By Matt Roberts
In 2012, Durham University student Gemma Collis overcame her battle with immense adversity to compete as a wheelchair fencer at the London Paralympic Games. Now on the Road to Rio and with her law degree on hold, Gemma tells her moving story.
Aged seven, Gemma Collis sat mesmerised while watching Cathy Freeman win gold at her home Games. “If I ever get there, I’ll get a tattoo to commemorate the achievement”, she told her dad. While many people wouldn’t flinch at the thought of getting inked, for the needle-phobic Gemma it would be a significant challenge and a mark of just how much sport means to her.
From a young age, Gemma was sport-obsessed and naturally gifted. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, she figure skated at a national level, played county level hockey and was district 100m champion and double county champion in the triple jump by 15.
But it was in 2008, while competing for her school in an athletics Championships, that Gemma’s life changed forever. After experiencing severe pain in her ankle after a jump, Gemma was unable to walk unaided. Little did she know, her trip to the doctor the next day would mark the beginning of two years laden with misdiagnoses, excruciating pain and a series of unsuccessful treatments.
Eventually, Gemma was told that she had a rare condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome). RSD is a chronic neuro-inflammatory disorder that occurs when the nervous system and the immune system malfunction as they respond to tissue damage from trauma. In Gemma’s case, this was caused by the injury to her ankle and she experiences altered sensation and extreme pain in her right leg.
“Even to touch my leg with a feather is painful”, Gemma explains. “It sounds ridiculous but at the time I couldn’t even get a sock on that foot. Everything I was doing in my life was based around not touching that leg. The syndrome is rated as the most painful thing you can experience, even more painful than childbirth.”
For a 16-year-old Gemma, such a diagnosis surely signalled a bleak future. For most people, being told you will spend the rest of your life on crutches or in a wheelchair would be a big deal. For the previously athletic and active Gemma, it was heart-breaking.
Initially, doctors considered Gemma a good candidate for treatment due to her age. But as she explains, “Nothing worked – we tried treatment after treatment and were always disappointed.”
“The last thing I had was a small back operation. A chemical was put on one of the nerves in my back, with the intention of burning through it so that the nerve signals couldn’t get to my brain and the idea was that it would stop the pain.”
“I woke up in the most intense and breath-taking pain I had ever been in. I was lying there, crying for hours. My dad was with me and I remember holding his hand saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I’d never felt so utterly hopeless. That was the last chance saloon and it hadn’t worked. It took me a really long time to get over that. I felt like everything had been taken away from me. I could no longer do what I was passionate about. I’d lost my identity and confidence.”
It was at this juncture that Gemma’s life began to change again, for the better, in the form of three separate moments of inspiration.
The first came from her father, a constant positive influence on her life. “He’s always said you have to think about a sphere of influence; to only worry about things you can change. That’s very much his attitude to life.”
Gemma decided to find ways of getting involved with sport and began volunteering and coaching. It was through a volunteer programme that she discovered disability sport. While working at the World Wheelchair Basketball Championships, Gemma flicked through the tournament programme and was astonished to find that an Australian competitor had her condition.
“Straight away, I decided to get back into sport. I got myself down to the local wheelchair basketball club and absolutely loved it. Crashing into people at top speed and being aggressive was perfect, exactly what I needed. It helped me get my confidence back again, I began to feel like the old Gemma.”
The provider of the final piece of motivation that would ultimately propel Gemma to international competition was Steve Brown, the GB wheelchair rugby captain. His insight that it took the loss of two thirds of his body to make the most of his remaining third, really struck a chord with Gemma who learned to live with what she couldn’t rise above.
“Ever since I’d got my disability I’d been thinking about what I couldn’t do because of my leg, rather than thinking about the fact that I still had my left leg, my arms and the rest of my body. That one thing Steve said changed my life to a certain extent. It changed how I looked at my disability and, to this day, it inspires me.”
Suddenly, the dream of going to a Games was reignited. Gemma could see the possibility of becoming an elite athlete in spite of her disability. Just nine months after first playing wheelchair basketball, Gemma was representing Wales and had her sights set on representing Great Britain. It was a fast rise and it wouldn’t be her last.
“It wasn’t until I came to Durham in 2011 that I discovered wheelchair fencing. I was playing basketball and this man came over and introduced himself as László Jakab, the GB Wheelchair Fencing coach, and asked if I wanted to try the sport. I was initially hesitant as I knew that the chairs were static and I honestly thought it was going to be tactical, boring and slow. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s so, so fast.”
