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Rachel Morris: Racing against her own body

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Ollie Williams | 12:29 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

Rachel Morris doesn't cycle for fun. She does it to make the pain bearable.

The 32-year-old has already lost both of her legs to a rare and aggressive condition which causes her body to reject its own injured limbs.

Now, after a training accident last month in which she dislocated her shoulder, she is worried she may lose her arm, too.

In her position, you would be forgiven for wanting to shut the door behind you and never come out again.

But Morris, who operates her bike with her hands, needs cycling. It is her life, consuming and sustaining her.

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Rachel Morris explains her fears after dislocating her shoulder in a training crash

"Handcycling is more than a sport to me," said the Paralympic time trial gold medallist as she prepared for the sport's World Championships in Roskilde, Denmark.

"It's a way of managing the pain. Without it, my life becomes unmanageable. And it's what I do - it's what I get up to do in the morning, it's what I go to bed at night thinking about. It is me."

Her mother, Hilary, added: "She's driven by it. People say how wonderful it is when they see her out training at five in the morning. 'Yes,' I say, 'it is wonderful - but it's for pain control.' And then they think, 'Ooh. Gosh.'

"But she has to do what she has to do. Part of her pain management is to push her body hard, distract herself and release endorphins into her brain which help control the pain.

"She's driven by the pain to a great extent so you can't hold her back, because you can't let her have any more pain. She suffers every day, all day, anyway."

Morris's troubles began in the most terrifyingly innocuous of circumstances as a teenager.

"All I did in the beginning was twist my ankle on a dry ski slope," she says, apologetically. "It's quite embarrassing, it wasn't even on a snow-covered mountain.

"From that I had an awful lot of problems which weren't picked up at the beginning - my condition is a strange thing, especially the way mine ended up going - and unfortunately it's ended up with me having multiple amputations."

The condition goes by several names, two of the most common being Reflex Sympathetic Distrophy (RSD) and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

Since it began destroying Morris's legs she has had to move from sport to sport, each time accommodating a new level of disability. Her childhood love of athletics became a passion for sailing but, once she lost her second leg, road cycling was identified as the way forward.

She lives life, and competes, in near-constant pain.

"There are two sorts of pain," she explained. "One is from phantom limbs, and one is a pain inside you that has the same intensity as catching your arm on the oven or an iron.

"The first one gives you strange feedback where your limbs were, as though your foot is facing the wrong way or twisted around, and I feel that a lot with my left foot. Obviously, I've got no legs but it's incredible what your brain will do: in the night I'll wake up with cramp in my foot and reach down. It's so real, you reach down thinking that your leg is there.

"The other pain is far more a burning pain which combines with what I call 'white pain'. That's when the pain is so powerful that there's nothing you can do about it, it'll make you drop anything and stop."

In the month leading up to the Worlds, things became even worse. Morris slid off a wet road on a training ride in Bath and dislocated her shoulder.

Rachel Morris

Morris out on the roads around Bath, just hours before dislocating her shoulder

As she told us how the crash happened, it only slowly dawned on me that while dislocated shoulders are unpleasant for anyone, for Morris they must be particularly significant. I had to ask: if Rachel's body has in the past rejected injured limbs, and she has just injured a limb, is she not worried?

"Causing this injury to my body could, potentially, trigger the same reaction that's happened in my legs, and cause the RSD to become active in my arm. Obviously I have no legs, so the worst-case scenario is that it could do the same thing to my arm," she replied.

"I've become almost paranoid about the colour of it or watching the temperature, which are two of the things that change early on. So I have become very, very worried."

A week later, Morris crossed the finish line fourth in her first race at the World Championships, her body shaking and writhing with the exertion for a good 10 minutes afterwards.

Though disappointed not to win a medal, back in the British team's pit area she seemed happy to have made it through the race.

"The best bit is my shoulder made it round the course. I came out and completed something I didn't think I could have done two weeks ago. I didn't do it as I would have wanted to, but I couldn't have done any more as I am at the moment."

A bronze medal in her second and final event, the road race, is something although - for last year's world champion - settling for one third-place finish was clearly immensely frustrating.

For more reasons than most, Morris is compelled to give everything she has to her sport. Next year, she would hate to settle for a bronze medal. But first she must get herself to the Paralympic start line safely, and that means almost 12 months of waking up and tentatively inspecting the suspect shoulder.

"I've got to think of next year," she says. "That is the ultimate goal for everyone and the pinnacle of my career, so I do have to be careful and protect myself for that.

"If that was taken away from me, I think that possibly is the point at which I would give up. Which is quite a terrifying thought, because the Games have so much power and so much emotion that does drive me on. Next year is massive in lots of ways."

See more from Rachel on this month's edition of British Olympic Dreams: BBC One, 1430 BST, Saturday 17 September and repeated at 1530 and 2230 on the BBC News Channel. Available on iPlayer for seven days from broadcast.


  • Comment number 1.

    What an amazing, inspirational woman. And I complain when I've got a twinge in my back!

  • Comment number 2.

    I´m asthonished with her courage.
    Perhaps this exercises from relaxing and Taoist Qi qong can help you with your pain.
    You could imagine that your breath is curative and it is inside your body, walking from your lung to your shoulder, giving you health.
    You could say to your pain it will be higher, then you can fell the pain disappear.
    One advice, finally, your mind have to say to your body `I accept you, we are the same´ a lot on the day.
    Lucky in Denmark

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for this article Ollie. Words cannot describe her courage or the example she sets for people. The best of luck Rachel!

  • Comment number 4.

    The only reason why there aren't more comments here is I guess because people are awestruck by this inspirational individual whose sport is her life. Good luck to you Rachel a worthy Olympian.


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