Life as a disability gymnast

Life as a disability gymnast

There are 11.5 million disabled people in the UK, that’s 1 in 5 of us, but British Gymnastics estimates that only 4% of their members are disabled. What’s more according to the Activity Alliance, 7 in 10 disabled people want to take part in more sport and physical activity. So what’s life like as a disability gymnast? We spoke with 13 year old SSB Ambassador, Maddie Davies, who participates in competitive artistic and trampoline gymnastics, who’s told us her disability story.

Tell us about your disability?

I have a range of disabilities both physical and mental. I have learning disabilities and special educational needs and I’m on the autistic spectrum, I also have Microcephaly, which means as a baby my head didn’t fully develop. I don't really like change and struggle expressing how I am feeling which causes me to become frustrated. 

What does that mean for you in terms of your gymnastics?

When competing I have to know everything before-hand. Where is the competition taking place? Where am I staying? What’s the venue like (pictures really help)? How long does it take to get there?

My coach Rachel always tries to give me as much information in advance as possible – what the routine is, what the trampoline will be like and the order of apparatus. Often at competitions I can panic and my mind starts racing so my coach has to pull me to one side away from distraction so I can focus on what she is saying about my routine.

Physically I have joint hypermobility, collapsed arches and my feet turn in which has an impact on the aligning of my legs causing problems and pain to my knees and hips. I am very clumsy and have issues with co-ordination so it takes me longer to grasp a routine and where I need to be. After a training session I'm sometimes I ache more than others would. 

I am very prone to injury because if I’m distracted mid skill and hurt myself, I may not realise and make it worse.  I’ve been to A&E twice for a foot injury and then an arm injury in gym and I also discovered an old fracture that we never knew of. 

When did you first realise you had a disability? 

When I was 2 months old I was rushed into hospital because I would regularly stop breathing and needed to be placed on oxygen in the high dependency unit. When I was allowed home I had a sleep apnoea monitor which would alert my parents if I stopped breathing. It wasn't until I was about one years old and showing signs of developmental delay that I was referred to a consultant. They then discovered I had a high chance of learning difficulties and as I got older. Soon I started to show autistic traits and many of my family members believe it was caused by the lack of oxygen to my brain as a baby but we haven’t ever been able to prove this.  

Talk us through a normal training session 

At my gym I am the only disability gymnast so my coach has a few other girls in my group who are mainstream. I usually train and work alongside them. It’s a small group so my coach can keep an eye on me and can often see a potential distraction or something that could cause me to react before it even happens. When I arrive at gym my coach is waiting for me and then gives me the prompts I need to get ready. I warm up, and practise my skills in the same as my group unless I have a competition coming up, then I would then be working on routines.

How are you feeling about training at home? 

 At the beginning it was really hard for me and I did struggle a lot due to the massive change and although I’m still not happy about it I'm getting used to it. I hate the lack of room and not being able to work on the bigger skills. 

How often do you train? 

Before lockdown I would train Wednesday and Fridays in artistic and Thursday in trampoline. I used to train Monday through to Friday but my hours were then reduced. I also train at home a lot as I have a lot of the equipment at home too. 

Who do you look up too and aspire to be like? 

I look up to my sister so much. We argue and fight a lot but she is my best friend. She is intelligent, smart, pretty and a talented gymnast, I love her so much!! ️ 

I aspire to be just like gymnast, Natasha Coates. I've always looked up to her and she is such an inspiration to gymnasts like me, I hope I can be as good and as brave as she is when I'm older. 

I remember the first time I realised I was going to be in the same room as her and that was the night before my first ever disability artistic British championship, we we're in the hotel room getting ready for bed when I saw on her social media that she had arrived in Lilleshall ready for the competition. I couldn't believe I was actually going to see her in real life and get to see her compete too!  I saw her a few more times at the same competition but never got to meet her. The last competition I attended she was too poorly to compete but still turned up with her sensory dog to watch and support everyone else. I thought that was just amazing!

What are your goals for this year? 

My goals for this year are firstly to get back into the gym. Skills I want to master are upstart on bars, back walkover on beam, standing tuck on floor and to do a yurchenko on vault again – I’ve done it once but have managed it again since.

What about long term - where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

I’d love to have properly met Natasha Coates and got her autograph and maybe a photo. I would love to compete with Team GB at the special Olympics and be famous like Natasha.

I’d also love to work at a hotel abroad entertaining people with dancing and gymnastics shows.

If you’d like more information about Disability Gymnastics you can find out more on the British Gymnastics website.