Wheelchair basketball’s Robyn Love eyes Olympics
Then you notice the limp, the slight drag of the right foot perhaps she’s carrying an injury. But she looks like she has the physical strength to shake it off.
She won’t though. She can’t. The 24-year-old has borne excruciating operations and agonising pain to try and lengthen her right leg after being born with arthrogryposis, a rare condition where muscles are shortened due to the umbilical cord wrapping itself around the legs.
Her life has been a battle to get her body to do what she wants – but despite it all she has always played sport. From tennis to netball she has refused to let her disability get the better of her, always playing alongside able-bodied partners and opposition.
Yet it is her acceptance that she has a disability which has led her to a place in the GB wheelchair basketball squad. Now she’s heading for Japan to play with them and has her sights set on the Rio Paralympics – even though she’s only played the sport for a year.
Robyn, Napier University’s vice president sports and societies for the second year running, only took up basketball when she arrived in Edinburgh from Ayr to study bio-medical sciences.
She joined the university basketball team and was happily playing on her feet – though jumping to shoot baskets was never possible – until it was suggested she might try the wheelchair-based game.
“I was born with development problems with my legs but I have always just got on with it really,” she smiles. “I had splints and plasters on to straighten them because the umbilical cord had stopped their growth. I’m missing muscle groups around the knee on my left leg and I can’t straighten my right leg. It affects all my joints, ankles, knees, hips.
“But I always loved sport and I was really good at it. I did Higher PE and was the best in my year. I played badminton and netball, volleyball, I was good at all sports. I didn’t really think that my legs should stop me, but I think because of them I always tried harder, I was never concerned about having a red face after PE, to me it proved I’d worked hard.
“No-one ever said to me I shouldn’t or couldn’t do it. I used to play tennis right through school and was pretty good although I wasn’t a fast runner. My tennis coach did say to me at one point though that if I wasn’t disabled I could go far. That hit me because I didn’t think of myself in those terms.
“I didn’t even know about disabled sports, no one ever mentioned them to me because I was doing sport. And perhaps they might have thought I’d have been offended, though I would have been fine with it, just another opportunity to do more.”
However as she grew, her leg problems became more pronounced. “I knew that I wanted to have an operation to try and fix things, though I think my parents weren’t really that keen,” she says.
“It got to the point though that I had to walk on my tiptoes on my right foot, and as a result my back was getting very sore. When I stopped growing I wanted that to be resolved if possible. So I was referred to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and I got the operation on August 7, 2008.
“They cut the bone in my right leg, and held it together with pins. I was in plaster and a cage to keep the leg straight and steady. Everyday I had to twist the pins to stretch the bone. It was incredibly painful.
“They also put a plate in my femur to make the leg appear straighter. It worked to an extent, but the tendons are so tight that I can’t straighten my leg but it has made me walk better, though there’s still a 5cm difference in length between the legs.”
For six months Robyn had the pins and the cage on her leg. She had taken a year out after leaving school before starting university, partly for the operation, partly because she was to rethink her future.
“I wanted to be a PE teacher but when I went to see my paediatric consultant he told me I wouldn’t be able to do that because I’d have to demonstrate sport to pupils. I was so shocked. it was the first time I’d been told I couldn’t do something. I was in tears, because it was all I wanted to do. It felt like my world crumbled.”
She opted for bio-medical sciences at Napier, and started in 2009, just three months after she stopped using crutches to get around. “I started in September and the first thing I did in Freshers’ Week was look for sports organisations.
“I was worried about jerky movements but I thought basketball might be ok, goodness knows why. I went along to the club and I admit I wasn’t amazing. But you don’t have to be very quick on your feet so I thought I’d pick it up ok and I’m quite strong when it comes to shooting.”
In the October she had a plate removed from her thigh – and within a week was back on the basketball court. Things would have carried on that way until last year, one of her friends injured her knee and found out about wheelchair basketball.
“She suggested I give it a go. I didn’t even know about the sport until the London Paralympics, but I wanted a shot. There was a come and try day with Lothian Phoenix, and Tina Gordon from SportScotland was there. Her husband Calum used to play for GB and I got to sit in his chair. The whole thing was amazing, even though I got ridiculous blisters on my hands.”
That was just before the end of 2013, and since then things have moved at a fast pace. “I took to it quite naturally because I’ve got good upper body strength and the wheelchair becomes my legs. Tina must have seen something in me and took an interest. I was classified on my disability and she started to train me every morning and gave me a chair to use for training, which was unbelievable because they are really expensive.
“In January I had my first game down in England. I shot 16 points and we won. It was brilliant. I’m now with Lothian Phoenix – it’s a mixed club.
“Tina told the GB people about me and I was invited to Worcester to train – I’d only been playing the game for two months. They thought I had potential so Tina bought me a £1000 chair, she told me it was an investment.
“I went to a Futures Camp in October for five days – all the potential GB players were there. After that I was asked to join the programme. Just three girls from that day were asked which was amazing. I’ve got a Christmas camp for five days this month, then another five days after Christmas. So there’ll be access to all the coaches, physios and health advice.
“The plan is to move down there in June – they want me to go there.
“Rio is pretty much what I’m aiming for. And in February I’m going to Japan for the Osaka Cup to play for GB. GB Wheelchair Basketball will pay for that, but all the travelling I do down south I have to pay for.
“My chair is built for a 6ft 4in man with tiny hips so it’s not really great as they really need to be built for you, but that costs thousands. So I’m fundriasing and applying for grants.”
Robyn has stopped playing running basketball as “my knees really couldn’t cope with it any more, so all my focus is on the wheelchair game. I’m getting keyhole surgery on my left knee because the cartilege is wearing away. Ultimately, at some point, I’ll probably need a knee replacement.
“My balance isn’t great though. If someone nudged my left shoulder I’d fall over. If it’s really wet or icy outside I need to be careful.
“And I have to have a seat in the shower. I do get pain in my hip and knee, but I have a positive mental attitude.
“My legs haven’t held me back before, and I don’t see why they should in the future.
Teams are points graded
IN wheelchair basketball teams are graded through a classification system to evaluate the function of the players, on a scale from 1-5 and teams are not allowed to play a combination of players on court whose points, when added, are greater than 12.
In teams which integrate able-bodied athletes, they are graded as a five, and a player with the highest degree of disability, such as a full paraplegic below the chest, are a one.
Condition puts limits on movement
• Athrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) is a term used to describe more than 300 conditions that cause multiple curved joints in areas of the body at birth.
• In the UK alone more than 260 babies are born with AMC each year, that’s one in every 3000.
• Symptoms of AMC vary
drastically from person to person however the common theme is stiff joints and muscle weakness. The areas most likely to have lack of movement are the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees and feet.
• AMC is non-progressive so the lack of movement does not get worse as time goes by and physiotherapy and splints in early childhood can help resolve many problems.
• AMC is not a result of a problem in the formation of the joints, but with the development of the connective tissues around them.
• In AMC, the tissues fuse a joint in place, severely restricting movement in the areas affected which leads to the tendons around the joint being unable to stretch to normal length. When there is limited movement for several months, there also tends to be a lack of growth in a limb also making the severity of the contracture even more intense.
• For help and information visit The Arthrogryposis Group at www.tagonline.org.uk