Team England athlete Nikki Emerson backs Can Do Sport

20 February 2018

Wheelchair racer Nikki Emerson will be part of Team England at the Commonwealth Games 2018.

The 29-year-old is keen to lend her backing to our Can Do Sport programme, which helps disabled people get involved in sport and exercise and breaks down barriers to participation. 

Nikki Emerson

Four out of five disabled people said they were not active, but seven out of ten told us they would like to get involved in more sport and exercise. 

Great reasons to get active

Nikki knows all about the benefits of sport. She says getting active can be a huge boost to so many disabled people. 

‘We all know that getting active keeps you healthy. The mental health benefits are huge: I always feel so much better after any exercise. And also, on the social side, it’s a way to make some really good friends.

‘There are lots of sports and activities out there, not just wheelchair racing. Boxing and throwing might be good if one side is much stronger.  Yoga and zumba can be good options too. Keep your mind open.’

Finding good support

In June 2008, while driving back after her second year at Oxford University, Nikki broke her back in a car accident. The accident left her paralysed from the hips down.

Although she had great support from her family and friends, sport provided her with invaluable support from other disabled people.

‘Through sport, I’ve met some amazing people. And there are things you can talk about with other disabled people if you need too — you can just be open about things that you’re finding hard. For me that’s been very important.’

Nikki’s journey into sport

Nikki first discovered sport during her time at the Spinal Injury Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where sport for everyone is a major part of rehabilitation.

The Paralympics at Beijing 2008 made a huge impact, and she fired off emails to several British teams. She also met Paralympic legend Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Tanni’s husband Ian Thompson, who is now Nikki’s coach.

The pair soon persuaded her to try wheelchair athletics, taking her to Silverstone Half-Marathon in 2009. Thinking she was just going to watch, Nikki did not know they had brought a racing wheelchair with them! She completed the race, and was hooked.

A highly successful early athletics career saw Nikki win medals at major national and international events. In 2012, an unfortunately timed shoulder injury led her to switch focus to a day job.

She had a spell working at Tough Mudder — the young company behind the famous endurance race, which she completed four times in a manual chair (‘Brilliant but really hard. My team had to use a lot of ropes!’) 

She is currently Business Development Manager at the Premier League.

Triumphant return

After a long break from wheelchair racing, Nikki’s friends finally persuaded her to take up athletics again.

She won gold at Silverstone in 2016, silver at the Paris Marathon in 2016 and 2017 and bronze at the Dubai Marathon last month. The impressive return led to a call-up for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.  

Gold Coast Girl

With less than two months to go until the Games begin in April, Nikki says she can’t wait to get started at Gold Coast 2018.

‘I’m really looking forward to being part of a team. Putting on the same kit as your team mates and all going out there for the same goal — that’s the most phenomenal feeling.’

At the elite level she has to put in the hours, training 10 or 12 times per week and covering 100 miles, as well as the gym work.

‘It’s exhausting but it’s also very rewarding. You put on the Team England kit and you think: "Wow. When I was a kid I never imagined that I would be representing my country." And now here I am. So it’s completely worth all the extra hours.’

Sport for all

Nikki is keen to stress that the buzz of sport is vital at all levels. She is among those who reject the ‘superhuman’ label, saying that some of the marketing around Paralympians and elite athletes is not helpful.

‘When I watch the Paralympics on TV, I see Channel 4 have branded the athletes as "superhuman" — it makes everything seem so unattainable.

‘But I would still go to races and enjoy it even if I wasn’t competing for my country.

‘So I think it’s important to understand that sport is a fantastic thing to do for fun, to make friends and boost your confidence.’

Barriers to participation… and how we can deal with them

Sadly, disabled people who want to take up sport still face significant barriers. Equipment can be very expensive. However, it can sometimes be loaned through disability sports clubs.

Lack of accessible facilities is a big problem. Nikki says that access at her local gym is ‘terrible’, despite repeated calls for change. But even if somewhere is slow to adapt, it is always important to keep reminding them about the need for improvement.

Attitudes to disabled people

Nikki admits that public attitudes towards disabled people can create an extra challenge.

‘When I’m in the gym, people stare. In that situation, it’s good if you have someone you can go with.

‘Then you can have a laugh later. If not, you do get used to it. But I have a lot of routines that I do at home too. So that’s another option.’

Younger generations, she feels, have a better response when they encounter disabled people.

‘When I go into schools, it seems like everyone is much more immediately accepting of disability.’

More disabled role models required

Nikki believes that disabled people really need to see more examples of sport being played.

‘If you’re not disabled, as well as seeing footballers on TV, when you go outside you’ll see a group of people playing football in the local park.

‘It’s far easier to see sport as an everyday activity. But if you’re a disabled person, you don’t see another disabled person playing sport.’

Expanding participation

Nikki believes passionately in expanding participation, which is why she previously launched our Get Into Sport guide and is now backing our new Can Do Sport programme.

And after meeting members of Can Do’s steering group this week in Birmingham, she is excited about the possibilities of the new programme.

‘I think Can Do Sport is unique. I hope we can create change so that more people disabled people can get active. That would have a really big impact on people’s lives.’

Watch out for Nikki’s Commonwealth Games diary. Starting in March, the diary will continue through April as she travels to Gold Coast 2018. Nikki will be competing in the T54 1500m and the T54 Marathon. 

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