27 July 2016
As a part of a regular blog series leading up to the Paralympic Games, World and European champion Jo Butterfield talks about a whirlwind five years, sport and now the big one….Rio.
Five years ago I suffered a completely unexpected spinal cord injury. I was just a regular person working for the MOD doing everyday normal things, and then I was told I had a tumour on my spinal cord. I had an operation to remove the tumour and was told there was a 0.01% chance that I could be paralysed afterwards. Hours later I woke up to the news.
It is a huge life changing experience, but I chose not to dwell on it. The whole thing has given me a big reality check on life. I stressed about so many unimportant things in life, and when something life changing like what happens, it puts everything into perspective.
I spent six months in hospital, and sport was part of my rehabilitation. That’s where my first taste of sport came from, and I enjoyed it. It was a nice break from the mundane physio you were put through every day. At that point being a para sport athlete was something that was never on my radar at all.
I had enjoyed sport before my disability, but I was never involved in anything. My work for the MOD put a lot of focus on physical fitness but not any particular sport. There was a social side to taking up sport after my operation. When I was in school I used to avoid athletics like the plague, it wasn’t my cup of tea and I had never tried throwing, I knew what the discus was but had never heard of a club.
It was wheelchair rugby that I fell in love with first. It’s a popular sport particularly for tetraplegics and I was introduced to that. I just found it so much fun, you were able to just sit in a chair and smash someone else. Something you would usually get arrested for, and I was actively encouraged to do it. The whole time up till then in hospital it was about making sure I was safe and couldn’t hurt myself, so it was a refreshing change.
Through that I was talent spotted by UK Sport and asked to take a look at athletics and I thought why not! So I went along to a talent transfer day and before you know it four months down the line I earned my first GB selection.
Straight away the first thing everybody said to me was Rio is too soon, it is out of the question. I was so naïve to begin with, I was just doing it for the enjoyment. It was so far off the realms of possibility that I didn’t even dare to dream about it. But it was quite quick, that once I was classified and had been competing for six months people started saying I could go far in the sport. I did make a choice right there and then, that if I’m going to do it, I’ll give it my all. I gave up work and started training full time, and I think it’s important you put that sort of dedication into it.
I was completely like a fish out of water when I competed in my first major competition at the 2014 European Championships in Swansea. I did not have a clue what I was doing. I turned up and everyone had these fancy frames they threw from. I was so inexperienced, but I think that helped me in a way. I was just there to throw my best. I think the enjoyment is very much at the heart of why I do it. I have to tell myself that more and more, because it is hard and there is a lot of pressure and expectation as you start to win. I am no longer this person nobody knows, people are now expecting me to throw well.
Doha (the IPC Athletics World Championships) proved to be another step up in competition. There were so many class athletes there including the then world record holder, so it posed a completely different challenge. I was sat in my hotel room with Georgie (Hermitage) thinking it was just ridiculous that we are world champions. It’s a very difficult feeling to explain to anyone, a culmination of all the hard work and making people proud.
Through that I earned early selection for Rio and it has been a huge boost for me. It’s been nice as I don’t have to chase any competitions. You try not to entertain the idea of a Paralympics too much, but it is always there in the background. Any time you get up on a cold windy day in Glasgow to go training, it makes it worth it because you are training for Rio. I’m trying to stick to the plan and not get carried away with the hype of it all.
Having a really close friend like Georgie there by my side is a massive help. The first time we met we were lumped together in Doha. We had met each other briefly at competitions before, but we didn’t really know each other. We hit it off straight away and are really comfortable around each other. It’s nice to have someone you can be yourself with. Somewhere like Rio you are going to be there for the best part of a month so it’s important to get along with your roommate. We are called the old married couple. It’s nice to have someone who understands the process of what we are going through. I have lots of great friends, but no one outside of this world can understand it fully and Georgie can which helps a lot.
My training hasn’t changed drastically since getting my early selection for Rio. The only difference is that you have a distinct time frame to peak and perform your best. I know that I need to be performing my best come September and everything I do is working towards that goal. If I’m honest I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want the gold medal. I’m going in as world champion, as the world record holder and I know I can beat everyone that is going to be competing there. I want to be happy with my performance, which would probably mean a PB, and if I do that I will feel like I’ve done everything I can to earn the ultimate reward.
The training is definitely important, but on the day there are at least three people that can do it on the day. On current form anything could happen, which makes it interesting and keeps you on your toes.
It’s back to training I go to put the hard work in. I keep saying to myself, before the rollercoaster gets too crazy, relax and enjoy it. That is exactly what I intend to do.
Thank you to everyone for your support on my journey, it means the world to me!