Wheelchair rugby star Grace shows how sport changes lives

28 February 2018

‘I would definitely say that sport, especially wheelchair rugby, has helped me in a big way. I’m doing more now than I ever was.’

— Grace McGowan

Grace McGowanThe bubbly 26-year-old is an ambassador for Leonard Cheshire’s new Can Do Sport programme, which encourages young disabled people to get active and campaigns to remove barriers to participation in sport.

For Grace, sport changed her life. After a car accident in 2014 left her paralysed from the chest down, sport played a key role in helping her get things back on track.

A key member of The Dorset Destroyers Wheelchair Rugby Club, Grace aims to break records as she joins team mates to launch a ​24-hour wheelchair rugby marathon on 17 March — raising vital funds for the club and for charity. 

Grace is already no stranger to sporting records. In 2017, taking part in the accessible run known as Parallel London, she completed 1km in an exo-skeleton and set the fastest time in her category.

How sport can help disabled people

Four out of five disabled people are not currently active, but seven out of ten want to increase the amount of physical activity they take part in.

Grace feels strongly that joining a local sports team can help so many people with different levels of ability.

‘You meet good friends and there’s a real sense of camaraderie.

‘You’ve all got impairments, and people have some understanding of what you’re dealing with.

‘You’re all in the same boat, and you just get stuck in as much as you can.’

Getting involved

Grace knows that a lack of local, accessible sports and exercise centres can create a barrier for many people.

But even if we still need more facilities, Grace is keen for people not to be put off. There’s still a big chance to get involved now.

‘Most chain gyms are accessible and instructors are more than willing to help.

‘You can also have a look online for disability sport clubs. You may try out a few different sports and find the right one for you.

‘Don’t be afraid. Just go for it. The freedom you feel and the benefits you get are so worth it.’

Confidence, friendship, inclusion

Grace feels these benefits go far beyond a physical health boost.

‘Sport helps with mental health too. It gives you confidence and a new friendship group.

‘You feel included and people know what you’re going through.’

‘It’s really important to talk to people’

Grace acknowledges that living with an impairment can often be challenging, and has some good advice for those who may be struggling with their condition.

‘Obviously I try to embrace what I have and what I can do.

‘But also, I think it’s really important to talk to people.

‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My family and friends have been brilliant, and my team mates at the Dorset Destroyers have been a huge help.’

The Dorset Destroyers were founded by disability sports pioneer Nick Coombs, who benefited from a Leonard Cheshire partnership with the Bank Workers’ charity that helped him get back into sport.

Buoyed by Nick’s plans to create a disability sport ‘centre of excellence’ in Poole, Grace is among the new recruits for wheelchair basketball and a host of other activities.

Many disability sports clubs face high running costs. Specialist chairs for wheelchair rugby cost in the thousands, and repairs are a constant drain on funds. So Grace and the Dorset Destroyers hope to raise £10,000 and help more disabled people benefit from the sport.

Meeting Jonny Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson playing rugby with Dorset DestroyersGrace is one of the few people to have played alongside former England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson.

The Destroyers and the World Cup winning fly- half were attending a summer fair in 2016. After opening a local orthopaedic unit, Jonny joined the team for an exhibition match.

‘It was great! He just cracked on with and got involved straight away. He was friendly, really genuine and really down to earth. Such a lovely guy.’

Going the extra mile

On Sunday 22 April, Grace will take part in the London Marathon in her manual wheelchair.

(Another Can Do Sport ambassador, professional wheelchair racer Nikki Emerson, will take part in the elite race).

For Grace, this is her first time at any marathon event. Her training regime is far from simple.

‘I drive myself to the gym and have to do 80-minute sessions, using the hand bikes and the weights.

‘It’s tough but it will be worth it.’

In September, she plans to tackle Parallel London once again. She has fond memories of last year’s exploits.

‘It was an awesome event that included everyone. It was an incredible feeling taking part and I want to try to do it every year.’

Sport ‘will improve all aspects of your life’

Grace is clear that the positive emotions she feels from taking part in sport have proved absolutely invaluable.

‘The vibe of sport is just absolutely amazing. I can’t recommend it enough. Once you find a sport that is right for you, it will improve all aspects of your life.’

Find out more about disability sport 

Visit the Play Disability Sport page at Parasport to find sports, clubs and organisations near you.

Other useful links

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