Interview with Stephanie Millward
Interview by, Shama Shah
Stephanie is a British Paralympic swimmer. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at the age of 17. Stephanie was close to a place in the British international able-bodied team, having broken the British record for the 100 metre backstroke at the age of 15. She hoped to qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympics before she was diagnosed with MS.
Stephanie is a true inspiration to society and has a heart of gold. She has made Britain proud of her achievements in the London 2012 Olympics and IPC World Championship in Montreal, Canada in 2013. Stephanie was kind enough to share her experiences with FreeSpeech Magazine.
How was experience at the 2012 Paralympic games?
I very much enjoyed London, it was fantastic. It was everything in my dreams that I wanted to happen. I can’t complain with 4 silvers and the bronze is not too bad.
Please run us through your regime for training daily.
I train basically nine 2 hour sessions a week in the pool and I also do three 1.5 hour sessions at the gym weekly. I am also trying to study at the same time as I am taking an A level in Psychology as I had to put that on hold during my training in 2012 for the Paralympics
You must have trained very hard to get to where you are as you have also done a lot of International events prior to the London Paralympics.
The Paralympics in London was my second Paralympics. I went to Beijing in 2008 just after 7 weeks of training which is incredible. I came 4th, 5th and 6th there and though I didn’t receive any medals there, it inspired me to keep training for the 4 years between Beijing and London.
I swim approximately 50,000 m a week which is quite a long way and keeps me fit and well and I love doing it.
You have started swimming from a very tender age. Please walk us through your journey.
I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as my dad used to work there. Obviously, Jeddah is a desert and incredibly hot so I learnt how to swim to cool down. I was a member of the local team, Saudi Sharks and I went to the pool on numerous occasions throughout the week and I kept training to get better and better. When I was 8 years old, I went to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and swam at a competition there which I won and was great.
We moved back to England when I was 10 years old because of the Gulf War to Corsham. I started training with Corsham which is my local swimming team. I then started training at Bath University and they had many important Olympic Swimmers already there and I wanted to be a part of it so I started training with them.
When I was 15, I broke the British record which was fantastic. I was inspired to rule the world, be the best, all the dreams. But something unfortunately got in the way. When I was 17, I got Multiple Sclerosis. It started with eyesight issues. I couldn’t see where I was swimming and this had the consequence of me swimming into people or into walls. I went to see the doctor who said I had MS.
I went completely black blind 3 times and I wasn’t well at all. I was paralysed, I couldn’t walk, move, see or do anything and I gave up swimming. That was my dream dead and was mortifying.
How did you feel at that point, not being able to pursue your dream?
It was horrible as everything I had always wanted to do seemed so close. I was on the team to go to Sydney Olympics and being that close, 6 months before Sydney I got sick. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong and I blamed myself because I must have done something to deserve the illness. In real life, you get it because you get it.
Nobody knows the cause or what the cure of MS is, so I’m still waiting that somebody will find the cure and the cause too. It wasn’t a good time for me, I wasn’t happy, I was depressed. I had to sit my A levels completely blind and couldn’t see what I was writing. I got an E which was pretty impressive for not being able to see.
For those that don’t know what MS is, please explain what it is.
Basically, your brain sends messages like nerve impulses from the brain to wherever. For example, if I wanted my finger to move, it will send a message to my finger to move. But MS has an issue like a short circuit- it stops impulses from getting to the finger so I wouldn’t be able to move it. It is degenerative, you will get sick eventually, and you could end up not being able to see, move or walk. It’s not nice to know but if you stay positive and confident, then the illness can be kept at bay which is a good thing.
At that point, how did you overcome the challenges you were facing bearing in mind the dreams you had seen?
I’m not sure what I was thinking at that time. I was depressed, putting on weight because I was taking steroids trying to get myself better. There seemed like no hope for me at all. I think what I wanted to do to make myself better for my mum as she was my support. We found a personal trainer and we paid £25 for half an hour for him to reteach me how to walk or stand and how to do things you normally do when you are a kid. The easy things you normally do when you are in a nappy- standing, walking, crawling. I slowly learnt to run, even if it were by holding onto something. It was a fantastic feeling as I didn’t think I’d get the ability to do it again. When I was able to do that, I decided to get back into swimming because I knew swimming has always been my dream and I love doing it.
The first time I went swimming again, I asked my mum to come with me because I knew I was a bit flutter on my feet. She came and she saw me fall all over the ground trying to get to the side of the pool. She said to me, ‘Stephanie I can’t take you again, I can’t watch this, it’s too painful for me.’ And I just said no worries to my mum. So I kind of had to force myself to get to the side of the pool which was hard work but the swimming seemed to help. I could only do 10-20 lengths which seems tiny in comparison to what I do now but at that time, it was perfect for me.
I also met a number of people at the pool who helped me. I met my husband through swimming, when somebody asked me to help teach him to swim so I went over and started chatting ho him, His name is Adrian and we got married last year.
Do you feel like you received support from the community while you were going through all the illness and trying to get back onto your feet?
One of the drugs available for MS is called Beta Interferon but I wasn’t allowed the drug because I lived in Wiltshire as opposed to Bath in Avon so I was caught in the post code lottery. Because I needed this drug, I had to fight to get it and approached the local MP and local newspaper who were fantastic. So, I had the whole of the county cheering for me to get this drug so they were very helpful. The backing of the whole community is absolutely wonderful.
When I got to the Paralympics, I knew I had the backing of the whole country, which is an immense feeling, something I didn’t think I’d ever get to appreciate- it was wonderful.
What would your advice be to those that are less abled but have an ambition to pursue a dream?
Don’t let anything get in the way! If you have a dream, you can do it! If you can’t get through one door, go and look in another. You can do anything, you just have to believe in yourself and you know you can do it even though you know you have some nasty barriers in the way.
People are often not willing to come out in society when faced with disabilities and are not able to receive the community support. What is your advice to them?
There are places for you to go and people for you to meet- don’t let anything get in the way and hold you back.
What would you say to the abled bodies to help promote a society of inclusion and tolerance?
We are all human beings, we are all exactly the same and we all deserve a fair chance. Even though there is a disability, that makes that person extra strong because they want to beat the disability as well as get on with other options they wanted to do so they seem to be extra determined and extra supportive.
Do you feel that there are barriers in your day to day life placed, perhaps not intentionally, by society?
Sometimes there are things that get in the way for example, I need hand rails to get up and down stairs which I didn’t need before and quite often there aren’t any. I have noticed these things more than I would have noticed otherwise. I appreciate things more for example, lifts are important for wheelchair users or the elderly and watching out for these things are important.
Lastly, is there anything you would like to add?
Good luck to everybody- you can do anything and don’t let anything get in the way!
This article was first published in March 2014 edition of FreeSpeech Magazine. To check out the full edition, click here.