A Wheel and Away

Setting targets and climbing stairs with Jo Frith MBE, Paralympic gold medallist

Every now and then you have a day that surpasses all your expectations and that restores your faith in human nature.  Today was one such day.  My son, Stanley, had been chosen to be part of a team representing his school at the Devon Sports Ability Games, a fantastic and uplifting competitive sporting event of children across Devon with a range of disabilities and additional needs.

A keen archer and swimmer, Stan was thrilled to be taking part in the archery competition and had spent most of the preceding week practising in the garden.  So picture his excitement when the opening ceremony introduced Jo Frith MBE, the utterly lovely and completely inspiring Paralympian archer who won both gold and silver medals in Rio 2016.  As she was introduced, I watched his face break into the most enormous smile as he looked at me and said “A REAL Paralympian archer!”.

As far as he was concerned, the rest of the day took on something of a dreamlike quality as not only did he get to meet Jo and be photographed with her gold medal around his neck, this amazing lady spent lots of time with him and his teammates, watching, encouraging and passing on valuable tips on how they could improve.  Every time I looked at him his smile seemed to get bigger and bigger.

Jo very kindly agreed to spend time with us after the event, to talk about her experiences of travelling and the things she had picked up while venturing all over the world for competitions.

Jo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992 but a couple of hours with this lady showed only too clearly why she has then gone on to have a successful international career in both competitive swimming and archery.  Clearly determined and quietly focussed, she took up swimming in 1995 and for the next seventeen years went on to have a great deal of success, including winning medals at the World Masters Games in both 2005 and 2009.  A stint as a Gamesmaker at London 2012 led her to discover a hiddden talent for archery, which she then took up and developed from strength to strength, becoming a member of TeamGB in 2014, when she won a gold medal at the European championships before eventually winning both a gold and silver medal at Rio in 2016.  She modestly attributes such a rapid rise to her experience of training as a swimmer but tips passed on to Stan illustrated her measured and unwavering approach to her career.

This same approach seems to serve her well when it comes to travel, with Jo saying she always does lots of research before any trip.  This will include researching destinations, ensuring all relevant assistance is booked in advance, informing all involved parties of the fact that she uses a wheelchair, even contacting hotels and asking them to send her pictures of their accessible rooms, entrances, communal rooms and anything else, as all readers will know people’s ideas of accessible can vary dramatically.  As she says “It has never gone against me to let people know in advance that I use a wheelchair and what my needs are”.

Jo concedes that she has been very lucky to travel to some great destinations through her sport, including Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, Dubai and Rio amongst others, although the downside is that sightseeing is not usually on the agenda.  Experiences have been varied with certain airlines such as Virgin Airlines providing outstanding services, some less so.  One particular trip resulted in significant damage to her chair, meaning that going round in circles became the default setting until it was repaired upon her return home!

Some difficulties on a long flight to Rio have also led to her now always sitting on her wheelchair cushion on the plane.  Much more comfortable than a standard plane seat, tailored for the individual, this is a great tip to ensure a more comfortable journey.  And also ensures the cushion does not go astray in the hold!

Closer to home, she highly recommends both Travelodge and Premier Inn as budget options with good accessible rooms and has had good experiences with train travel, particularly when special assistance has been booked in advance.

Meeting Jo and spending a few hours with her was a real treat.  Only yesterday she was at Buckingham Palace receiving her MBE from Princess Anne for her services to archery.  And yet today she happily gave up hours of her time on her only day off from training to inspire the next generation of sportspeople on to bigger and better things.  I know one little boy will be going to bed very happy tonight, dreaming of his time spent with his “Real Paralympian archer” who was “soooo nice mummy” and visualising his own future.  For as this talented and inspiring lady said so succinctly “My only disability is people not letting me get on with my life”.

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