“The only thing in sport that moves faster than the tip of a fencing sword is a bullet and you really do notice that in wheelchair fencing, probably more so than in able-bodied fencing because of that set distance. I love the fact that’s it’s like a physical game of chess. Not only have you got to be physically faster and technically better than your opponent, you’ve also got to outwit them and think a few steps ahead.”
If Gemma’s rise in basketball had been fast, her rise in fencing was meteoric. Within three months she was in the GB senior team and ten months after picking up a sword for the first time she was competing in London at the 2012 Paralympic Games in the team Epée. Her achievements in the sport are made all the more impressive by the fact that her arm length is one of the shortest on the international circuit, putting her at a significant physical disadvantage.
“I never imagined that things would progress so quickly. But, because I go into everything full throttle, I decided that I was going to be the best at fencing and do everything I could to make that happen. I spent every night training at the Salle with László.”
After winning a domestic event in Nottingham, Gemma received an email to confirm that she had been picked for the Games. After years of suffering, it was the happiest she had felt in a long time.
“I could barely believe it! I pretty much hopped round my room dancing. It was a massive high. It meant that I was going to fulfil that lifetime goal of going to a Games. It was absolutely amazing.”
“Competing in London was an incredible experience. I had all my family and friends there. You could feel the ground shake when you scored a hit. There were all these people cheering for me. I had no idea who they were, they probably didn’t know who I was, but I was in the British team so they wanted me to win!”
“In the public areas, people would bombard me for autographs. It was surreal. I hadn’t prepared an autograph, the first one I did was just my signature with ‘Epée’ underneath and it’s stayed that way ever since.”
They say it rains the hardest on people who deserve the sun. When it comes to Gemma Collis, that saying is particularly poignant. Despite having had more than her fair share of bad luck, Gemma was to experience even more in 2013.
“At the start of the year, I had a large period out with a back injury and, before it healed, I got seriously ill. Basically, my stomach stopped working properly. Just taking a sip of water was excruciating and within seven days of first feeling pain, I was admitted to hospital.”
“I was unable to eat or drink anything, it was getting dangerous and I was losing a lot of weight. I was in hospital for two and a bit months. Essentially, my nerves have malfunctioned and now, when my stomach is stretched or touched by food and drink, it’s incredibly painful.”
“I had to have a feeding tube inserted directly into my stomach to get adequate fluid and nutrition. When I eventually came out of hospital, I had to be connected to my food pump for 16 hours in order to get even two thirds of the calories I needed for the day.”
“At that point, I thought I’d be lucky to be fencing within twelve months. I’d lost three and a half stone and I just couldn’t see how I was going to fence with a tube. For starters, if it got knocked out, I’d be in serious trouble and it would be a medical emergency.”
“I just spent time on the sofa recuperating. But towards the end of the year I fancied picking up a sword again. So I thought I’d go and hit a target. If I’m honest, it’s not my favourite part of training because it doesn’t fight back and can be quite monotonous. I expected to last five minutes but three hours later I was still sat there hitting the target. I was loving it!”
Since then, Gemma, who still uses the gastro tube for nutrition and hydration, has competed regularly and well in qualification. In May 2014 she won her first World Cup medal and she backed that up with another one in October of the same year.
We are speaking just days after Gemma has returned from a Rio 2016 qualifying event in Hungary, where she finished fifth. “It wasn’t my best ever result but I was behind three Chinese fencers, who are the standard bearers in our sport. Finishing above the likes of Yu Chui Yee, the seven-time Paralympic champion, means I would rank it on a par with my World Cup medals.”
With February 2016 marking the eighteenth month of the gruelling Rio qualification process, Gemma, who is completely unfunded following UK Sport’s cuts after London 2012, is currently ninth in the standings and on the cusp of making her second consecutive Paralympics.
“There are two competitions left to try and guarantee a spot but it will be June or July before I know for sure. I’ll be sad if I don’t make it but looking back on everything that’s happened over the last four years, I think to be where I am is something I should be proud of.”
With women’s fencers typically medalling in their early thirties, Gemma, at just 23, has time on her side.
On receiving the BBC North East Sportsperson of the Year award last November, Gemma said she was “surprised” and “honoured” to have won, having been nominated alongside people who had done some “absolutely incredible things”. It was hard not to smile at this typically modest answer. In the face of cruel hardship, Gemma has fought to live the dream she believed in and she’s worthy of our respect and admiration.
Talking to her, it’s impossible not to be inspired by Gemma’s positivity and strength. This is someone who doesn’t see her disability as an impenetrable barrier, but as a hurdle to overcome.
The next obstacle to topple? Her fear of needles, having still not got that tattoo she promised her dad all those years ago.
Photographs: Gemma Collis