It is unusual for me to publish 2 posts on one day – but it is Rare Disease Day and this is another example of an amazing Zebra #EhlersDanlosSyndrome. The Lancashire Evening Post have kindly allowed me to share their article with you. To view the accompanying video to the post please visit Lancashire Evening Post
As Stephanie Slater succinctly puts it, ‘To look at me, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong’.
Indeed with her almost permanent beaming smile together with her bubbly personality, the Longridge lass – who won a glorious gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio – does not look anything other than ‘a picture of health and happiness’.
However, the swimming sensation last week made the shock announcement that her pool career was over at the tender age of just 27 due to ongoing health issues.
It is a little known fact that Slater almost did not make it to Rio after struggling with a severe neck injury the year before.
After a series of tests, she was eventually diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) – conditions which she has unknowingly struggled with for all of her life.
Passed off by a series of medical professionals as just growing pains when she was a child, it is remarkable to think that Slater reached a level where she was considered a potential competitor for the 2012 Olympics.
However, the conditions would eventually put paid to her able-bodied career in the lead up to the London Games and almost curtailed any hope she had of competing as a paralympian.
Through sheer guts and determination, Slater made it to Rio and all the pain was worth it when she returned with a gold in the medley relay and silver in the S8 100m individual butterfly.
“It was actually touch and go as to whether I was going to make it to the Paralympic trials in 2015 – I was out of the water struggling with a severe neck injury,” Slater said.
“But with rehabilitation and just basically pushing myself, I managed to get the qualifying time.
“With the amount of pain that I was in, I was eventually diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
“The condition is to do with your connective tissues throughout the whole of your body and basically mine is faulty. It means my body is not held together like it should be.
“I was also diagnosed with POTS.
“It was that condition which kept me out of the pool and preventing me from training because it causes you to collapse unexpectedly.
“So being around a pool made me nervous because I did not know whether I was going to collapse or not.
“Both of my conditions are invisible.
“To look at me you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
“But there is and it badly affects me.
“Because it’s so rare, they had not been able to diagnose it when I younger.
“I have had all these problems growing up and it was just put down as growing pains or that I had been doing too much training.
“It was just brushed off, but actually I have been battling with it since I’ve been a baby.
“It’s kind of nice in a way to finally have a diagnosis.
“At the same time, because there is no cure, it’s one of those where it’s like, ‘It’s got a name, but it doesn’t change anything’.
“I have just got to get on with it
“It answers the question of how I got the injury to my arm when I was training for the London Olympics in Swansea.
“Back then, they didn’t know why, but now there is an answer.
“Hopefully by stopping swimming now, I will stop myself from suffering any more nerve damage or even worse paralysis.
“With my neck, it’s quite fragile, so I have to be really, really careful that I don’t cause further damage.
“People can’t believe what I have achieved with what I have been dealing with.
“I have never complained about it or spoken about my condition and how it has affected me.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to achieve my goals and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”
There are certainly pangs of regrets for Slater that she has been forced to give up the sport she loves doing the most prematurely.
“It was really, really hard and it took quite a few months to come to the decision,” said Slater
“I spoke to a lot of medical professionals and also to my support team at British swimming.
“I had to make the hard decision to retire for my own health and well being.
“I always felt that I had a lot more left in me to give so that is what has made it really hard to stop.
“I know that it is the best decision for me and I have just got to look at what I have achieved.
“My last competition was Rio and the Paralympics, so it’s nice to think that I finished on a high – winning a gold and a silver.”
Slater’s memories of her time in Rio will never leave her and she breaks out into an even wider grin – if that’s possible – when she thinks back to her time at the Paralympics.
“It was just a party atmosphere,” she said. “The atmosphere was incredible.
“I remember doing an interview with Clare Balding in the village where all the different venues were and the amount of people who were crowding around us was incredible.
“They all wanted to speak to us and have pictures. It was amazing.
“I had been to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years earlier and I was expecting it to be like that.
“But the Paralympics were so much bigger.
“Just the size of the food hall was incredible – it was like the size of four Asdas.”
Slater’s achievement in winning gold in the relay was a double delight as the team also broke the world record.
“The relay was between us and the Australians,” she said.
“That was how it had been four years earlier in London, but on that occasion it was the Australians who had actually pipped GB.
“When I dived in, I had to catch the Australian girl up.
“I just thought, ‘I have got to get the gold – there’s going to be nothing stopping me’.
“I just put my head down and went – when we touched that wall and we saw that we had broken the world record as well, it was such an amazing feeling.
“It was so, so nice to stand on the top of the podium and see the GB flag rise.
“All of the GB supporters were there with their flags and I could see my mum and dad in the crowd.
“That was really, really special for me.”