

 “It was a really bright, sunny Sunday morning and we got to the beach and my sister and my two friends slowly walked into the water. And I, in typical fashion, instead of walking like everybody else, decided to run.”

Alexandra was extremely familiar with the beach as she had visited it since she was young. So familiar in fact that she knew exactly when there would be drop-off. She would do a little dive as soon as she reached that point. 

However, this year there had been a number of hurricanes and this had affected the depth of the water near the shore. “I basically ran into the water and dived. And the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and I was looking at the sea floor… I tried to move, I couldn’t, I tried again to move, I couldn’t. And at that point in time, I knew what had happened.”

Unable to move after that diving accident

Despite undergoing what would have been a terrifying experience for most people, Alexandra did not panic. She drew strength from her mother’s approach to adversity.

 “My mum is a problem solver, so the minute anything goes wrong, she just goes into how do we fix it mode. And I definitely have that quality of hers.” 

So Alexandra just held her breath and waited for someone to come and assist her. Eventually her sister arrived and flipped her over. Alexandra looked at her and told her she was paralysed.

Fortunately, a nurse was present on the beach that day. So the family got Alexandra onto a boogie board and the nurse began asking her questions. Alexandra describes not being able to move any part of her body from her shoulders down. “I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t feel anything.”

An agonising rehabilitation

Three days later, Alexandra was air-lifted to Miami where she would have a series of operations. “The first time they sit you up is incredibly painful. Your body just is in complete shock because I’d been lying on my back for a week or 10 days, and it’s amazing how your body just degrades so quickly. You atrophy, everything seizes up.”

Eventually, the nature of her life-changing injury was confirmed. She was diagnosed with tetraplegia, which is paralysis in all four limbs. She would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

At the age of 13, this must have been devastating news to hear and yet she  was somehow able to quickly focus on her life after paralysis.

 “I kind of went into emergency problem solving mode of, okay, what’s the next step? How do we deal with the next thing? Rather than: let’s dwell on the situation because it’s out of my control.”

Adjusting to life after spinal cord injury


Adjusting to life after her spinal cord injury proved to be difficult. Alexandra spent months in hospital followed by a complicated process of rehabilitation. She had been able to regain some hand function which meant that she could feed herself. But gripping objects proved to be extremely difficult. 

“I used to drive the OT mental because I used to have grapes for breakfast and then chase a grape around the bowl for about three quarters of an hour and she’d be like “Please give up.” And I wouldn’t.”

Life after paralysis


Alexandra quickly went on to build a life beyond her injury. Before her life-changing injury, she had always had a love of sports. This would not change and, as part of her recreational therapy, she went sailing. “I really enjoyed it, because it was a very different sport. It was nice to be out on the water, it was nice to be out of your chair, just in different surroundings.” 

A unique opportunity

Initially she had no intentions of pursuing sailing beyond anything but a hobby. However, her life-changing injury coupled with her interest in sailing meant that Alexandra found herself being contacted by the Back Up Trust, a UK charity that supports people with spinal cord injuries. 

They were looking for a helm to train up. The helm needed to be a 1.0, which is the most severely disabled in the Paralympic classifications. The helm also needed to be female. Alexandra found that she was ticking all of the boxes and so she accepted the opportunity.

Becoming an award-winning Paralympian


A year later, in 2007, Alexandra had the chance to team up with Niki Birrell, an Olympic class sailor who has cerebral palsy. Together they went on to compete in 3 Olympic Games in Beijing, London and Rio. Alongside Niki, Alexandra became an award-winning Paralympian as they both became world number one for six years and won a Paralympic Bronze medal as well as 5 consecutive world titles.

A hero’s reception

Alexandra speaks particularly fondly about her experiences after becoming an award-winning Paralympian at the London Olympic Games. She noticed that for these games there had been a real shift in the Paralympics in terms of coverage and appreciation.

 “You have this double decker bus parade going through London, every bus has a different sport on board. A million people turn out across London – all you could see were people on either side of the buses. You’re there with all your teammates , people are screaming, crying. It’s literally something I will never again experience in my life.”

Continued barriers

Alexandra saw that more still needs to be done despite experiencing such euphoria to create a more equal world for disabled people outside of the Olympics. When she went to enter an underground club in central London to celebrate after her performance, they told her that she couldn’t go in due to the lack of provision for wheelchair users.

