10th June 2020


A reigning European champion and world bronze medallist in the F34 shot put, Vanessa Wallace (coach: Alison O’Riordan) has been one of the breakthrough stars in the British team over the past few years. Although her tilt at reaching her second Paralympic Games has been put on hold until 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she is adapting to the ‘new normal’ and her target is to ‘come through it physically and mentally in one piece’. We caught up with Nessa from her home in North London.

As the country went into lockdown earlier this year, Wallace and her fellow athletes were left with many questions as events were cancelled, face to face training was no longer possible, and the prospect of hours at home was a distinct reality. Nessa admits this was a difficult time to navigate.

“It took a while to find a new normal – so much was happening at the start of lockdown, there was so much to process. Competitions were being cancelled, one day after another, everything was imploding. One door was closing, then another was closing – your normal routine got a lot smaller. It took me weeks to get my head around what to do.”

Her strength and conditioning coach put together a series of exercises she could do at home, but without the gym equipment she would usually have access to, she says it has been a case of ‘ticking over’ rather than continuing training at anywhere near optimum level.

However, the self-described ‘home body’ hasn’t found it too strange to stay indoors, and admits she has enjoyed the reduced activity to a degree, becoming an ‘expert napper’ but has missed not being able to spend time doing tasks we take for granted, such as seeing her mum to do her hair. Like for many around the UK, the last few weeks has put a lot of things into perspective.

With the support of her peers and staff on the Paralympic World Class Programme at British Athletics, her coach and training group, and her fellow University of East London students, Nessa has maintained regular contact which she says has been beneficial while adapting to the ‘new normal’.

“It is quite nice to pop your head above your own situation and see how everyone else is doing. I’ve been in receipt of and asking, ‘how are you?’ because there wasn’t any right or wrong way to react to this situation in my opinion. It was about finding what works for you. My target was to come through it physically and mentally in one piece.

“Being able to connect with other athletes and students allowed me to keep a little bit of my daily routine, a bit of normality. There is something outside of your four walls.”

One of those activities which has been keeping her occupied during the lockdown has been the Women’s Sport Trust ‘Unlocked’ programme which she was invited to be part of earlier this year.

The campaign sees 40 elite athletes paired with 40 ‘activators’ made up of leading figures from business, sport and media to shape the future of women’s sport. Wallace – who was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which causes joint problems and affects leg mobility – has been paired up with Tim Hollingsworth, the CEO of Sport England, and she speaks glowingly of the experience and the pairing.

“I am loving it. Oh my goodness, it is epic. Women’s Sport Trust went into their own [after lockdown] and made the programme continue to work and take it to new levels.

“There are weekly zoom calls, and they created a programme where we aren’t in this on our own. There are a variety of speakers from across the industry. It is amazing that industry leaders are sharing time with us.”

Not only immersed in this enrichment opportunity, she is also continuing her studies in Sports and Exercise Science at the University of East London with essays on physiology and nutrition for marathon runners coming up later this month, and has worked with Neuro Kinex to provide her own mindfulness techniques.

With aspirations to move into Performance Lifestyle in the years ahead, she speaks enthusiastically about encouraging current athletes to speak to PL advisors during their career to best plan for life after sport. It is a topic she is incredibly passionate about. Referring to the ‘unlocked’ campaign, she adds:

“I’m training to be a performance lifestyle practitioner. It is a privilege to listen and to pick up what this group of athletes are interested in, what skills could be useful and what areas of knowledge need to be made more apparent.”

Also a current member of the UK Athletics Athletes’ Commission, it is clear that she is committed not only to her own development as an athlete on and off the track, but utilising what she is learning to benefit other athletes as well.

For now, as lockdown conditions are easing, Nessa, her coach Alison, and training partner, Taz Nicholls, met last Friday for their first face-to-face training session since March, following the government guidelines on social distancing. It is a welcome return to training for the 42-year-old as the road to Tokyo resumes, while continuing her pursuits off the track.