Written by Jen Offord

Health

“I woke up and couldn’t feel my legs”

We can all agree the 2012 Paralympic Games were pretty inspirational. Particularly for Lauren Rowles, who was galvanised into picking up the oars and is now about to represent GB at Rio. She chats to our Jen Offord.

Lauren Rowles rowing with Laurence Whiteley.

Oar power: Lauren Rowles rowing with Laurence Whiteley.

One morning four years ago, Lauren Rowles woke up to discover that she could no longer move her legs. During the previous 24 hours, she’d been to school and nothing outside of the ordinary had occurred. “I was completely able-bodied the day before,” she says. “I just woke up and couldn’t feel or move my legs.”

Rowles, now 18 and about to make her Paralympic debut in Rio, later discovered she had developed a condition called transverse myelitis – a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation in the spinal cord. The shock, she says, was bigger than anyone could possibly imagine. But the worst was yet to come: she was transferred to a hospital in Bristol, away from her friends and family, to simply wait to see how the condition would play out.

“It was a complete unknown,” Rowles says of the early days of the condition. “The doctors weren’t sure of the extent to which it would affect me.”

A little later, Rowles was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital – renowned for its pioneering spinal treatment and the birthplace of the Paralympic Movement – and it was here that things began to get better for Rowles, who says she began to feel much more like herself.

An active teenager before developing the condition, Rowles was heavily involved in athletics at school, so she was delighted when a trip to London was planned to watch the 2012 Paralympic Games – more than that, it spurred her to get back into sport.

“I was so inspired by the likes of David Weir,” she says. “I looked at the people in London who had much worse disabilities than me and their attitude towards it and the fact that they never let it get to them – they’d really turned it around for themselves.

“I looked at everyone in the Games and saw that they’ve just got on with it,” she enthuses.

Rowles decided to get back on the track – just 10 months after that fateful morning.

“It’s amazing to have so many people inspired by what we do – you never would have seen that two Paralympic Games ago.”

Fate wasn’t finished (is it ever?) and threw in another twist: a chance meeting with a member of the GB Rowing Team staff at a sports day back at Stoke Mandeville led Rowles to take a shine to rowing, the sport in which she’ll now represent Great Britain, just one year after taking up the oars.

“The first time I got in a boat, the feeling was something like I’ve never experienced in athletics,” she says. “It was fantastic and incredible.

“At first, I felt like I wasn’t worthy to be training with all the great rowers in the national squad,” she says of her first forays with the team, “but the coaches seemed to have faith in me so I kept working hard and it paid off.”

Rowles was a natural. Having been paired with Laurence Whiteley in the Trunk-arms mixed double scull 1,000m last year, the 2020 Tokyo Games might have seemed a more realistic debut. Not for Rowles. Once she got her teeth into it, she was determined to make it to Rio.

“Rio for me is the journey we [the team] have made to get there – not the destination,” she says, adding that she’s most excited to “see everyone take that next step up in the competition.”

Rowles says that without sport she wouldn’t be the person she is today, and although there’s no denying her story is extraordinary, the stuff she says she gained from sport during that time of her life will ring true for many who have taken up a new physical pursuit.

“My confidence went through the roof,” she says. “Rowing helped to push my mental and physical barriers. I’ve just got on with it and it’s made me stronger.”

Rowles is also enjoying the social element: “I’ve learned more about being part of a team,” she says. “We [Rowles and teammate Whiteley] work really well together and the dynamic between us gets us through every session – on and off the water we have a really strong bond.”

Lauren Rowles (front left) with the GB Paralympic rowing team for Rio 2016.

Lauren Rowles (front left) with the GB Paralympic rowing team for Rio 2016.

There’s been a growing interest in the Paralympic Games since London 2012, something helped enormously by the sterling coverage from Channel 4, and Rowles sees a bright future for the Paralympic movement. “The response we get on social media is really positive,” she says.

“People are genuinely more interested in the training we do and how hard we work. There’s a real respect coming from people now; it’s not just sympathy for the conditions we have.

“It’s amazing to have so many people inspired by what we do – you never would have seen that two Paralympic Games ago.”

It’s not always easy to take up a sport, and of course with disability sport it can be even harder to find local facilities. However, the team needs to start recruiting for the future, hence the launch of a huge campaign called #DiscoverYourGold. It helps match kids to Paralympic sports, says Rowles, to start them off early – like you would with any other athlete.

But of course it’s not all about the stars of tomorrow and there are plenty of current and former competitors, like David Weir, who have been shining examples for Rowles. Not that she finds it tough to pick a favourite. “Tatyana McFadden has such a passion for what she does and inspires so many other people by how humble she is. She’s so focused.”

Rowles beams. “The passion she has and the joy that it gives her; it’s all down to her sheer hard work and determination. She’s my hero.”

@RowlesLauren
@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen