As someone who is always on the hunt for positive and inspiring people that show no bounds in the face of a life crisis, coming across Claire Danson was the motivation I needed to keep going, on a day when hidden disabilities made so many things a challenge. Formerly a GB triathlete, Claire suffered a horrendous accident in 2019 after being hit by a tractor whilst out riding her bike, leaving her paralysed from the chest down.
Claire bravely shares her story with me, followed by answering a few pressing questions I had and includes her tips for adapting to change and overcoming setbacks, especially when faced with adversity.
Before my accident I had reached the happiest point I have ever achieved in my life. I had a successful tutoring business. I was winning races and representing GB at triathlon, becoming a European Champion. I was in a relationship and had fallen in love and I was just blissfully happy. Then I had my accident and everything changed.
On the 28th August 2019 I was out riding my bike, like I did on most days, when I was hit by a tractor. I was air lifted to Southampton Hospital and went straight to the trauma unit where there was an army of Doctors and Nurses waiting for me. I spent three weeks in intensive care and a further 5 weeks on the spinal ward before being transferred to Salisbury Spinal Unit. During the accident I broke my back in several places including several bones in my neck, both shoulders, all of my ribs and multiple breaks in both of my wrists. I also punctured both of my lungs and my most significant and life changing injury was a complete sever to my spinal cord leaving me paralysed from the chest down.
I had multiple surgeries whilst I was in intensive care to fix all of my broken bones and now i'm rather bionic due to all the metal holding me together. Whilst I was in Southampton, I remember the first time that I tried to sit on a physio bed unsupported by my wheelchair. I had no muscles in my tummy at all and it was so terrifying. I felt so wobbly and just flopped over. I remember being so scared that I would never be able to do anything again. Then I went to Salisbury and began all of my rehab. After a spinal cord injury you have to relearn everything you have ever known. It's like being a baby again and you have to relearn how to do the simplest of tasks.
I learnt how to dress myself, how to get in and out of bed, how to go to the toilet, how to get in and out of my wheelchair. Literally, I had to relearn everything. This is such a hard thing to come to terms with. I was so independent before my accident and in a split second everything had been taken away and I was so reliant on other people to do things for me. Whilst I was in hospital my relationship with the man that I was in love with also ended as he was unable to cope with my new life in a wheelchair. This was really hard for me and something that I still struggle with as it makes me wonder if I will be on my own forever now. Why would someone choose to spend their time with me?
However, I carried on and didn’t let anything that was happening stop me from improving every day. Eventually I was ready to go back home and continue my rehab back there. Now I have regained my independence and I can do everything for myself. The way that I now do things is different to before but I am back working for myself in my business, I have my own adapted car, I'm training 20 hours a week with the hopes of becoming really competitive at para sport and I'm back seeing my friends as much as I can taking coronavirus into account.
You recently said "no matter how difficult things may seem; magic moments are always possible. Difficult times in life aren't forever." How were you able to gather that resilience?
My resilience comes from a deep rooted belief that no matter how difficult things are, you can overcome them so long as you don’t give up. If there is something that you want to do and something that you know will make you happy then you can always find a way to do it. Even if it feels impossible, find your way. For me, I have found all new ways of doing all the things that I love. I just do them sat down now and that is ok.
How have you managed to adapt to the struggles and the changes you’ve faced since your accident?
I think that there's a part of me that will always relish a challenge. Now I have a challenge every day in handling and dealing with being paralysed. It means that every day I get to experience that feeling of winning. I might get that from doing a really epic transfer into the car, or in managing to get up and dressed in a new PB time. I think this helps me to deal with the struggles and helps me with adapting. It helps me to see that I am winning against the adversity that I face in my life.
What does your daily life look like, following your accident?
I'm actually super busy. I'm doing everything that I was doing before my accident but I also have so many new opportunities that have opened up to me. I have also met and have so many new amazing people in my life since my accident and feel so lucky and grateful to have these people.
I'm working full time in my tutoring business. I absolutely love my job. It is so rewarding being able to help young people with their education and their confidence in their learning. I'm also working towards trying to help people with mental health by doing some motivational speaking. My accident has taught me so much about life and the effects of various things on mental health. I want to help people who might be struggling for whatever reason that may be.
In terms of my sporting ambitions, I actually took part in a 10km race just 10 weeks after my accident. I had some help with being pushed around but it was just the most amazing thing to do and to be back involved. Since being out of hospital I have got back into training 25-hours a week. I do a mix of rehab, strength work, swimming, hand biking and race chair. I hope this will set me in a really good position to race some triathlons next season and I want to try to get really competitive at this.
I love that you said that there is still so much to live for, despite the future not longer being how you pictured it. What drives you to that conclusion?
I've realised that there is nothing that I can do to change what has happened to me. I have been incredibly unlucky and this is not what I had pictured for my life. But, this is my life now and I am so lucky that I can still have the best time. I just have to accept that those ‘best times’ will be different but will still make me just as happy. I am lucky that I can choose to move on and choose to make my life anything that I want it to be.
What lessons have coping with this adversity taught you about life, people and/or yourself?
I think the biggest thing I've learnt is that we are so much stronger than we think. Humans can deal with so much and we are all amazing. We all have it within us to overcome whatever life throws at us. The key is not to give up. Happiness can always be found in any situation. Sometimes we have to look harder for it, but it is still there.
The other thing that I've learnt is the importance of kindness. I truly think that we should always treat others with kindness and compassion. Something so simple as a smile might just make someone’s day. So remember to smile. It could make all the difference in the world.
What do you wish you had known about life or yourself when you were younger?
I wish I had known that I was enough and that all the things that I did were enough. I spent so much time trying to please people and to do my best and to be better. I wish I had realised that I was ok and that my existence did not need validating.
What advice would you share with someone who is overcoming a setback and considering giving up. What would you tell them to shift their mindset from total rock bottom to accepting/living with their “new normal” in the way that you so admirably have?
The best advice is never give up. No matter how hard things feel, they will get better. The whole way through my recovery I have questioned whether I will ever be able to do certain things and whether I will ever get better. Every single thing I have questioned I have managed to do. It just takes perseverance and never giving up. Remember that anything is possible if you keep going but nothing is possible if you stop trying.
What drives you to keep going – what motivates and inspires you?
I think that it's life itself that inspires me. I love my life and I've built up the most amazing life with the most amazing people in it. I suppose it's also those people who inspire me every day. I get to meet up with my friends and have fun and train with them and if I didn’t keep going then I would lose all of that.
If you have an inspirational story to share, please email email@example.com. I'd really love to hear from you!