Rachel Morris: Paralympic cycling and rowing champion targets skiing

Morris was named World Rowing’s 2016 Para rower of the year
World Para-Nordic Skiing Championships
Venue: Prince George, British Columbia, Canada Date: 15-24 February
Coverage: Live streaming on the World Para Nordic Skiing website

Two different sports, two Paralympic gold medals, but now Britain’s Rachel Morris has a new challenge in her sights.

Morris already has her place in Paralympic history, winning GB’s first-ever handcycling gold in Beijing, followed by a bronze four years later in London.

Next up was a switch to water and rowing, where she won single sculls gold at Rio 2016.

Now, the 39-year-old has changed sports once again, and will be the first woman to represent GB at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championship in Canada, starting on Sunday.

“I’ve always wanted to do a winter sport and the opportunity just came along,” she told BBC Sport.

“Part of me wondered if I was stupid for wanting to start at the bottom again, but the other part of me was saying it was a great opportunity and I should give it a go and see what happens.

“It is amazing to get to that standard in another sport.

“It brings together a lot of my strong points and it is very similar to the physiological demand rowing puts on you.”

From highs to lows

Morris’ return to elite sport is even more remarkable after she spent eleven and a half months in hospital post-Rio recovering from two shoulder operations which led to the end of her rowing career.

It was the toughest of times for Morris for whom sport is a key part of her life and survival.

As a teenage runner, she damaged her ankle on a dry ski slope and developed a condition known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, which causes her body to reject its own injured limbs and results in constant pain.

It meant most of her legs have been gradually amputated and she uses sport as a way of controlling the pain.

Morris competed in two Paralympic Games in handcycling

“The amputations have been to save my life after I developed ulcers which became infected and led to blood poisoning,” she explains.

“The sport is what kept me going. I know I won’t be an elite athlete forever, but I also know that physical activity will always be a big part of my life because it is a way of coping – it’s a way of giving me headspace and of dealing with things.

“Once I do retire completely, I will still be doing a certain amount of sport in a day to be able to manage my condition.

“Being in hospital taught me the extreme highs from being on the podium as a Paralympic champion to the lows not being able to do anything, even sitting up in bed, because I couldn’t use my body to get me up.

“It was incredibly hard and nearly broke me.”

‘I fell in love with it’

After coming out of hospital, Morris believed her sporting career was at an end but a chat with former rowing team-mate turned Nordic skier Scott Meenagh helped her find a new challenge.

Meenagh, who lost both of his legs while serving in Afghanistan eight years ago, took up sport as part of his rehabilitation. Last year he became the first British athlete in 20 years to compete in Nordic events at the Winter Paralympics and he will be competing again in Canada.

Encompassing both cross country and biathlon (skiing and shooting) disciplines, the sport is one of the most physically demanding in the seated category with competitors riding on sleds with skis which ride in a track while they propel themselves along with poles.

“When I saw Scott competing, I thought it looked amazing and when I contacted him, he said it was definitely my sport,” says Morris.

“I had never skied before and went and did some sit-skiing early last year in early 2018 and it was amazing and that reset me and started to make me feel like I had a sporting future again.

“I then tried Nordic skiing for the first time last November and fell in love with it completely.”

Morris will be part of a five-strong team in Canada but admits she is surprised to be making her World Championship debut so soon.

Scott Meenagh represented GB in six events at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics

She will compete in the women’s sprint (1km) middle-distance (5km) and long-distance (12km) cross-country events in Canada while fellow newcomers Steve Thomas and Callum Deboys will line up in the men’s cross country and Meenagh and Steve Arnold will take part in both the biathlon and cross-country events.

This is the first season that GB Snowsport has taken over running the programme for cross country and biathlon, which was previously operated by military charity Help for Heroes, along with the Armed Forces Para-Snowsport team.

“I hope I can offer the team something and hopefully help them build for the future,” she says.

“While the sport is all about power and endurance and you have to push hard in every session, the mental side is also important when you only have limited time on the snow.

“For rowing, I spent a lot of time training on the rowing machine, and before that so many hours on a turbo cycle in my garage, so using a skiing machine now, which allows you to mimic the same movements as you would on snow, is brilliant.

“The skiing has also helped my shoulders so much. They have got more strength in them from when I started and they aren’t hurting me.

“This year’s Worlds weren’t necessarily part of the plan. I started rowing three and a half years before Rio and it is a similar timescale to the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics.

“I want to go out there and just race the races and start becoming technically more sound and just build on that. I have met the UK Sport targets and for me that was the most important thing.

“Technically I am not a skier yet and each time I get on the snow I am learning massively, but it is an exciting time and I am really enjoying it.”


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