Shelly Woods: From childhood trauma to sporting glory

CNN  — 

Something traumatic happened to Shelly Woods when she was 11 – and it changed her life.

While some people might have struggled to deal with such cruel fate at that age, she has not let it crush her dreams of sporting stardom.

“I fell out of a tree and broke my back,” the 28-year-old, who has won medals at two Paralympic Games, tells CNN’s Human to Hero series of her 20-foot plunge.

“I quickly found that just because now I had to live life on a wheelchair I could still do all the sports I could do before, just maybe in a different way.”

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Wheelchair racer strives for Rio
02:49 - Source: CNN

Backed by her parents, she gave everything a go before settling on wheelchair racing – a discipline in which she was twice on the podium at Beijing 2008 and then won silver at her home London 2012 Games.

“My mum and dad always treated me the same as my two brothers,” says Woods, who comes from the northern English seaside town of Blackpool.

“I quickly found that with a good positive outlook you can do anything if you try. That is their philosophy. They didn’t push me into anything really – they supported me in whatever I wanted to do.”

Her first race, at the age of 15, was part of the London Marathon – the last two miles of the course in a competition for juniors.

“I think I came last,” recalls Woods. “That was the turning point for me, that was the thing where I was, “Well, I haven’t trained a lot for this race but I absolutely enjoyed it and I want to do more of it.”

From racing that day in “the worst chair in the world … it was secondhand, it was what my mum and dad could afford at the time,” Woods went on to win the London marathon in the women’s wheelchair category in 2007 and 2012, having been runner-up in her first two attempts.

Now she zooms along in a hi-tech, aerodynamic chair made out of aircraft aluminum with carbon wheels – costing about six times that original £500 ($745) model.

After earning selection to the Great Britain team for the European championships, she made her Paralympics debut in China – where she competed in the T54 category for marathon, 800 meters, 1,500m and 5,000m.

“I didn’t have expectations, actually – all my expectations were to make the team and that was my goal. After that I guess I was like, ‘What do I do now?’

“I also didn’t know that the 5,000m, my first ever Paralympic race, was going to be probably one of the most controversial races in Paralympic history.”

The 10-strong field was decimated by a crash on the penultimate lap. Woods avoided the mayhem and went on to cross the line in second place.

However, her dreams of a silver medal – which she actually received on the podium – were dashed when officials decided to re-run the race.

“I did actually consider running home with the medal, jumping on a plane back to London, but there was no way I was going to miss that re-run,” she says.

Woods had to make do with a bronze medal, and was fourth in the marathon, but found some consolation by claiming silver in the 1,500m – an event in which she would set a world record in 2010.

“It surpassed anything I thought I was capable of doing – I was just too happy,” she says of her achievements in Beijing. “It was a dream come true.”

But life was going to get even better. Having seen the rapturous home reception the Chinese athletes received, Woods knew that London 2012 would be something special.

“When I walked into the stadium in London, there was 90,000 people there,” she recalls.

“I didn’t know whether the public would embrace the Paralympics but they did, they didn’t care what sport it was – they just came to support and it was incredible.

“When they announced my name at the start line, the roar of the stadium was deafening. It just gives me goose bumps. My husband told me afterwards it was like a wall of sound that followed around the stadium for 12 and half laps.”

However, Woods was unable to deliver a medal on the track, finishing eighth in her opening event, sixth in 1,500m and failing to reach the 800m final.

It all came down to the marathon.

“All I could hear was, ‘Go Shelly, go Shelly, go GB, go Shelly,’ through every second of the race,” she says.

“Coming into the last mile of the marathon, I managed to stay with the lead pack and there was five other girls around me.”

After a sprint finish in which only 0.02 seconds separated the first four racers, Woods was relieved to come home in second place.

“To win that in front of my family – they didn’t come to Beijing because it was so far away – they watched me get my medal in front of Buckingham Palace and I was just so proud to be British.”

But from that high followed the first big low of her career.

Feeling burnt out, Woods also had to find a new mentor after Peter Eriksson left his role as head coach of UK Athletics to return home to Canada.

“I had a bad season after London 2012,” she explains. “I had to make some changes and that was hard to get used to and it reflected in my performances.

“And I lost my British athletics funding, which is hard because that’s your support. Not only did I lose my funding, I lost my support from them, my physio … everything that they help you with, which was really hard to take, especially having one bad year after doing so well the previous years.”

Woods continues to receive support from the Get Kids Going! charity, which has provided her with racing chairs since she was 15, and is now targeting a place at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

She competed in Australia at the start of this year and notched qualifying times to ensure she will race for Britain at October’s World Athletics Championships in Qatar.

Woods will also take part in the IPC Athletics Marathon World Championships on April 26, held in conjunction with the London Marathon.

“I do want to go to Rio. I feel like I can do well in Rio and be really competitive,” she says.

“When you are in that environment, your aim is to always be the best you can be and bring home gold medals for your country.”

CNN’s Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for times, videos and features.

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