Emma Wiggs – The Value of Determination

Emma Wiggs is a former PE teacher. Despite her disability, she was determined to teach PE in a mainstream school. Yet within a year of taking up her post it became clear that she was in with a great chance of selection for London 2012. Decision time.

The easy option was to remain in gainful employment doing a job she loved in a school where she was loved by students and colleagues alike. Tougher, though, to forgo that income; to leave that job; and, partially at least, turn your back on those students and staff and commit to possibility of representing Team GB at the Paralympic Games in sitting volleyball. Teacher. Athlete. Decision time.

Emma determined to be a Paralympian. But if she thought that was a tough decision, forward wind to the days post-London. After disappointing results and without funding through to Rio, sitting volleyball held no viable future for Emma. Return to teaching? Remain as an athlete? Decision time.

As Emma explains:

“8 months after the end of the most incredible experience of my life…London 2012…I find myself embarking on a new adventure. For many reasons it was time for a change after the Paralympics in London and I decided to focus my efforts on seeing if my talents were ‘transferrable’ to a different elite Paralympic Sport…..well after many months and many many tough decisions it was GB ParaCanoe squad selection that suddenly put me on a different course!”

And it is on that course where we now find Emma. Such is her determination to succeed that, despite not being on a fully-funded programme she flies from her base in Scotland to Nottingham on a Monday night. Three days of hard training on the water and in the gym follow before the return flight to Glasgow on Thursday night. That is all before further travel to compete at weekends.

“The endless feeling of living out of a bag is one you have to get used to as an athlete but it was worth it as by May I found myself not only in the GB squad but selected as the TA (Trunk and Arms) competitor for the European Championships in Portugal!”

So not just trying out a second sport, then, but excelling in it. Simultaneously trying to earn enough money to fund her travel costs (Sky Sports Living for Sport athlete mentor and United Learning Sport Ambassador), Emma’s determination to be the best she can be led to selection to the Europeans. But with that, came the issue of classification.

“As a Paralympic athlete you have to go through a process of “classification” before competing. This is basically a pretty horrendous medical where you get prodded and poked and have to ‘perform’ certain tasks or movements. It is not only quite a stressful and time consuming process but one that goes against the grain of any athlete’s mentality that I have ever met. We spend hours every day trying to show and get better at what we can do and this is all about exposing what you can’t do. “

In essence, the classification serves to ensure that Emma cannot use her legs to accelerate the boat. Every athlete should feel confident that they are competing against rivals with the same movement capabilities as their own. Yet to get to that point, each athlete with a disability has to undergo this “horrendous” classification process. And not just once. For Emma, this may be the first of several such experiences before, as hoped, she sits in her kayak at the start line on a lake in Rio. Does she have a chance?

When we recruited our 6 Sport Ambassadors for 2013/14, we aligned each of them to one of United Learning’s core values. Unsurprisingly we aligned Emma to ‘determination’. Here’s how she got on at those European Championship s in Portugal last week:

“There is a lot to think about when you are preparing for a race, the physical side of resting, the mental side of being in the right frame of mind to confidently control your performance and the nutritional aspects of hydrating and fuelling your body to be perfectly ready on that start line.

As a new athlete to kayaking I had to learn quickly. It helped being surrounded by some incredible teammates who knew what to do but ultimately it would be me sat on that start line on my own ready to race.

Everything went to plan on race day and I got on the water feeling very good. The sun was out and the crowds were cheering as they announced the start line. You try not to focus on anything but your race but your heart does beat faster when they say “lane 4, Emma Wiggs, Great Britain”. The actual race is a bit of a blur, it went extremely well and I crossed the line in 1st place…”Emma Wiggs European Champion”

I guess that makes all the difficult decisions, commuting and hours of training worthwhile! Life is full of exciting opportunities and I’m very glad I found the courage to grasp this one. The journey continues…all being well to the World Championships in August!”

A qualified teacher. A classified Paralympian. A determined young lady indeed!