"I learnt to love movement and began to enjoy the simple experience of going for sea swims"Matilda O'Callaghan

Sport provides enormous challenges for those with chronic health conditions, but also amazing opportunities for our physical health and wellbeing.

I have hypermobility syndrome, which is a chronic pain condition caused by joints that are very flexible. It means I have constant joint pain, am highly prone to injuries, get extremely tired, and suffer from muscle fatigue. This is considered part of the Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, a range of conditions that affects connective tissues, and people receive very different symptoms and severities along the scale.

I am lucky to have only mild symptoms and to be able to even consider sport as an option, yet there is still a long way to go in the lack of research surrounding the conditions. Many of those affected by the syndromes find themselves being excluded from sport and even the paralympics, despite its recognised status as a disability.

Having struggled with hypermobility all throughout my childhood, alongside juvenile arthritis, sport was extremely frustrating and exclusive for me. It was difficult to see all my friends benefiting from all their training, while I just found myself stuck in endless cycles of injuries and the daily grind of physio exercises. My posture was too bad for dancing; my ankles too weak for running; my wrists too sore for climbing. I became so used to failing halfway through a race or grinding my way through P.E. lessons, I never wanted to take part in competitive exercise ever again.

But instead of giving up, I slowly trained my body in micro ways, making my yoga mat my home to build upwards from the ground. I learnt to love movement and began to enjoy the simple experience of going for sea swims and slow coastal runs now that my mind was less scorched with pain. In this self-care and gratitude, my body became even stronger and I saw improvements, but still felt incredibly fearful whenever I heard the word “sport”.   

"Keeping active, building strength and learning how to deal with pain management has transformed my understanding of my body"

However, arriving at Cambridge, having focused for years on conditioning my body, I decided it was time for me to take a chance at exercise again. I threw myself into triathlon and even college rowing at Cambridge.

Keeping active, building strength and learning how to deal with pain management has transformed my understanding of my body. I’ve been able to race well in a range of events, often performing much better because I have spent so long building up muscle strength. Having access to a free college cardio and weights gym, erg room, and pool has enabled me to split my training into more manageable chunks across the day. It finally feels like I’m starting to regain control over my body, set goals, and see sport as something I can also be a part of.

Yet, it’s still not easy, and something I attempt to hide among my sporting friends, because I don’t want to be the one complaining about pain or giving up. I cannot anticipate how the disability will affect me on any given day, so committing to training is a huge mental and physical task. Turning up to row at 6am on a cold February morning is hard enough without your body screaming at you to just lie in bed.

On other days, it feels like I am making it up as I can have boundless energy and perform really well with little effort. Letting coaches know about my condition is useful but there’s a certain feeling of just about getting on with it. With triathlon races looming I hope they will be days I can wake up feeling my best, but will brace through the pain if it is not. These mental struggles are just as much a part of the difficulties of sport as much as the physical experience of pain.

It’s clear that there is still a lot of potential for sports at all levels to be accommodating to those of us who have struggled a long way just to get to the start line. Even just starting the conversation is a first step to making people more aware of the physical issues people can experience.,

But we need to go further and actively create that supportive environment. Training should be open to all, even if you cannot commit to every session, and people should not be made to feel guilty about missing them in an already high pressured environment. Organisers at matches and race officials should be made aware where necessary of where extra medical provision should be provided for those who have disabilities, as well as making spectator sport more accessible. Colleges need to offer funds for those who need to access physios to support them in their sports and daily lives.


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Sport can be a fantastic part of our lives, offering healthy competition, fitness and great friends, but we all should have an opportunity to take part to the best of our bodies potential. University is the perfect space to be more inclusive in sport, leading the way in how we can all live better lives.