Here is our full interview with Paralympic champion Helene Raynsford in honor of the upcoming Olympic Games hosted on our own British soil and grass! Here it is for your viewing pleasure…
Helene Raynsford knows all about overcoming obstacles. At the age of 21, and having trained at the Royal Ballet School, she suffered a severe head injury, one that meant she had to relearn everything she did from scratch, even something as simple as moving her hand. But she made a remarkable recovery, discovering at the same time a new part of her life – sport. And rowing was at the peak of that – indeed, she went on to become 2006 World Champion and 2008 Paralympic Champion.
After a frustrating year of injury and illness, Helene retired from competition in 2008, instead deciding to get involved in the sport in a different way; spending time with kids of all abilities and disabilities. She tutors many now, helping them not only in their competitive ambitions, but also in the way they deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life.
Fortunately, she was able to make a return to rowing in 2010 – securing a place in the Great British Rowing Team for the World Championships of that year. Now, with the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics coming up, she took time to explain to Room 9 how important it is to overcome obstacles, before you are overcome by them!
Hi Helene – so what was it that got you into rowing?
Well, I first started rowing for a bit of summer exercise outside of the basketball season; I was a member of the Great Britain basketball team from 2003 to 2006. At first, I wasn’t interested in racing or the competitive side of things – I, like thousands of others, just liked feeling the freedom of being out on the water – and out of my wheelchair! But after my first big sailing event (or ‘regatta’), something changed. It dawned on me that, actually, I did quite want to race against other competitors after all. I was used to enjoying that thrill in other pursuits that I did, and I suppose I missed the buzz!
I think that has always been there within me. But when you find yourself in a wheelchair, it’s difficult to know what your options are. I owe much of what I have achieved to a visit to an inclusive sporting facility in Toronto, Canada, where I first witnessed the incredible range of sporting facilities that were available to disabled people.
Okay, that sounds interesting. What sort of facilities?
Well, pretty much anything that an able-bodied person would be able to take part in – swimming, track events, field events, even weightlifting!
So you found you could still do all the active pursuits you wanted to…
Yes, that’s right. To be honest, I wasn’t much of a sports fan when I was at school. Running around a hockey pitch in the rain was my idea of a nightmare! Up to the age of 17, I attended the Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey, then the Royal Ballet School. As a little girl I wanted to do ballet, like most youngsters, and I was lucky enough to get a place.
Being full-time at dance school meant we did a lot of leaping around, but we still had to make time for all our academic studies as well. As a result, our classes were long, and we even had to do some lessons at the weekend to fit everything in! Our only bit of sport was rounders on a Saturday afternoon – we used to try to hit the ball up onto the accommodation block roof so we could go back indoors!
So while the competitive element was never that important, it would be fair to say I thrived in that environment of being active; one where you have to be dedicated and focused, and where everyone was striving to be the best that we could. I think we should all be like that – in things we do at home, at school… anywhere.
Well wind forward 10 years and you certainly had achieved your aim of being the best! How did it feel becoming a Paralympic Champion?
Well I was the first ever Paralympic rowing champion so that was a wonderful feeling. My support team and I worked through everything that was thrown at us along the way to achieve our goal. My form of rowing was called sculling, which requires a great deal of balance, timing, coordination and endurance. Because there was so much in it, on the day I did not enjoy it as much as I maybe should have, but I was so exhausted!
However, we had a parade through London when we returned home, and seeing thousands of people line the streets to cheer on the Olympic and Paralympic athletes was inspiring.
What about the other medals you have won?
Well I won the World Championships in 2006 in my first International regatta. They were held at Dorney Lake, which is the London 2012 venue for rowing and kayaking.
I’ve won a number of other titles along the way, but shortly after taking part in the Beijing Olympics back in 2008, I was forced to retire. I had been diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat, and 12 young people die every week in England alone from undiagnosed heart conditions. Rowing was my passion, just as ballet was, so it’s a shame I have had to give both of them up.
That must have been hard to take?
I don’t look on it like that. My view is that I was very lucky to find ballet in the first place. Then I was lucky to be able to get involved in rowing, and be successful in it as well.
Whether you have a disability or are able bodied, if you have a passion for sport then don’t let anything hold you back. On your way home from school this week think of five sports you’ve never tried, and imagine how much satisfaction you might be able to take from playing them. Then pick three of them, and make a real effort to try them out over the next three months. That’s exactly what I did!
Sometimes you have to think outside of the box but there is always a way you can get involved. Just remember to set yourself achievable targets and take it from there. When I won the women’s single skull World title in 2006 I had only been rowing for a year! I think that really does prove that anything is possible, so have a think on your way home from school this week, and go for it!
For more information on Helene and what she is up to, visit http://www.heleneraynsford.org.uk/.
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