March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. It is dedicated to the 17 million people diagnosed with cerebral palsy around the world. Cerebral palsy affects many people in the UK and is more common than some people realise; around 2-2.5 in every 1000 children in the UK are born with cerebral palsy.

It is well recognised that sport provides many benefits socially, physically and mentally to those with cerebral palsy. Here, Living Sport's Partnership Manager, Rebecca Evans, tells the inspiring story of her sporting journey and reflects on the power of sport to improve lives.

About Rebecca 

Not everyone that meets me is aware that I have a disability, I was born with Cerebral Palsy, diplegia. I thought this March’s CP Awareness month was a good time for me to tell people about my sporting journey and how a very small premature baby, now 40 years on leads a very independent, full life with many achievements including in sport along the way – don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t! 

I am currently Partnerships Manager for Living Sport and have now worked in the county in Sports Development for 16 years, after graduating from university with a Sport Science and Management degree. But if it wasn’t for my swimming career, I would never have got into sport development, and probably not even gone to university. 

Rebecca's journey into sport

My journey into sport and physical activity started the same as many children with swimming lessons aged 5. Just because my Mum wanted us to learn to swim as a life skill. After spending weeks crying and not wanting to go into the water, the instructor finally realised it was not the fear of water that was stopping me, it was that I could not stand to reach the bottom of the pool, like everyone else and when I did touch the bottom it hurt my feet. So, with some negotiation they let me wear arm bands (there are so many other swimming aids available nowadays). I was soon off and learning to swim in mainstream lessons. By the age of 8 I had swum 3000m distance badge and by 10 my mum fought to get me in the local mainstream swimming club along with my big sister. At that time, I wasn't bothered about competitions, I liked the training and the fact that it was helping me physically with my functional ability to help me keep walking. I was told by a doctor that swimming was better than physio; well that was music to my ears I hated physio! 

However, by 14 I was getting bored of just swimming up and down and coming last in club competitions against my age group, I started to wonder if there were competitions available so I could compete on a level playing field. In the days before the internet my Mum started to do some research and found out about Cerebral Palsy Sport. Before I knew it, I was invited to their Regional Championships and was winning my first races qualifying for National Championships, surrounded by friendly supportive people, and making lots of friends that also had CP. This was a completely new experience for me, as I was at mainstream school and swimming club and did not know anyone else with a disability. A few months later I was at my first national competition winning all 5 events I entered in national record times. Well, this was a new look on things for me, I was actually quite good at swimming if I was against people with a similar disability.  

I joined a larger mainstream swimming club at 15 to increase my swimming training to successfully compete at national leveljust a year later I was off to the CP World Games and came away with 8 gold medals and 4 world records. I had also one of the best weeks of my life, I had made friends for life with team mates, had some great experiences and also learnt a lot about myself living away from home for the first time, having to look after myself. 

Before going to the World Games, I had decided to purchase an active wheelchair for the first time. To date I had only had a buggy and then a heavy NHS child’s wheelchairthat I never used unless I really had too because I could not propel myself easily or get it in and out of the car for that matter. I was finding getting around poolside harder and harder and was using all my energy just to get to the starting blocks. I had always resisted the use of a wheelchair preferring stubbornly to walk, but I can say that getting an active lightweight wheelchair was a great decision. It helped me save energy in getting around not only on poolside, but also enabled me to do more and go further with my friends. For a teenager this was a difficult transition personally, but the most liberating decision I have made in my independence journey. I was lucky I had some great friends to support me. I am happily still walking when I want to but use a wheelchair outside the house most of the time, which enables me to do all that I want to do. 

With all my swimming success so far, I was gaining in confidence and for the first time I started to accept my disability and that it was okay to be different and started to embrace the fact that I was good at somethingThe swimming club I had moved to were supportive of my success and I was quickly becoming a role model at the club to younger swimmers. I was starting to volunteer to help with the younger swimmers and as soon as I could (at 18) I completed my Level 1 Assistant Teacher qualification. I was always happy to volunteer at sessions before my own and this continued to develop my love for the sport and coaching.   

My own swimming was going really well and with support from my school I was happily balancing A-levels with an increasing training regimeHaving completed A-levels I had decided to take a year out to train full time up to the Paralympics, which was a real prospect having gained lottery funding and some selections to swim for Great Britain. To cut a long story short selection for Sydney did not happen due to illness, I did not make the qualifying time at the trials. To a 19-year-old that was it my life and my dream over.  

But if I look back now, I can see just how much I achieved as a child and a teenager, that my mum holding a tiny baby could never have imagined. My ultimate swimming goal may not have been achieved but I have achieved so much more because of what swimming and the life around it has given me. I have smashed through so many barriers, got up and kept going. was able to achieve academically so that I could go away to university. I am now able to work full time and I am married and living independently, together with my husband we make a great team.  

I did continue to swim and was fortunate to go to two further CP World Games as a swimmer and a fourth games a Team Manager. I also swam with the university swimming team and was amongst the first disabled swimmers to be allowed to compete at the National University Championships (now BUCS). I believe my swimming journey along with some of my peers has opened doors for future generations to enjoy one of the most inclusive sports. I completed my Level 2 Teacher qualification and then Level 3 Coaching qualification and my first employment was as a swimming teacher. I have volunteered in many roles as well as having paid coaching roles including Head Coach of a mainstream swimming club. 

Life today

Today, I may have left swimming behind, but I realise the need to keep fit and active for my physical and functional health as I get older. Pilates is my physio and having taken up Wheelchair basketball in my early 30’s, I am also benefiting again from the social aspect and team support sport has to offer. I may be only doing sport for fun and fitness these days, but a little competition helps to keep us all going, and it helps to not realise how hard you are working physically until you finish a training session because you are laughing so much! I have experienced firsthand sport really can change lives. 

To find out more about Cerebral Palsy, CP Sport and CP Awareness Month visit the CP Sport website.