With all the articles written on wheelchair sporting events and our great accomplishments at the Paralympics and other events, I wondered what it must be like to be a caregiver for champions.  I made contact with Grace Hughes, who has assisted various sporting teams for such a long time that she has migrated from being known as “Sisi” to “Mama”

Grace’s journey with our sporting teams started in 2007, with the wheelchair basketball team at the All Africa Games in Algeria, followed by the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, the London Paralympics in 2012, as well as two Commonwealth Games; in 2010 and 2014.

For me, 2007 was the best of times as I had been selected as a physiotherapist to the South African team going to the All Africa Games in Algeria.  Many physiotherapists wish to be selected as National team physiotherapist and I was no exception; if one is interested in sport and in South Africa’s sporting performance, this was the business! 

However, unbeknown to me, it would also become the worst of times… for in my second week at the games, I was assigned the National Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team.  The team was there to attempt to take the title of African champs which would allow them to qualify as Africa representatives to the Beijing Paralympic Games. This was deemed possible, but unlikely.  I had no interest or experience in disability sport; my expertise was in assisting able-bodied champions. I, now felt that I’d been given the short straw but more importantly, I felt professionally under-prepared for the role.  This was most definitely NOT the business!

My first few days with the team exposed a series of astonishing discoveries.  The team was tough, rough and aggressive while I was intimidated. Each of the individuals was determined and gentle and I became more comfortable. Their disabilities and the sport were interesting, but their abilities and achievements much more so. Their altered biomechanics and compensatory neuromuscular mechanisms were unusual, but the athleticism and perfection made them well balanced players.  Their insecurities and inadequacies were to be expected, but their doggedness and commitment and humour were extraordinary. I soon realised that the straw I had drawn was a unique physiotherapy challenge and opportunity – it was fascinating, captivating, in short, perfect.

Towards the end of the All Africa Games, the team edged nearer to eventually securing a place in the final, where they were to play against an aggressive and belligerent home team. In the end and against all odds, the team delivered after a gruelling match, a defiant and exuberant gold medal win. (By a stroke of luck, by being part of the team, I had won my first and probably last, gold medal!) The team was going to the Beijing Paralympics and this was the business! 

I was with the team again at the Beijing and London Paralympics. These events have become enormously popular with viewers and it has been interesting and exciting to experience the change in perception of the general public toward disabled people.

Lack of sleep while on tour, or at the games is serious challenge. In addition, sometimes I had to deal with “fake” injuries, where a player will, for example, have a very sore stomach or shoulder – after chatting with them, you find out that their girlfriend has been problematic, or they don’t feel prepared for a match. It was also very difficult to balance attention to the injuries of key players with injuries developed by other players.

Being the physio, doctor, dietician, psychologist all in one had its funny moments as well:  I was always trying to get athletes to lose weight, as many were slower and less agile than their competitors.  The coaches and managers really backed me on that, but I would sometimes find out that after the healthy, correctly portioned meal I’d arranged, there would be someone who would sneak out and get McDonalds for everyone – drove me MAD!!!

But all in all; isn’t it funny how the worst of times often turn out to be the best of times…