Evie Toombes: Showjumper with Paralympic dreams on life-changing surgery & invisible illnesses

By Katie FalkinghamBBC Sport
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with Evie Toombes at the 2018 WellChild Awards
Toombes and her brother met the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at the 2018 WellChild Awards where she was presented with the award for Inspirational Young Person

Evie Toombes' motto is "find a way, not an excuse", and it's one that many of us could probably learn from.

We could all learn a lot from Toombes herself, too. At 18, her life has become "unrecognisable from what it could be", in and out of hospital and far from that of a "normal" teenager.

"The biggest thing I have learnt is that your happiness is very much based on your expectations, so if you keep your expectations pretty minimal, you're always going to find some light in things. That mindset seems to really help me to muddle through sometimes," she says.

When BBC Sport speaks to the para-showjumper, she is in hospital awaiting a date for the surgery that will change, and save, her life.

Born with a form of spina bifida which affects the nerves to her legs, bladder and bowel, three years ago Toombes was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a chronic condition in which the stomach cannot empty in the normal way.

Since then, she has been tube fed - yet it is still not enough. She is currently under going parenteral nutrition, whereby nutrients are delivered intravenously, in order for her to gain enough weight to have ileostomy surgery.

That surgery, to create a stoma, was due to take place at the end of March, but was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. During lockdown, Toombes' weight has dropped to its lowest, and although she was discharged from hospital, it soon became too dangerous for her to be at home and she was re-admitted.

"It's got to the stage that we are still trying to find out what is going on, all the time while I'm getting worse and worse," says Toombes, who has self-catheterised since the age of three and has carried out daily bowel treatments since she was eight.

"We're working against a time limit all of the time."

'I feel like I have a purpose'

Having the surgery should see a big improvement in Toombes' condition and subsequently her quality of life, allowing her to get back to doing what she does best - showjumping, and raising awareness of "invisible illnesses" like her own.

Since she was just 13, Toombes has been delivering talks in primary schools to educate children on hidden disabilities.

"I struggled so much when I was younger, I got bullied a lot and it was really hard because no-one understood as I looked normal," says Toombes.

"It's about trying to have a positive impact, not actually on the children with health conditions, but their friends so that they understood and could be more accepting."

She also writes a blog, while she has also written a children's book on the subject - Lucy Goes To School - based on her own experiences.

"I was convinced that I was the only person in the world who had a lot of health issues," she says.

"When I learnt that it wasn't the case, I decided that I wanted to start my blog and become open about my conditions, which was a huge step for me but at the same time it made life a lot easier.

"I knew there would be other people who didn't want to be public about theirs, but I felt if I could help them by speaking about it and make them feel less alone just by knowing that there is someone else... There's been such a ripple of positivity that it's made me feel like I have a purpose."

Evie Toombes with her horses
Toombes says her horses give her "freedom"

'Riding gives me freedom'

Ask Toombes what riding means to her and her reply is a simple one: "Freedom." Her horses are her "coping method"; her reason to get up on a morning.

"It is so drastically different to being hooked up to machines and indoors in a hospital," says Toombes, who benefits from the Women's Sport Trust's 'Unlocked' campaign.

"With my legs not working, Daisy [her horse] practically becomes my legs and I get that freedom that is impossible to feel on my own.

"I'm able to achieve things, do things, and work towards things. It gives me a focus and a goal, and it stops me thinking that I'm just a patient."

Toombes and Daisy currently top the GB Para League table despite Toombes being the youngest rider.

Although showjumping is not currently on the Paralympic programme, she hopes one day she will get the opportunity to represent her country on the greatest stage.

"That would be the icing on the cake," she says.

But for now, Toombes' focus is solely on her health. Because of restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, she is not allowed visitors in hospital, but she can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"It's really hard in some respects, because everything that I thrive on - my animals, being with my family and being at home - has been taken away from me," she says.

"I think it's just a case of gritting my teeth at the moment. I know I'm not going to enjoy it, it's not going to be fun, but it is going to be worthwhile."

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