Saturday, 29 December 2018

Number 1 of 'Five Things I'm Proud of in 2018' (British Vaulting Championships)

I've stolen the idea of writing about the things I'm proud of in 2018 from the wonderful Ruth Chappell at Dressage Anywhere. I was planning to write about all five things in one post but since I hadn't written about the British Champs yet this is just one long thing and the rest will come later!

British Equestrian Vaulting Championships 2018

Defending the title this year was HARD. It felt as if the fates were conspiring against me and I just had the feeling that I was drowning in everything. I was struggling so much with health and injuries and it was so hard to train. I wasn't getting any horse time because the way the vaulting club organised booking sessions trained so, because I wasn't sure if I could commit to a whole block of sessions (I was waiting for my shoulder op - and still am!), I could only book occasional sessions. I was still training really hard at home on my barrel and doing lots of conditioning. Basically, I was as fit and ready as I could be without actually practising on the horse.

Illness and injury

Of course, when I say 'fit' I don't necessarily mean a normal person's idea of fit! I was recovering from shingles, which I developed over the summer and which had caused intense neurological pain around my ribcage on the right hand side (this also led to a diagnosis of a kidney problem). I'd managed to 'ping' my left collarbone again on the barrel (that's the bit that needs an op! - or one of them anyway...). I wrenched my left knee (which had been the good one after I tore the meniscus in my right knee earlier in the year when I fell off Rolo) and now just have bursitis in it. I was having migraines nearly every day and getting very fed up of them! 
Riding on holiday in France, when the shingles started...
Next, three weeks before the British, I hurt my chest. I wasn't sure how. Well, I knew what I did - I did a backward somersault at gymnastics and landed really badly, slamming my chin into my chest. From the video it should have hurt my neck more than anything but, although that was a bit sore, it was the chest that really hurt. A few days later I stretched awkwardly and made it even worse. A chest X-ray would have helped a diagnosis but, because I have a fair amount of X-rays, the doctors weren't keen to irradiate my chest again when any diagnosis would result in the same treatment as no diagnosis - i.e., rest and time. However, from the physio I was told that it had slipped out of place: not unusual in EDS, but particularly troublesome because I just couldn't get it back in again because the soft tissue was too inflamed.
Beam was about the only apparatus I could use - but even lifting my arms up like this was painful!
Walking around with a dislocated rib is painful, and the incident also exacerbated my many neck problems and the neuro symptoms in my left arm. Attempting to do ANYTHING vaguely active was excruciating. At first, I couldn't even reach for something because stretching my arm out hurt my chest so much. It wasn't exactly good timing.

At the same time... 

...the RDA Group was struggling desperately. Of our five horses, two had had to be retired; two were ill (one very seriously); and one had been put down over the summer. We weren't doing any riding, therefore, although we still met up for sessions on the barrel and the mechanical horse. Without the real thing, though, the RDA felt really strange and we were all desperately worried about what would happen next. It really felt tragic.
Me with Beethoven at the 2016 Regionals. RIP Beets 😢
Despite all this, I was determined to continue. I just wanted to get to the other side of the British in one piece (by and large) and I didn't care how I got there. I was training incredibly hard to try to keep treading water. I had arrived at one training session straight after a friend's funeral. Another session was done fasting because I went to the hospital straight after for a scan. I was constantly exhausted, in a lot of pain and feeling sick. It just felt as if I were running on empty. 

An unwelcome headache!

Then, the day before the entry deadline, I received an email from the vaulting club telling me that there was no horse available for me to use with the club (for the horse's welfare, they can only accrue a certain number of 'points', which are allotted depending on which classes they are entered into). Spaces were instead going to people who had been going to training. I could see that that was fair but the implication that I hadn't been training just because I hadn't been on a horse was so unfair - I had been training so incredibly hard.

I was utterly devastated that my own stated intention to compete, which had been made months before, was made impossible. I was also pretty cross that I had been given so little notice - surely they would have been able to put the numbers together a little sooner? As the only defending British Champion in the club, it seemed a shame that they weren't interested in helping me to defend the title. Unusually for me, I responded and stood up for myself a bit, but I never received any response.
Ceci n'est pas un paillasson...

I don't want to say any more because although there is much more that could be said I simply don't have the strength for that, nor the appetite. All I'll say is that I felt betrayed, patronised and, to be honest, discriminated against. I was powerless and entirely dependent on someone else coming through for me.

Feeling 💩

My mood can be fragile even though physically I can keep going with a lot thrown at me. I have bipolar disorder and I expect to be on medication for life. With the bipolar came a few other diagnoses (such as BPD and OCD). My self-esteem isn't great and, although it's not something I talk about often, my bipolar affects me more than I'm comfortable to admit. With everything that was going on - quite apart from the aspects of my life which aren't horse-related (yes, there are some!) - I felt horrendous.

It wasn't a nice time.


