“Take the time to find what you love doing (and are able to do) in life.”
– Paula Craig, MBE
Paula is a superhero. Triathlete and sub-three hour marathon runner, she has an infectious passion for life. She is also the first woman to have completed the London Marathon as a runner and wheelchair athlete.
I called Paula during a lunch break on a chilly winter day. She is lovely and we chatted freely about triathlon, but above all she has a passion for making the most out of life which comes across within just a few seconds of speaking to her.
She was racing again just one year after losing use of her legs, and today, continues to inspire people who have suffered from life-changing injuries, as well as striving to achieve her own goals which include swimming the Dart 10k (swimming’s version of the marathon).
In 2001, Paula spent three weeks in triathlete haven Lanzarote to improve her cycling. She was hoping to qualify for the World Triathlon Championships in Canada that year, but just one week before the big race, was hit by a car and lost the use of her legs.
“It was a beautiful day,” she says. ‘I’d cycled over to a friend’s house for lunch, and as I cycled back home along an A road in St Albans, visibility was perfect. Unfortunately, an 84-year-old man hit me from behind. He wasn’t wearing his glasses.’
Paula was immediately paralysed. ‘I had no feeling at all in my legs – knowing I was paralysed actually helped me to come to terms with what happened very quickly.
“My friends had me entered into a wheelchair marathon before I’d even had my first physio session!”
“I spent five months in hospital and had incredible support from everyone. No one ever really discussed me not returning to sport – I think my friends had me entered for the London wheelchair marathon before I’d even had my first physiotherapy session!”
The year after the accident, Paula took park in her first wheelchair London Marathon and went on to compete in three triathlon world championships – finishing first in all three. “I started swimming six-and-a-half weeks later”, she says. “It was strange swimming with no use of my legs and only one good arm; I swum in circles for a while but it was an incredible feeling to be back in the water!”
“Aspire, the spinal injury charity have a fully inclusive gym as well as a ramped, wheelchair accessible pool which made a huge difference to my recovery.”
Paula bought a hand cycle whilst still in hospital. Whilst later recuperating in Wales with family she was invited to train with a coached group. “I came straight back to London to join them – it was hard work to build my upper body strength but I managed to qualify and compete in London.”
“I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the London Marathon so being able to compete again was quite emotional.” Paula went on to compete in the 2003 and 2004 marathons coming in an incredible 3rd and 2nd place.
“I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the London Marathon so being able to compete again was quite emotional.”
“What happened to me was obviously a huge shock, I can’t really explain why I was able to come to terms with it so quickly, but being able to look forward to returning to my old life, albeit as a wheelchair user, made a huge difference. I was so grateful to have full use of my arms, something which many on the spinal injury ward did not.”
Paula is currently waiting to find out whether she needs another operation for a bone infection and abscess. “It’s frustrating, but I’ve come to accept that there are times when I won’t be able to train because of complications related to my disability.” When she cannot train, Paula’s studies help her to fill time outside of her work in the police force.
“There have been so many silver linings. I have had opportunities to share my experiences with so many people and raise awareness of spinal injury and disability.”
“Over time, you can find what you love doing.”
“I’m really enjoying open water swimming at the moment. I swam the Solent in 2014 (Southampton to the Isle of Wight) and had hoped to do the Dart 10k in 2015 but had to pull out because of an infection.”
“Every one of us is different and injury will affect us differently. But for me, knowing I would never run again meant looking for an alternative way or a different sport altogether. There are so many different sports now and the interaction with others who have similar abilities or issues can be comforting in itself.”
So what’s her secret? “Take the time to adapt.” Paula says. ‘You can’t force passion for a particular sport, or in fact any sport – but over time you can find what you love doing, and are able to do, in life.