Disability Did Not End My Sporting Ambitions

Matilda O’Callaghan, who is suffering from hyper-mobility syndrome, discusses on how she overcame unprecedented physical challenges to realise her sporting potential at Cambridge.

Participating in Sports comes  with enormous challenges for those with chronic health conditions, but also big opportunities for our physical health and wellbeing.

Miss Matilda talks about how she sufffered from mental illness, “I have hypermobility syndrome, which is a chronic pain condition caused by joints that are very flexible”. “It means I suffer from constant joint pain, am highly prone to injuries, get extremely tired, and suffer from muscle fatigue.”

This is considered part of the Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, a series of conditions that affects connective tissues, and people receive very different symptoms and severities along the way.

“I am quite fortunate to have only mild symptoms and to be able to even consider sport is a miracle, yet there is still a long way to go in trying to make a breakthrough in the search for cures and remedies for the conditions”.

Most people affected by the syndromes usualy find themselves being removed from sport and even the paralympics, despite its recognised status as a disability.

She said “Struggling with hypermobility throughout my childhood, alongside juvenile arthritis, participating in sport was totally frustrating and exclusive for me. It was difficult to see all my friends benefiting from all their training, while I just found myself stuck in an endless cycle of injuries and the daily struggle of physio exercises.” “My posture was too bad for dancing; my ankles too weak for running; my wrists too sore for climbing. I became so used to failing halfway through a race or grinding my way through P.E. lessons, I never wanted to take part in competitive exercise ever again”.

But instead of giving up, she steadily trained her body in little ways, making her yoga mat at home to build upwards from the ground. She also learnt to love movement and began to enjoy the experience of going for sea swims and slow coastal runs now that her mind could let go of the pain. During this self-care, she said “my body became even stronger and improvements where obvious, but i still felt great fear whenever I heard the word “sport”.”

Keeping active, building body and mind strength and learning how to cope with pain and body management has transformed Matilda’s understanding of her whole physique. She has been able to race well in a range of events, often performing much better, “I have spent so long building up muscle strength. Having access to a free college cardio and weights gym, erg room, and pool has enabled me to split my training into more manageable chunks across the day”.

 Matilda continued “it’s still not very easy, and something I attempt to hide among my sporting friends, because I don’t want to be the one nagging about pain or giving up”. She could not anticipate how the disability will affect her on any given day, so committing to training was a huge mental and physical task for her. “Turning up to train at 6am on a cold February morning is hard enough without your body screaming at you to just lie in bed” she concluded.