Fortunately, salvation came in the form of a rather successful vaulting horse, Pitucelli, and his rather successful former vaulter, Lucy Phillips - all thanks to Gill Taylor, who made the arrangement on my behalf with Becca Hewit. Between them, Gill, Becca and Lucy came together and helped me out - ENORMOUS thank you to them. I had never met Pitu before, much less vaulted on him, so that would have to be something new to discover on the day of competition, but there was A Plan and I would be able to have a stab at defending the title!

Well, it should have been plain sailing from there. OK, I didn't know the horse. OK, I was still falling apart. OK, I still couldn't really get on a horse to train - but surely nothing else could go wrong?!

Trying to train

I managed to book a few private sessions at Contessa, which is the club where I coach. Without these sessions I am utterly convinced that I wouldn't have been competitive at the British. It gave me a chance to experience vaulting on a horse that was fairly new to me (even though I'd popped up a couple of times before, and had coached plenty of vaulters on him with me on the ground) which was good practice for Pitu. It also helped me to finetune the routine a little more. I'd also competed on a borrowed horse for the RDA Championships earlier in the year, and had therefore learned the main things I needed to discover about a new horse before going in to compete (what is the roller like - especially the handles? How pronounced is the horse's spine? How does it feel to do a shoulder stand on this horse? and so on).
Not a private session, but same lovely horse and lovely lunger. In this picture I'm discovering how tricky it is to talk and explain something coherently whilst also trying not to make an ass of myself by falling off...
With those extra sessions I was just beginning to feel the tiniest bit of confidence creeping in. Vaulting was agony, but then so was sitting still so I figured that I may as well go and have a stab at the competition.


My body wasn't going to make it easy. To add insult to injury, the day that we left for Wales for the competition I woke up and was very sick. It was officially the worst-timed stomach bug in the history of mankind and I almost wanted to laugh at how ridiculous it all was. I spent the Friday trying to work out if I could eat yet (answer: no). On the Saturday, I went to watch the vaulting for a bit but felt utterly dreadful. I was really grateful that, this year, the para class was only competing on the Sunday and not both days! After bringing up my breakfast I realised that my best chance to get on a horse without throwing up would be to stop eating. All of Saturday and Sunday, therefore, I stuck to lucozade. (It's magic stuff.)

One of the biggest problems with this was that it meant I couldn't take all my normal medication - even if I have a slightly smaller tea than average I wake up in the night and throw up all the pills if there wasn't enough in my tum. The medication is there for a reason and is designed to body and soul together, so not having it all is a gamble but one I had to take. I felt very empty, very weak and very tired, but on the Sunday morning I arrived at the venue bright and early (well, early anyway) and met Pitu for the first time. We had a quick warm-up together and then we were in the ring for round 1.

The competition...

I remember basically nothing about it except that when I came out I wasn't very happy. When the scores came up, I was in first place, but only just - by 0.02 of a point. I knew that, under normal circumstances, I could do better - but these weren't normal circumstances; they were anything but. The problem is, of course, that you don't get to have a chat with the judges beforehand and tell them your sob story. They take you as you are, no matter how you're feeling. I don't like to make excuses for me performing badly, and on this occasion I hadn't performed well.
I gently sipped as much lucozade as I could stomach, watched the video of the first round, and discovered what I needed to do differently or better in round 2. I went as full out as possible in my now near-delirious state and did feel happier with the routine.
I hugged Pitu but when he went off to do his next thing it all became a bit too much. My lovely friend Helen was there to catch me and sit with me as I fell apart... (I make no apology to Helen and Laurie for including the photos below. If you're going to take selfies with my camera then you have to expect this!)


Long story short: it was enough. I finished on a much better score after round 2 and I had won.
British Para Vaulting Champion 2018
The overwhelming feeling was one of relief. I didn't feel especially proud. I was just tired and miserable and relieved.

What now?

I have a mantra which is this: if you're not dead or in hospital, you go to your goddamn training session. These days it's harder - I now usually have to drive to get to training but I hope I'm a responsible driver and if I'm not well enough to drive then I don't get behind the wheel. However, if I can't get to training I'll make sure I do something at home instead. The theory behind this is that if I can train when the chips are down and I feel like 💩 then I can compete like that. It's useful psychologically to know that you can do it and that you won't make excuses, because you don't make excuses. It comes down to this: how you compete is how you train, and how you train is how you compete. If you make excuses in training, you'll make them in competition.
In retrospect, I am proud of what I achieved. However, I don't yet feel that I can look back on it without a sense of dread and foreboding. It wasn't a happy weekend and I knew that I would need to make some changes after it, which was not a prospect that I relished. The pride that I should feel is tainted by a sense of unfinished business. I don't know why - I haven't yet worked out what is unfinished.

I'm not proud of the event or the result because of everything that made it so difficult. To me, those things are excuses and I should be able to overcome any and all of them better than I did. Perhaps the thing that I am most proud of is that, as a result of everything that happened, I learnt other things. I started to learn about standing up for myself more. I learnt about how to cope with vaulting on a new, unfamiliar horse. Mostly, I learned patience - and that's what I want to write about next time.

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