Why a wheelchair won’t ever stop Sue in her tracks

Role model: Paralympian Sue Gilroy at home in Dodworth with her husband Stephen, daughter Lauren and son Ryan.
Role model: Paralympian Sue Gilroy at home in Dodworth with her husband Stephen, daughter Lauren and son Ryan.
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Sue Gilroy’s life had always been about dreams and ambitions.

At seven years old she had three clear goals: to become a sportswoman and make it to the Olympics, to perform a parachute jump - and get herself an HGV license.

By 16, she’d added a few more to the list - she either wanted to be a rock band drummer or a teacher.

But by the age of 18, it seemed every single one of her dreams had been rendered unattainable.

The rare genetic condition Sue had suffered from the age of 11 was crippling her and there was no escape. She would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Sue thought it inevitably meant lowering her sights to the level of the seat she was destined to sit in ever-more and letting go of all the things she loved.

She had got so far. But she had to leave university mid-way through her maths and biology degree and give up her bid to become a teacher, quit the table tennis she adored - and exit her drummer’s seat with a local band.

“Everything I cared about seemed beyond my reach,” she remembers. “I desperately didn’t want to be officially disabled. I hit rock bottom. I honestly thought my life was over.”

But 22 years on, Sue has everything she had set her heart on so long ago - and more she could never have dreamed of.

Her body may have been broken, but not her spirit. At 40, she is a world-ranking table-tennis champion with a host of gold medals to her name – and has competed in no less than four Paralympic Games.

Voted BBC Disabled Sports Personality of the Year for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire twice, she has an MBE, awarded in 2009 for her dedication to young people and sport - and is incredibly proud to have been a primary school teacher in her native Barnsley for the last 12 years.

Happily married to the man who ‘saw the woman not the wheelchair’ for the last 20 years and a devoted mother of two, Sue Gilroy has achieved so much - even that parachute jump has a tick next to it. Only the HGV license still eludes her, but watch this space, says this shining example of spirit over adversity, a role model for disabled athletes the world over.

Sue smiles and acknowledges what a struggle it has been: “A couple of decades ago the attitude towards disability was not a positive one. I listened to all those negative influences. Then I realised: Yes, life is going to be difficult but I have to keep going.”

Instead of moping at home she got a job as a quality control technician with Barnsley chemical company Mydrin. It gave her a sense of purpose and new friends - including a dishy young chap called Steve who eventually persuaded her to be his girlfriend, then his wife. She found out a local sports centre was running disabled sports sessions and went along.

Surrounded by other wheelchair-bound people, she felt normal and realised the sporty girl was still there, waiting for her chance to shine.

Her hand to eye co-ordination, fast reflexes and upper body strength meant she excelled at archery, shooting and table tennis and she was talent-spotted by the GB table tennis squad.

Initially terrified she wouldn’t good enough, she persuaded a top class table tennis player, who happened to live in Barnsley, to be her coach.

Mick Travis had never worked with disabled players before, but rose to the challenge and got Sue into the Paralympics squad for Sydney 2000. She didn’t win a medal, but being in the team was reward enough at the time.

“My nature has always been to aspire to dreams. But when you go into a chair you feel you have so much more to prove than an able-bodied person,” Sue says. “Automatically, people assume you have low intelligence, or are incapable of hard work.”

But it has meant flying in the face of agonising pain. She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos, a rare muscle and ligament degenerative disease caused by her genes. Her joints dislocate around 70 times a day.

Ankles, knees, shoulders and wrists suddenly spring from their sockets, causing sickening pain. And Sue is now an expert at forcing her limbs back into place.

It’s been happening to her since she was 11. “I’d be walking along and my knees would just give way,” she remembers. “I fell so often I damaged my back, my wrists... I’d also suffered severe nerve damage. Doctors thought the best thing to do was to operate,” she recalls.

But after years of painful bone grafts failed, Sue finally decided enough was enough. No more surgery.

“When I was young I hoped for a miracle cure. But now I accept there is nothing that can be done; I call myself a genetic mutant!” says the woman who was British champ for the 19th time in 2012, a Commonwealth gold winner twice and was European champion in 2005 and a silver winner in 2003 and 2009.

The glory has been achieved in spite of extreme pain. Her right hand and shoulder dislocate at least ten times in a match. She says: “I hit the ball, dislocate something, snap it back in, hit again... When I won the bronze medal in the 2006 World Championships I carried on playing with two broken wrist bones.”

The wrist had to be surgically fused afterwards and many thought it would end her career. Not Sue and Mick Travis. “We worked out different ways of playing the shots,” she says. “Mick strapped a wooden cooking spatula to his playing hand so he could understand my limitations.”

The valour of every disabled sports person should not be underestimated, she stresses: “Behind all those glorious moments at London 2012 lay a million small struggles that start with managing to get out of bed in the morning.”

Still a member of the GB team, Sue is currently ranked world No 7 following surgery for a non-cancerous stomach tumour which knocked her out of the London 2012 medal placings. She’s determined to fight back into the top three; maybe even reach her world No 1 ranking of 2006, if only she could find a sponsor willing to support her through this year’s European Championships, where she’s gunning for gold.

She still yearns for a Paralympic medal and knows Rio de Janeiro in 2016 will be her last chance.

As a full-time teacher, at Shawlands Primary in Dodworth, Sue has to be extremely organised and dedicated to fit in training at the English Institute of Sport and GB squad competitions. She ensures neither role suffers. As much as she adores her sport, she loves teaching. “I think I’m possibly the UK’s only mainstream school teacher in a wheelchair,” she says. “I’m really proud of that. Able-bodied kids see me first, not the chair, which is a great thing for them. And disabled children see that if I can do it, so can they.”

That last message is one that, sadly, she is now having to instil in her own children. Ryan, now 15, and Lauren, 9, were born before Sue’s Ehlers-Danlos syndrome was diagnosed just seven years ago. She had sought advice from doctors when she and Steve were contemplating parenthood - and was wrongly told she could not pass her condition to her children. Both began to develop symptoms at the age of eight, to Sue’s heartbreak.

“We’ve had to stop Ryan’s rugby because there was a high risk of serious injury in a fall, but he is in Barnsley’s youth swimming squad. Lauren has ankle problems but loves her dance classes.When they dislocate an ankle or a shoulder, it’s me who puts them back together again.”