Had I known what a massive risk I was taking and how it can pay off, I would have taken it much sooner,” says Sophia Warner of the remarkable journey she has been on over the past two years.
Last year Sophia, 37, took the brave decision to take a sabbatical as a marketing manager to pursue her dream of taking part in this year’s Paralympic Games.
Born with cerebral palsy in both her legs and her left arm, she will be running in the T35 100m and 200m where T stands for track and 35 relates to the severity of her cerebral palsy.
Since deciding to ‘go for it’ Sophia says her life has been enriched by her experiences; one of the most surreal moments was having a coffee with the singer Belinda Carlisle who wanted to find out about the Paralympics in preparation for a television interview.
“Someone said the best advice they could give to me was say yes to everything,” says Sophia. “Consequently I have said yes to everything and I’ve had so much fun doing that.”
While opportunities such as meeting Duncan Goodhew and helping launch the torch relay are fun, it is on the track where everything matters. Dedicated and willing to push herself as far she can go, Sophia’s achievements are down to sheer hard work. She is currently the world championship silver and bronze medallist and ranked in the top seven in the world for the T35 100m and 200m. She had always enjoyed sports, and it was a housemate at university who encouraged her to go running. Seeing her talent, he suggested she get involved with disability sports.
“It’s the strangest thing when you have had a disability, you don’t know you have one a lot of the time – you just do what you do,” she says. “With disability sport I didn’t know what to expect. When I got there it really impressed me, everyone had a sporting physique, they took their sport seriously and wanted to win and be their best – there was no sympathy there at all.”
Sophia set her goals high: to go to the Paralympics, and 2012 will be very special indeed as it is her first Games and the first time her event has been included. As well as testing herself, Sophia, from Brighton, is also using the opportunity to educate people about the Paralympics.
“The main problem is for people to appreciate what they are watching,” says Sophia. “It’s difficult to try to get your head around what you are watching and hard to think people are amazing if you can’t work out what it is they started off with.”
Among the confusion is the classification system, and not every event is represented. There are so many that if they were all included, the Paralympics would last more than three months.
After the world championships 13 months ago, Sophia who was also chief family breadwinner, asked for a sabbatical so she could focus on her sport. The next challenge was gaining funding, which depended on marketing, and working out her ‘unique selling point’ – being a mum-of-two and having a disability. She pitched herself to family-friendly companies, and was taken on by Proctor and Gamble.
The funding has enabled her to improve, not just her running, but also her general wellbeing.
“Being a disabled athlete it’s not about the money – that’s completely irrelevant – it’s about the support you need as an athlete, for example physio treatment, things you wouldn’t otherwise have. Suddenly you have all these doctors there and I now have access to the best coaches and nutritionists.”
She trains six days a week, six hours a day, with physiotherapy forming a major part to help her overcome coordination difficulties.
“My day-to-day life gets better because of the amount of physio,” she says. “For example I only learnt to skip about a month-and-a-half ago. At 37 I look a bit ridiculous but really enjoyed it, it’s stuff I’d tried and tried to do before. When you can’t do it and you are an athlete trying to be a sprinter, it’s bit of a problem and they find ways of you doing it, they get you doing things like standing on one leg for 45 minutes a day – you wouldn’t catch Jessica Ennis doing some of the silly things I’ve been doing,” she jokes.
“Standing on one leg was always impossible, but I can do it now. If you put a lot of effort in it just goes to show what’s possible and that’s the beauty of disability sport.”
As a result of her determination, she is the only paralympic athlete to start from blocks.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was going to school sports day. It’s taken nine years to learn how to get out of the blocks, and it scares the other runners!”
The first time she ran 100 metres it took her 24 secs which she has now slashed to 16 secs.
“The more I can obliterate my disability the better I can get,” she says. “If I can get my left arm to move I would be two seconds quicker.”
And when they are old enough, her children Lucca, seven, and Felix, six, will learn what a remarkable woman their mum is. Sophia, married to supportive husband Haydn, says mixing family and sporting life can be difficult.
“Sometimes I try to disguise training days as fun days with the children,” she says, and admits she misses some things, but spends as much time as she can with them.
She is also aware she has a golden opportunity.
“Not only have they got my event in the Paralympics, but it’s in my home country and everyone is so excited about it and I just decided I wanted to get in there and get the most out of it.”