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Paralympics: Interview with sprinter Sophia Warner

PUBLISHED: 02:12 08 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:36 20 February 2013

Paralympics: Interview with sprinter Sophia Warner

Paralympics: Interview with sprinter Sophia Warner

Sussex athlete Sophia Warner will be sprinting for her country in the world's biggest sporting event this summer - despite being born with cerebral palsy. Words: Amanda Riley Jones. Pictures: John Sanders Photography

Brighton Sports Personality of the Year Sophia Warner is not just personable, photogenic and articulate, she might be one of the UKs best hopes for a gold at the 2012 London Paralympic Games this August. Sophia is with the Worthing Harriers sprint squad and is training for over 30 hours a week in Surrey and Sussex, in preparation for the biggest sporting moment of her career.


Sophia was born with triplegia, a form of cerebral palsy which affects three limbs. Its as if I had a stroke at birth, she explains. Theres nothing wrong with my limbs but the communication between my brain and muscles is broken. So it takes me a great deal of thought, physical effort and repetition to move and control my limbs. When my brains struggling to figure out how to move my legs or left arm, its like you trying to move your toenails.


But Im a real half glass full person almost annoyingly motivated and tenacious, she laughs. CP makes your muscles tight, stiff and weak but with 10 hours of physiotherapy a week, lots of warming up and special exercises to build up my stamina, Im managing an able-bodied training programme of 15 hours in the gym and six hours on the track a week.


Sophia persuaded local coach Steve King to work with her and says, He doesnt give me special treatment and isnt interested in excuses. I couldnt stand on my left leg or co-ordinate my arms and legs, but hes got me hopping on my weak leg and skipping for the first time! Sophia runs alongside able-bodied athletes so she can observe the pattern and sound of their feet and try to emulate how they run.


Although Sophia admits to occasional self-consciousness about her wobbly walk, a passer-by might think her slightly stiff gait is the result of a sports injury. And shes so adept at greeting me and carrying two cups of coffee in one hand that it takes me a while to notice that her left arm is motionless. Throughout our conversation, shes so animated and quick to laugh that I have to keep reminding myself of the ongoing battle of will it has been for her to make the journey from disabled baby to international athlete.


Sophia was born in Dorking and diagnosed with cerebral palsy at about 18 months. She had plaster casts and calipers on her legs and needed sticks to help her walk. Apart from making sure I had physiotherapy every day, my parents never mentioned my disability, she says. Their attitude was simply You can do anything if you keep smiling.


And smile she does. Any hint of sympathy is cheerfully batted away as she describes her childhood. Despite moving slowly and awkwardly, often stumbling, and stiffening up if she got cold, Sophia kept up with her older sister Emma and younger brother Thomas as they ran around the local woods, went out on bicycles and built obstacle courses around the garden. She says I learned early to watch other people and work out how I could manage to do what they were doing. Its a skill I still use.


Sophia flourished at The Ashcombe School in Dorking and went on to study Bio-Chemistry and Business at Leicester University. Then one day a housemate suggested she join him for a run. It seemed ridiculous when I cant walk in a straight line, she laughs. But I discovered that trotting requires less control than walking. I loved it. I felt free. After that, I started running and training in the gym four times a week.


Sophia moved to London for marketing jobs with BT and then Nestle but says Im not a city girl and spent every weekend coming down to Brighton to stay with my best friend from university. As soon as I got off the train, I felt so at home.


As her career progressed, Sophia started high-level athletic training and in 1998 she represented Britain for the first time when she ran 100m at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships in Birmingham.


She leapt at the chance to relocate to Brighton in 2002 when she was offered a senior management job with BT near Gatwick. Then a friend re-introduced Sophia to a friend from her teens. Haydn and I had no idea we were both living in Brighton! Were both very energetic and driven. I got him into running along the seafront and he taught me to waterski not the easiest thing with only one good hand and leg! We spent most or our time together on the water or on the beach.


In 2006, Sophia gave birth to their daughter Lucca and Felix was born the following year. When he was 12 weeks old, Sophia started training, determined to get to the World Championships in New Zealand. Meanwhile, she also moved to the Hove branch of wholesale grocery company Palmer and Harvey and worked her way up to become the most senior woman there. She was working nine to five, then running and training until 10.30 at night.


In January 2011, Sophia clinched a silver for the 200m, came home and resigned from her 75,000 a year job to become a full-time athlete. It was a huge risk, but I had to follow my dream, she explains. Haydn, whos a builder, has taken a break from his work to become the childrens main carer.


Only a handful of Team GBs athletes are managing to combine intense training with motherhood. It is a real struggle at times, admits the 37-year-old. I have high expectations of myself as an athlete and mother but living as an athlete is pretty selfish and the two dont mix that well! Unlike other Olympians, Sophia doesnt use the high-tech facilities at Lee Valley Olympic Park in East London but trains locally to stay near her family. She is a regular sight at Virgin Active in Crawley and on the track at the council-run Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre at Horsham. Some evenings and weekends, Lucca and Felix, seven and six, are there cheering on their mother for up to three hours at a time. They take toys to play with and theres a great kids club at Virgin Active. If we are outside and the track is quiet, they enjoy a run about! says Sophia.


Much as the family loved living in Brighton, the snow last winter lost Sophia 30 days of training so they have recently moved from Hangleton to Dorking to halve her travelling times. However, shes still very involved with the Sussex scene, including firing the starting gun for Sainsburys Sport Relief Mile in March and being ambassador for Take Part, Brighton and Hoves festival of sports from 23 June to 8 July.


Brighton does sport very well and Im proud to be part of that, she says. I still train in Sussex and have a good circle of friends here. I dont really feel as if Ive left and still class myself as a Brighton girl!


Shes also in demand as a motivational speaker in local schools and companies and says I hope Im an inspiration to people, not just because of my disability, but because Ive had the guts to follow my dream. I want to get the message across that you can have anything you want, if you put your mind to it. Its my dream to be standing on that podium in my home country and Im completely focused on bringing a gold back to Sussex.


Sophia Warner is supporting Procter & Gambles Thank you, Mum campaign to inspire people everywhere to celebrate their mums. For more information visit thankyoumum.pg.com

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