Suddenly not able to do able-bodied sports anymore, Natasha White discovered para-sports. Wheelchair basketball, para-trampolining and para-climbing. For Natasha, para-sport is a massive coping mechanism.
At age 19, Natasha had knee surgery to fix a torn cartilage as she was continuously dislocating her knee. That was her triggering event to being diagnosed with chronic health conditions. Once she was out of the recovery window, her hip joined in, and within the year, it all cascaded. The wear and tear from the recovery of the surgery had a knock-on effect. At first, it was a lot of little things she thought were normal. However, it turns out it was not normal, and it exacerbated to the point where she could not ignore it. Her food intolerance which she had her whole life kicked off more, and her flare-ups began.
What are Natasha’s flare-ups? Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) affects her every day. It is a multi-systemic genetic connective tissue disorder whereby the body produces collagen that does not work. It causes her to suffer from a range of dislocations across her whole body. She has had EDS her entire life. However, it did not fully kick in until after her knee surgery once she had moved away from home. Living independently as all her health conditions hit together was a tremendous change all in one go. She feels lucky it all happened as she was moving away from home. She learnt to do everything independently with all the adaptions she needed, rather than changing how to live once she had settled. She figured it all out as she went.
Sports has been a coping mechanism for Natasha her whole life. Therefore, when suddenly not being able to do able-bodied sports anymore, sports she had done for years, this hit hard mentally. So, finding para-sports and having the sport and social side was an enormous boost for Natasha. Para-sports is a massive coping mechanism. It taught her a lot of skills or introduced her to a lot of people and places she then began to learn from, skills to adapt to and work with her health problems.
Sport is an escape and burns off any anxious energy.NATASHA WHITE
The one sport she carried through able-bodied sorts to para-sports is trampolining. “It sounds counter-intuitive with dislocations, but it is all cleared up by physio and specialities”, Natasha explains. Being able to carry on with trampolining is giant for Natasha. If she is stressed or frustrated, it has always been a way to let that energy out. She can focus on the sport and forget her stresses.
Discovering wheelchair basketball gave Natasha consistency in her life again. After knee surgery, she spent a third of the year on crutches, then around half a year each year for three years as her health deteriorated. Natasha was trying to keep up able-bodied sports but kept getting injured, having to rehab and then go back with dislocations. “My university had the sports wheelchairs out one day. I grabbed one and did an accessible tour of campus. It was great to move around, in the same way, my friends not on crutches were,” says Natasha. She was pointed to the British Wheelchair Basketball website and found her nearest club, the London Titans. Natasha went along. She has not since looked back. Due to her inconstancy with sport and being on crutches so regularly, wheelchair sports eliminated that as a problem. It was an incredible thing to discover.
Sport has changed Natasha’s life and shown her a lot. She takes different things from her three main sports, and para-sports is a massive coping mechanism. Wheelchair basketball is very much a team sport. There is a lot of emphasis on communicating, working together and support even from the bench or the stands. “You can always feel part of a team and embrace a close-knit family feeling. It is easy to shift focus onto a game,” explains Natasha.
Next, there is para-climbing. Para-climbing is a more individual sport with an incredible community. Climbing with friends or alone, drawn into planning your route and focusing on where you place yourself. You focus on how your body moves. Every climbing route is different and dynamic. Therefore, the focus shifts each time. Thirdly, para-trampolining is very different to the other two. The whole focus is a ten-move routine. There are individual moves, but they are repetitive. It is less dynamic as each trampoline routine is the same. However, it is a very structured sport.
Using a wheelchair outdoors and un-aided in, the uneven ground outside can cause Natasha to dislocate the limbs of her body. Ironically, she is more likely to dislocate something walking down the street than being on a trampoline or climbing wall. Undertaking sports, Natasha focuses on moving her body with more attention. Climbing is fantastic when she is injured. Natasha will skip out using the injured limb on the route. “Last summer, I slipped and dismantled my knee on a Thursday. Friday, I put my knee in a split and went climbing with friends. Saturday, I took myself to A&E. My care team are so used to me doing things like this. I can now put a lot of my dislocations back in myself,” explains Natasha.
My body is so unpredictable. Sports has been amazing as it gives that routine again in my day to day life.NATASHA WHITE
Dislocating limbs is traumatic and life-changing. It has become day to day for Natasha. “If I reacted like it was the first time every time, I would never get anything done. Para-sports has been a place I can work around that,” explains Natasha. She has learnt how to adapt out of sport from other para-athletes. “Of course, there are some days I will curl up in a ball. I don’t want to do anything. It feels like the end of the world. Then I calm myself down and realise it is not quite the end of the world. That I can deal with it,” states Natasha.
To know when to give up for a little bit. To understand where your limits are. To acknowledge when you are giving up because you need to rest or when you are giving up because you just cannot be bothered. Tash learnt from sports at an early age was that it is okay to have times you feel you cannot do this. When something is not working, when you are getting more frustrated. It is okay to take a step back and stop for a second. As long as you give yourself a time frame, hours or days to try again. Rather than throwing in the towel. Taking a rest and embracing a flexible mindset is one of the biggest things she has taken from sports. It applies to everything.
To come across challenges in life and wanting to give up. Set yourself boundaries and not in a way you will beat yourself up over it if you do not achieve it. Understanding and recognising this is a challenge. You might not have the skills at the moment, but that does not mean it is a dead end. It just means you might need to think of it differently. Come back to it. Natasha does this in climbing. If she is struggling with a route, she will watch someone else. She uses her mental flexibility to adapt and then try again for herself.
You can try to think of a different way to do something, adapt how you live day to day if something does not work. It applies to everyone, even without disabilities or injuries.NATASHA WHITE
Nevertheless, Natasha has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sport has helped her immensely when dealing with that. A particularly horrific neurology appointment a few years back was the triggering event. Even though becoming day to day, Natasha has undergone a lot of hard flare-ups, different medical treatments and hospital admissions. These events are traumatic for Natasha. These translate into a wide range of PTSD symptoms: panic attacks, anxiety, depression, night terrors, flashbacks and dissociation. As undertaking sport for Natasha has been constant even before the traumas, it has been a space where she never links the two. Para-sport is a massive coping mechanism. As so much of her health has carried over into her day to day life with different adaptions and integrating treatments, sports is the one area she does not think about her chronic health. Or at least, once Natasha has set splints or braces, “I don’t have to think. It is almost automatic,” explains Natasha.
Para-sports are a space where everyone gets it if you are having an off day mentally, or if you come in and say this has happened. Someone there will relate at some level.NATASHA WHITE
Due to the amount of physical conditioning Natasha embraces, she has a decreased number of flare-ups. Therefore, less traumatic situations. Sport is a safe place mentally. Para-sports has shown Natasha that regardless of your disability, everyone has been through their own experience. Everyone can relate to each other to some extent. Natasha continues to get back up.