PARALYMPIC medal winner Olivia Breen was born with cerebral palsy – but she won’t let anything hold her back, in life or on the track, as Rachel Carlyle reports.
By RACHEL CARLYLE
PUBLISHED: 00:01, Sun, Dec 28, 2014
Olivia, 18, won bronze in the London 2012 Paralympics.
She lives in Hampshire with her parents, twin brother Daniel and younger brother Jack.
She says: “When people ask how cerebral palsy feels, I tell them you feel wobbly. Balancing is difficult.
"I can’t be still – I make tiny movements all the time, even when I’m asleep.
"I also get tired, as lots of people with CP do, because we’re constantly moving.
"I always loved sport at school because it was something that I could do just as well as all my friends.
"When I’m running, I feel in my own world – I can forget about everything and it makes me smile.
"I found almost everything else at school hard because the CP means I find processing information difficult and it was hard to concentrate.
"I always had lots of friends, though.
"I only remember one bullying incident, when an older boy came up to me and made ‘spastic’ gestures with his hands.
"Mum and Dad were really angry and so were the school when they found out – he was excluded.
"But it didn’t bother me at all. I have accepted that CP is part of who I am.
"I am a positive person and I have no time for negative people.
"I never considered para-sports when I was younger because I associated them with amputees and people in wheelchairs, and I honestly did not feel disabled.
"But eventually at 15, I got my head around the fact that OK, yes, I do have a disability and that I could compete against people with similar difficulties to me.
"I was sent off for training immediately, and within months I was running the 100 metres in front of 80,000 people at London 2012.
"I came fifth and I won a bronze medal in the 100-metre relay.
"My co-ordination is actually getting better now that I’m doing so much sport.
"I’ve done a lot of work on improving my arm action when running, although one arm still flops.
"I now train six times a week and I’m getting faster.
Olivia with her proud mother Helen, who says: “Livvy’s drive and positivity are inspirational”
"I can do the 100 metres in 13.47 seconds now, and the girl who won gold in 2012 did it in 13.45.
"I’m hoping to get down to the world record level of 13.04 by the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
"I really want to be on that podium.
"People get embarrassed around people with disabilities – they don’t want to say the wrong thing.
"But they can ask me anything – I don’t mind. The only thing I hate is when they say, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’
"Why would I need to be brave? I’m absolutely fine.
"I want to inspire people never to give up, to keep pursuing your dream whatever that is, and whatever your disability.
"That’s why I was so happy when the charity Dreams Come True, which organises trips for seriously ill children, asked me to be an ambassador for them.
"When I meet these children, I’m able to talk to them in a really ordinary, non-patronising way.
"I tell them, ‘Look at me. My dream came true – I got a medal. Yours can too.’”
Olivia’s mother Helen says:
“Olivia is an incredibly determined girl. You could tell that from the way she started life.
"She and her twin brother Daniel had to be delivered at 33 weeks because the blood flow reaching her in the womb was erratic.
"She seemed fine at first, but by day three she had developed a rash that turned out to be septicaemia.
"By day eight, the doctors said they had done everything they could and it was up to her now whether she survived.
"She was clearly a fighter, because by four weeks she was out of that hospital.
"But it was always clear she wasn’t quite as she should be, because she was much later crawling, walking and talking than Dan, and she was finally diagnosed with cerebral palsy aged two.
"She hid her problems amazingly well.
I always loved sport at school because it was something that I could do just as well as all my friends
"Her speech was slow because of the problems with tongue control caused by CP, and she was also quite deaf but she fooled us by learning to lip-read.
"At 21 months she was walking, though it was more of a shuffly run – she still finds running easier than walking – and she was constantly falling over.
"Having a twin was really useful for her development, as she was determined to copy everything Dan did.
"We’d see flashes of brilliance from her and glimpse the person she might have been without the CP.
"That could have been very hard, but Olivia made it easy for us because she was always so happy and such fun.
"Other people can be terribly dismissive, though.
"When she was 18 months, a consultant told me, ‘She’ll never go to Oxford, you know.’
"And at the twins’ private pre-school, the head told me they could keep Dan on ‘but not the other one’, referring to Olivia.
"They didn’t even use her name.
"It was soon clear that she excelled at sport.
"At their first sports day in reception, Dan won his race, then Livvy came on and won hers too.
"Everyone just turned round and said, ‘Wow, your daughter is such an amazing runner.’
"As she progressed through school, she joined athletics clubs and we would occasionally get letters inviting her to talent days for disabled athletes.
"Finally she did accept there may be a place for her in disability sport, then things really took off.
"Her drive and positivity are inspirational.
"She has never once said, ‘It’s not fair – why am I like this and my brother isn’t?’
"We were constantly told she wouldn’t be able to do all sorts of things, but here she is – a talented athlete, a horsewoman and skier. She’s amazing.”
Cerebral palsy: the facts
Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects movement and co-ordination. It results from an injury to the part of the brain controlling muscles, which can be caused by a difficult birth, bleeding in the baby’s brain or an infection caught by the mother in pregnancy. Multiple or premature births increase the risk.
It’s estimated that one in 400 people in the UK is affected to some degree.
The main symptoms are muscle stiffness or floppiness, weakness, uncontrolled body movements and balance problems.
Speech can be difficult because of problems controlling the tongue muscles, but this will vary from person to person. Sufferers often have learning difficulties but intelligence is not usually affected.