The countdown is on for Emma Wiggs if her dream of taking part in the 2012 Paralympics is to come true. She talks to SARAH FOSTER about changing people’s perceptions of disabled sport.
Pulling on her Team GB tracksuit gives Emma Wiggs a thrill that’s hard to beat.
That’s not to say the life of an international athlete isn’t tough. But the sense of satisfaction she gets from being part of a team competing at the top of their game, makes all the hours in training worth it.
And with less than a year to go until the London 2012 Paralympic Games gets under way, disabled athlete Emma has her mind focused on just one goal – to represent her country in the sport she’s been playing for less than two years.
‘I’m very excited already,’ she laughs.
‘I’ve only got to hear a piece of music, or see something about London 2012, and I get butterflies. It’s crazy.
‘We’re just under a year away and I’ve already got butterflies in my tummy at the mention of the games.
‘I’m going to be exhausted by nervous energy at this rate.’
As captain of the GB women’s sitting volleyball team, Emma is waiting to hear if her squad will be given a host nation’s spot to take part.
They’re currently competing in the European Championships in Rotterdam and are quietly confident they’ve done enough to earn their place at next summer’s Paralympics.
Her rise through the team has been nothing short of meteoric – but determination is something she’s never been short of.
When Emma contracted an unknown virus as a teenager, it threatened to put an end to many of the plans she had made.
But she wasn’t prepared to give up on her dreams so easily and despite being left paralysed, she made some changes and carried on.
Against all the odds, the 31-year-old became a PE teacher and now works at The Regis School, a large secondary in Bognor Regis.
‘I was 18 and on a gap year in Australia when I got a virus that caused paralysis from the hands and feet upwards,’ she explains.
‘My hands came back but I was left with legs that didn’t work properly.’
Like Guillain-Barre syndrome, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system, the virus Emma contracted left her with severe damage.
‘They don’t know how or when I got it,’ she adds. ‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘It started off feeling like flu and then like pins and needles in my hands and feet.
‘I’m a bit of a stubborn pain in the backside and in terms of my rehabilitation, becoming a PE teacher was a very important goal for me.
‘It’s a ridiculous career choice but I wasn’t prepared to lose what I’d wanted to be since the age of about 10.
‘I had my place at Chichester university when I went on my gap year, I was all ready to go.
‘I had to have a bit of a break and change my course to sports science and then do a PGCE (teaching qualification) but some how I made it.
‘The kids are brilliant, I don’t think they even see the wheelchair, apart from when they want to have a go in it.
‘Quite often people say “Oh I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it was me” but actually, they would, what other option have you got?
‘The only thing that’s made a difference for me maybe is the family and friends I have around me, supporting me.
‘It never crossed my mind once to give up.’
Emma had always been sporty but after losing the use of her legs she concentrated all her efforts on teaching sport, rather than playing it.
After it was announced that the 2012 Olympics would take place in London though, the British Paralympics Association began scouting around for talent.
They organised a series of taster sessions and it was at one of those in January 2010 that Emma discovered sitting volleyball.
The game is exactly the same as volleyball – it’s just the net is lower and players sit on the floor.
Emma plays at club level for the Portsmouth Sharks and captained the GB women’s team to a bronze medal at the 2010 World Championships – the team’s first major tournament.
‘It’s bonkers that I’ve found myself in this position in the first place,’ says Emma. ‘I’ve got so much support and it’s such an amazing opportunity.
‘I’d always played sport at quite a good level, in fact I was a bit of a PE geek.
‘But for 12 years I’d done very little in the way of personal sport. I’d focused on getting my job and had assumed that my own personal sporting achievement was over.
‘But I’m a PE teacher and thought I should know about disability sport. I went along to a talent day, just to stop friends from nagging me about it to be honest.’
When she’s playing for Portsmouth Sharks, Emma competes against men and women, as well as able-bodied and disabled players.
She’s a setter, leading her team mates in their attacking strategy, determining who should get the ball.
‘I wanted a team sport so it was basketball or volleyball really,’ she adds. ‘I’m only five foot two when I’m standing, which isn’t very often, so it couldn’t really be basketball. I went to a volleyball training camp and the team just embraced me and I realised what I’d been missing.
‘It’s exactly the same apart from the lower net and we’re sitting on the floor. Most people are amputees, whether it’s single or double limbs.
‘It’s probably the most inclusive sport around.’
Sitting volleyball has enjoyed full Paralympic status since 1980 and the relatively new GB women’s team are now waiting to hear if they will qualify for 2012.
In the meantime, they’re training for more than 30 hours a week and fitting it all in hasn’t come without sacrifices.
Thanks to the support from her school, Emma works as a PE teacher for just two days a week now so she can dedicate the rest of her time to training.
‘The whole of last year I was working full time and training six days a week,’ she explains. ‘That meant going to London three days a week and at the weekend.
‘It just got a bit much. I would train from 7pm until 10pm and get home about midnight. I did it for about a year but I had to make a tough choice. There was just a huge amount of travel but if I’m going to take the opportunity to be part of the Paralympics I thought “I’m going to have to work hard”.’
While a lot of fuss and attention is lavished on the Olympics, the Paralympics doesn’t tend to get the same treatment.
Emma’s hopeful that the UK will lead the way by giving the Paralympics the attention it deserves.
‘I remember that during the Beijing Games, there would be an hour and a half summary programme about the Paralympics compared to wall-to-wall coverage for the rest of the games,’ she adds.
‘Channel Four are going to be doing live coverage all day, every day, next year. We’ve got a massive opportunity to change the world’s perceptions of disabled sport.
‘If you look back at the last two or three Paralympics we’ve finished second. We get more gold medals than the Olympic team every four years but that kind of gets ignored.
‘I want to change people’s views about disabled sport. It’s not there just to let people who are disabled have a bit of a go.
‘We sweat the same as everybody else.’
As the Paralympics get closer, Emma’s concentrating on staying fit and healthy.
Playing sitting volleyball has given her so much more than just an enjoyable hobby and now she’s determined to make the most of the opportunity.
‘I think in terms of anyone who has had a life-changing experience, whether it’s an illness or a terrible accident, sport can play a huge part in your rehabilitation.
‘I just wanted to be able to do things that I’d always been able to do, so to be part of a competitive sports team is good both physically and psychologically.
‘I’m fitter now than I was when I was able-bodied. It’s given my life a complete change of direction.’
To see a clip of Emma Wiggs talking about sitting volleyball log onto channel4.com/programmes/that-paralympic-show/video/series-1/episode-2/sitting-volleyball