As a fresher Issy Bailey starred in the hockey 1st team. Then a car crash left her paralysed from the waist down. Now she’s shooting for Great Britain’s disabled team, with Rio 2016 firmly in her sights. Here she recalls a remarkable journey that turned her nightmare accident into a Paralympic dream.

I feel I’ve lived two lives. In my first life I was a normal kid who got through school, played sports, sang in the shows and tried to stay out late on a Saturday night. Then I went to university, made great friends and played hockey for the 1st team. Playing sport and running around outdoors has always a huge part of my life. I spent the best part of my junior school years getting lost in the hills of Kentmere with my best friend. I’m glad I had such an active childhood and threw myself into freezing rivers while I could, because now it’s infinitely harder to do those things.

In June 2013, after my first year of university, I was involved in a car accident with two friends. That’s when my second life began. When I woke up from an induced coma, my first thought was the trip to Rome I’d planned with a friend. That adventure, I was told, would have to wait a while. At the time I couldn’t understand why the nurse wouldn’t tell my when I could go home. Now I realise that they didn’t even know if I was going to survive the life-threatening injuries.

After three weeks of sucking juice from a sponge in an intensive care unit, I slowly regained hand function in a ward for traumatic accidents. For the first time it began to sink in that it was highly unlikely I would ever walk again. All of a sudden my life chasing hockey balls on astro-turf seemed a long way away. I cried a lot and I still miss it now.

In the crash, five of my ribs were either broken or fractured in multiple places. My right lung was crushed and my liver was severely damaged. I struggled with innocuous everyday things: hugs, coughing and lying on my right side all hurt. Breathing became difficult, too. But, deep down, nothing changed. My bones may have been broken, but my love for sport remained intact.

When I developed enough strength, I began a course of physiotherapy that took me from full dependency on multiple nurses to independence in less than half a year. My left hand still doesn’t work properly, but I’m back in the world of sport and I feel like I’ve come home.

I couldn’t play my usual physical sports in hospital, so I started shooting while still in rehab. My coach plucked me in my bedraggled, bony state from the spinal unit and trained me to shoot air pistols. In March 2014, just a few months after I first picked up a gun, I represented Great Britain at the IPC World Cup, and then again in Poland in May that year. After such a difficult period I finally felt that I had my drive back again; the kind of drive that only competitive sports can inspire. Being surrounded by fellow ambitious athletes, many of whom had already triumphed at the Paralympics, rekindled that love for sport and made me remember how much I loved competition.

One year on, I’m still shooting, and my most recent shooting international, the IPC World Cup in Poland 2015, was a great success. The pistol team won a silver medal in the P5 rapid-fire event on my 21st birthday. The following day I competed in the P2 event (Ladies 10m Air) and qualified in 1 place with a huge personal best score of 373, which is currently the highest score shot this year in IPC standings. I finished 4th in the final behind a very experienced Ukrainian trio and was very pleased with my performance. I’m now looking forward to the next international in Sydney with an eye on Paralympic qualification.

In June 2014, with my first anniversary already up, I managed to convince my mum to let me try wheelchair rugby (aka murderball) at Gloucester Wheelchair Rugby Club. It was my first real experience of contact sport after injury and I was getting stronger and felt ready to get back into highly physical sport. It’s the closest to hockey that I’ve come since my injury. It’s a very tactical and quick-thinking game and it felt fantastic to be part of a team again. Since then, we’ve achieved the top position in our division and are looking forward to promotion into division two next season.

Never underestimate the talent or determination of para-athletes. We’re all perfectly able to compete and
strive for the same goals as able-bodied Olympians.”

Throw in some badminton for the Devon Racqueteers and some national medals along the way, and my sporting schedule is as hectic as it was before my accident, if not more so. When I get asked how my injury has changed me, I always say that it’s made me appreciate the things I can do and the support network around me so much more. There are people who struggle infinitely more than I do, and I’m lucky I am able to pursue multiple sports and go back to my university course with only one year’s interruption. I would say that the road to “recovery” is a long one: my condition is unlikely to improve and, in truth, upsetting memories and “what ifs” linger. But even though an accident like mine certainly puts a lot of things into perspective, I wouldn’t say it has changed me as a person. I’ve always had ambition and been a positive thinker, so I’m making the best of an unexpected situation in a new, seated life.

But even the most optimistic person can’t deny that there are fewer opportunities and sporting organisations set up for disabled sport. It’s a great shame that there are fewer chances for the disabled to compete in sports locally, but there are charities that help fund para-athletes to facilitate entry into sport. It also helps to have a parent prepared to run around the UK and Europe (thanks, mum!). Unfortunately, these outlets cannot cater to everyone. But I’m hopeful that the number of participants in disability sport will continue to rise following the success of London 2012, when such sports exploded into the mainstream and paraathletes found themselves center stage rather than at the margins.

Since then, more and more people in Britain have taken notice of Paralympic sport and more disabled athletes have set their sights on performing at the highest standard. I’m just one of them. I train alongside Paralympic shooters, am coached by members of GB wheelchair rugby and my badminton club has found new fervour following the announcement that wheelchair badminton will be added to the list of Paralympic competition sports for Tokyo 2020. It seems only natural for all of us to aim to represent our country on the world’s largest stage of disability sport. That’s my goal.

If there’s anything to take from this story, it’s never to underestimate the talent or determination of para-athletes. We’re all perfectly able to compete in high level sport and strive for the same goals as able-bodied Olympians. We are all athletes. Sure, not everyone participates in sport to be the best but, in the GB shooting team, there’s definitely enthusiasm to excel on the most prestigious world stage. Until then, I look forward to more hard work and training. Oh, and I better get some reading done at some point, too.