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The Paralympic Games have just begun and all eyes are on Tokyo as we will Team GB on to win big. But because of the pandemic, the Games almost didn’t happen.
For Paralympic long jumper Stef Reid, training for an event that wasn’t guaranteed to take place was one challenge she never expected to face.
“If Covid has taught us anything it’s that guarantees don’t exist. We don’t know what the world is going to look like now each week, or month to month,” says Stef, 36, who lives in Leicestershire and trains at Loughborough University.
“When the Games were postponed it was tough. I had to ask myself, am I going to commit to Tokyo 2021, dedicating another year of my life when it might just be cancelled again? I had to dig deep.
“But In the end, I knew I didn’t want to sit at home watching these Games knowing I didn’t do everything I could have done to get there.”
Five-time world record holder Stef is the reigning long jump world champion, and a triple Paralympic medallist. But at 36, and recovering from injury in 2019, getting to Tokyo was a race against the clock.
“I know I’m coming to the end of my professional career. I’ve had an amazing time. I’m 36 and I’m so thrilled my body is allowing me to keep doing what I love. I’d be doing it in my 60s if I had my way.”
Chatting to Stef over Zoom, it’s striking just how positive she is.
And this is something she puts down in part to the boating accident that saw her lose her right leg at the age of 15.
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“Did it feel cruel? Yes. I had a life-changing injury, a disability that was never going to get better. I had to live with it. And at 15, when my body was already going through puberty it really felt like everything was happening at once,” she says.
“But I remember everything from my accident and it’s not associated with fear or trauma. I knew how lucky I was to have survived. And I think I was just so grateful that things weren’t worse.”
Before her accident, Stef was very sporty.
Born in New Zealand to a Scottish father and English mother, she grew up in Toronto, Canada. “I loved sport. I played everything – basketball, volleyball, swimming.
“My original dream was to be an international rugby superstar.”
After her accident, Stef’s sporting dreams were put on hold and she threw herself into her studies, setting home on being a surgeon.
“My surgeon was amazing. He saved my life,” she says. “Part of life as an amputee depends on the stump that you have, and as someone who had a traumatic accident, to have been given a beautiful stump that allowed me to walk really comfortably – I think what he did was amazing.”
Partway through medical school, Stef got her first running blade. “I got back into sport because I missed the challenge. I was terrible initially, but I just kept going,” she says.
Stef is married to wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos, 41, and together the pair are a Paralympic power couple.
Brent is also a world record holder, a seven-time Paralympic medallist, and seven-time world champion.
She says their differences make them work. “If you met us separately you wouldn’t guess we’d have ended up together. He’s always very even-keeled. He never struggles with his emotions, whereas I am wild. I go from down here to up here. That has its benefits and its downfalls as well.”
The pair are competing together in Tokyo.
“In some ways, you’re not able to support the other person the way you want to, because you have your job to do.
I knew I didn’t want to sit at home watching the Games. I had to dig deep
As his partner, I want to give him 100 percent but I can’t because I’m competing too.”
But both being athletes means they know the score better than anyone.
“I’ll never forget in 2013 when I finished last in the World Championships. Brent watched but left immediately afterwards,” she says.
“People thought, ‘That’s so awful, I can’t believe he didn’t stay to see her’. But I knew he was competing the next morning.
“There was nothing he could do or say to make me feel better, so there was no point in him standing around, me infecting him with my bad mood when he had to prepare.
“I get that, and he gets that – but it does look strange to people on the outside.”
Of their future together, Stef is excited. “We do wonder what our lives will be like after we retire.
“We’ve only ever known each other as athletes. It’ll be this whole new process of relearning about each other.”
During lockdown, the pair were like any other couple. “I baked banana bread, and sourdough bread, I ticked off all the lockdown stereotypes.”
Stef is the face of the new Always campaign Keep Her Playing, which encourages girls to carry on with sport through puberty and beyond.
Research from the brand shows that nearly one in three girls drops out of sport during puberty.
Yet those who continue playing during puberty helped them learn resilience and develop self-esteem.
And 50 percent of women who quit as teenagers wish they had continued to play.
Stef puts this down to the cult of perfectionism. “We all struggle with it – wanting to be perfect. But we need to reclaim our freedom to make mistakes. Even if we mess up it doesn’t take away from our value.
“It is all part of our learning process. Sport teaches you this.
“Whether you win or lose, the world does not end. You can come back the next day and do it again.”
Purchasing a pack of Always Ultra, Always Platinum or Tampax Compak Pearl from participating retailers will trigger a donation to Sported which has teamed up with Always to keep girls in sport.
INTERVIEW BY HANNAH BRITT
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