Three-time GB Paralympian and above-knee amputee Amy Conroy meets para-athlete Natasha White to talk about their journeys as wheelchair basketball athletes.
Amy Conroy was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, at 13 years old. She described what she went through.
“My heart plummeted. For me, cancer means death. My grandparents, mum and uncle, had all died from cancer.”
She added: “I thought this was it. I am going to die at 13.”
Diagnosed late, Conroy had a 50 per cent chance of survival, and the cancer was widespread.
“I had a wheelchair, and as I sat down, I had no idea I would not stand up again for two years,” she revealed.
An above-knee amputee, she started playing wheelchair basketball through her father who she saw as her hero. He encouraged her to attend and kept taking her back even though she disliked it.
Conroy says: “I was too shy and self-conscious at first.” Now she does not look back.
Natasha White suffers from two long-term health conditions. Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) is a multi-systemic genetic connective tissue disorder where the body produces collagen that does not work. It causes her to suffer from dislocations across her body. She has had it all her life.
However, she was diagnosed at 18 when it started to flare up after knee surgery. Her other condition is Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), where there is a problem with the functioning of the nervous system and how the brain and body send and receive signals.
White says: “I get psychogenic pseudo strokes where I have stroke symptoms, weakness down one side, but no damage in my brain. With EDS, around 80 per cent of my dislocations happen in my sleep. Why? Because I am not paying attention to what my limbs are doing.
“It is my new normal and a part of life. So, sport is my coping strategy. For my mental health, my physical health and general wellbeing overall.”
Paralympian Amy Conroy teaches para-athlete Natasha White some of the best wheelchair basketball tips and tricks as the pair share their thoughts on the sport
Conroy struggled after having her leg amputated: “I was self-conscious. I have a photograph on the beach in big baggy flare jeans.
“I was embarrassed and felt I wanted to be normal. I was this little bald kid who came out of the hospital.
“Once I started wheelchair basketball, playing for Great Britain became my dream. But, when a coach asked me to take my leg off to play properly, I was still at a stage where I was self-conscious and would not take it off in front of anyone.
“However, people were not holding anything back in basketball. It is a fast and dynamic sport. In para-sports, everyone feels equal.”
White used to practice able-bodied sports before her diagnosis, but discovering wheelchair basketball has helped her confidence in identifying with her disability.
She says: “It is not a bad thing, it is not taboo. I learn from the sport and my team-mates and transition what I learn on the court into my every day. Now I can use my wheelchair with one hand and hold a coffee in another,” she laughs.
“It is little things you would not even think about that make day-to-day life so much easier.”
For Conroy, a big part of finding wheelchair basketball was the confidence it gave her as a person.
“I accepted my leg. I would never think of hiding it now. Before cancer, I was shy and a shell of a person.
“But put your mind to something, go for it, and have a dream. Put yourself in every opportunity to make it happen. Worst case, you will have no regrets because you went for it wholeheartedly.
“Wheelchair basketball brings people back out. It is a community, a close-knit community being part of a para-sport.
Conroy adds: “It is powerful too, especially for young people new to disability. People think if they can do it, then why can I not?
White found the sport by looking at the British Wheelchair Basketball website and found her nearest club London Titans.
“I nervously emailed them, went along, and have not looked back. And today, I get to play basketball with Amy from Team GB and learn from her,” explained White, who features in the ‘I got back up’ series of interviews created by Talia Lazarus.
“To train until your idols become your rivals,” Conroy smiles. “It can be incredible to put yourself out there sometimes, like emailing your local team, show up, back yourself and think, ‘I am going for it’. It is also a sport that everyone can play.”
But there have been changes in the classifications surrounding the sport.
White says: “According to the classifications, I am fully able-bodied, but I can wake up in the morning with my shoulder out of the socket. Whereas with the old classifications, I would have been around a 4 or 3.5. I do not have full function in my legs where I could do able-bodied sports.”
Conroy feels this an area of inclusion that could be improved: “We preach about inclusion, but we are excluding people. With the reclassifying, a lot of people we have had in the team, such as international players who dedicate their lives to the sport, are now not disabled enough to play.”
For White, it can be disheartening to see the reclassification. “Why should your disability be a barrier? It should not. Everyone should have access to join in with sports, whether it is basketball or another sport. That is why para-sports exist.”
The UK has started the first women-only Premier League for wheelchair basketball. Conroy thinks it is a powerful to witness and never thought it would be something to happen in her career timeframe.
White says she does not feel judged when spending time with those who have similar or dissimilar conditions in other para-sports.
She says: “Living with long-term health conditions and any disability can be isolating. You do not get it until you get it. It is one thing having people help, but it is another thing having people who truly understand and have been through similar.”
“I am constantly in the middle of my journey. I go forwards and backwards, and with para-sports, I found other athletes in a middle space, with no judgement like me. It provides an environment where it is okay to float in the middle. You do not have to be a finished product.”
“I refound my identity when I discovered para-sports. It has given me back a part of myself since my diagnosis.”
Conroy says recovery of any sort can be a strenuous journey. “There can be many what-ifs, obstacles, and setbacks. There will be doubts and times you question yourself. Just stick with it.
“I found that resilience helped when I learned to walk again. I had been lying on my back, being sick for a year. It felt so far away. A year of shaking with the zimmer frame, then little steps to crutches, and then walking freely.”
“Before I was selected, as each year went on, the what-ifs kicked in. What if I am not good enough? What if this is not for me? Am I wasting my time? Put one step in front of you with small manageable goals.
“When you question if you are strong enough, when your back is against the wall, this is when you dig deep, impress yourself and be proud of yourself.”
“What you are not changing, you are choosing. So, if you quit, that is fine but do not complain about quitting and do not look back. Or, give it everything and put yourself in the best chance. And so, I did, and I got selected.”
Conroy adds: “I was called up as a reserve. My dream was coming true. But as the coach said I was up, I doubted myself. ‘I am not ready. I am not good enough.’ I think sometimes we wait for the perfect moment before we do something.
“It is okay to struggle. There will always be sticky times in the storm, and often you only see people when they are thriving. Remember that when you go through tough times. You are worthy of speaking about it and being heard. It can be tough to take the first.
“People think it is a weakness. Your feelings are valid, and you are your greatest project. Be your best friend, speak to yourself kindly and speak out if you need help. I cannot emphasise enough how it is not a weakness. It is a strength.”
Talia Lazarus created I got back up, a platform and community that talks with people coming back from life-changing events and recoveries. Read more stories here.