 “The earth just came fully crashing back… because of this egalitarian, beautiful kind of Olympic bubble that we’d all been existing in, suddenly the realities of being disabled again, and what that meant, came slamming straight back into me like a wave.”

Ambitions for the future

Alexandra is now working in sustainability within the sport and she is in the process of becoming head of sustainability for World sailing. Her ambitions continue to be at an all-time high.

 “A focus for me is how do we use sport as that platform for change and for good as well as intrinsically changing the industry as a whole.”

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Laura is the mix engineer for the Our Voices podcast. She has a BA in Music from Nottingham University and an Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering from Abbey Road Institute. Alongside working for Our Voices she is a freelance sound designer and technician. Her highlights include sound design for JK Rowling audiobook ‘The Christmas Pig’, and sound effects editing on The Outlaws, on the BBC.

For the Our Voices podcast, Laura is typically provided with a Voice Over and interview. She then cleans the dialogue, integrates the podcast intro and outros, chooses the music that will add to the storytelling and pacing of the episode, then bring all the elements together in the mix, followed by mastering and then delivering the final edit.

 

Experience in Industry: 3

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I’m the community manager at Our Voices. I spend most of my time focusing on the implementation of our marketing strategy, achieving goals and KPIs, and the rest of the time listening to the amazing stories of our guests from all around the world. What I love most about working for Our Voices is the impact it has on peoples’ lives. It requires a lot of courage to tell your story out loud so I make sure these stories are heard by as many people as possible.

 

I was born and raised in Pakistan and I’ve been living in Hungary for over two years now. I have a Master’s degree in Marketing and I live for mastering the art of digital marketing.

 

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Favourite Show: Stranger Things – I love how an odd group of friends fight against challenges bigger than themselves.

Favourite Movie: Harry Potter – The only movie I can watch over and over again!

Favourite City: Prague – Absolutely love the Baroque and Gothic vibe of this city.

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I run Fascinate Productions, the production company behind the Our Voices podcast. I’ve had a wide variety of roles in media, from underwater videography, to live televised sporting events around the world. But since listening to my first audiobook in 2016, I’ve been all about audio and jumped in with two feet. Podcasts are enabling the world to democratise its most valuable information. They’re about spreading messages, and sharing ideas, and it’s my mission to help those holding the knowledge, to distribute it far and wide.

When Alex approached us with the idea of making a short stories podcast, with a big social impact, he got our attention. As the producer of the show, I’ve heard his guests’ highest highs, their lowest lows, and the moments of change that made them who they are – it’s been a privilege helping to craft their most intimate experiences into stories for you to enjoy.

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Richard Willan is the CEO of Fascinate productions, a podcast production and promotion company. Before starting Fascinate, he worked an audio engineer, mastering tracks for artists on major and independent labels.

He is an executive producer for ‘Our Voices’ where he assists with production, creative direction of the show, and marketing strategy.  

 

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Favourite Show: Succession – an American satirical drama. The character development is incredible, and the writing is top notch. 

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Favourite City: London, because it is a melting pot of culture and the music scene is amazing. 

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I am responsible for writing blog articles for the Our Voices podcast. I have the privilege of listening to fascinating stories on the topics and issues that are of greatest relevance to our society today. Once I’ve done this, I create articles that provide an overview and description of the conversations in order to help spread them to the widest possible audience. My job is to make these articles as engaging as the conversations themselves.

As an English teacher who has worked with students from all over the world for over 10 years, I have got used to successfully communicating with those from different backgrounds and cultures. This has helped me to appreciate the value of connection across borders and boundaries. It has also helped me to appreciate that we are all able to learn from each other’s experiences.

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Favourite Movie: Victoria is an incredible German thriller that’s all shot in one take – it’s a real trip. Plus it’s beautifully soundtracked by Nils Frahm.

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I am the host of Our Voices. I help to find the guests that have a powerful voice to share and then I speak to them and help to tease the stories out of them that will have a positive impact on the listener. 

While running Swoosh English, an online English school from 2013 – 2021, I had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and many of these people had incredible stories. This inspired me to start ‘Our Voices’ because I wanted to give these people a platform to share these stories with the world.

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Favourite Book: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts – a book about an incredible journey.