How Maria Lyle went from PE bleep test to world gold

Sprinter opens up about mental struggles as a young athlete

Maria Lyle takes the silver medal in the T35 100m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Bobby Gavin

Maria Lyle has recalled the life-changing moment which stirred her love of athletics and propelled her from a nervous nine-year-old to Paralympic medallist.

The Dunbar 20-year-old was named 2019 Scottish Para Athlete of the Year after winning double gold in the sprints at the Para World Champs in Dubai last November.

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But it was a simple “Bleep test” in primary school PE – led by her mum Susan – more than 10 years ago which changed Lyle’s life and set her on a path which includes a World Record at 14 and three medals at the Rio Paralympics when aged just 16.

Lyle said: “People have perceptions of you when you have a disability [cerebral palsy] and that was the case for me in primary school.

“One day when I was in about primary four, we had a multi-stage fitness ‘Bleep’ test type thing to do. I wasn’t any good at anything and everything and I wasn’t looking forward to it at all – even though my mum (Susan) was the teacher.

“Running at that stage usually ended with me falling over 90 per cent of the time and cutting my knees. But I thought I would have a go and, basically, I was the last pupil standing at the end of the test. That one moment sparked my love of athletics.

“I joined the local running club in East Lothian and, after a while, started competing in disability events. I felt a strong sense of inclusion within the running group and I loved it at Dunbar Running Club.

“That test was the first time I’d felt I could be good at something and felt a sense of achievement. I think everyone was surprise and I was surprised as well. I suddenly thought ‘I can do running’ so that was a big moment for me.

“Within a few years my mum started looking at Para sport competitions and my parents took me all over the country to compete. Sometimes I was crying on the start-line I was so nervous but I managed to get over that.

“Para sport is different from able-bodied athletics: with less numbers, you can compete at international level at 14. That’s normal in Para sport. I did that and managed to cope with it.”

High profile success at a young age did not come without issues, however, and Lyle has been candid about mental health issues in her mid to late teens. A move to a base near London did not work out.

“I think I rushed my development as an athlete too much,” she said. “I moved from a club and group environment to a more specific, performance environment. I was trying to improve but I think athletes at that stage in their teens need a group to help keep the enjoyment going.

“I went to near London and I was in a group with able-bodied guys who were on the UK Athletics Performance Programmes – they were capable of running 10.4 or 10.3 for the 100m. It was all a hugely different experience for me and it reached a point where my mental health was not the best.

“I had to come home. It was too big a step for me at that time.”

Things changed for the better again three years ago when Lyle linked up with a new coach, former GB & NI global medallist Jamie Bowie, who was himself just starting out.

Lyle added: “I’ve known Jamie a long time around athletics in East Lothian. When I came back, I was in a bad place and even just the basics of training in the gym and on the track needed sorting out.

“My mum and I approached Jamie and thankfully he had just started getting into coaching. With his help, I went back to basics.”

Lyle won T35 100m silver at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018 but admits she struggled mentally afterwards.

“I was quite open about my mental health issues and Jamie spoke with my mum and dad about it. He does not just see me as an athlete he sees me as a person,” said Lyle.

“When we went to Dubai for the Worlds last November, it was more about enjoying it all again.

“I’d actually reached the point where dreaded race day. But, this time, I was looking forward to it again and it turned out far better than we could have hoped with two gold medals.

The issue of “re-classification”, where athletes can be moved from one category to another affected Lyle. She said: “You can be No 1 in the world one day and all of a sudden you are No 2 or No 3 when another athlete is in your event. That is part and parcel of Para sport. I would not say I was obsessive about it – being No 1 or whatever – but it can be tough to deal with at times.

“Fortunately there is a good wee support system of Scots in the GB and NI Para teams. It helps when someone can understand what you are saying and some have known me since I was 14.

“Now I want to see how I can get on in a better place mentally. I want to see how I can perform. But, even if I wasn’t an athlete at this level, I think I would still be training because I love keeping fit,” added Lyle, who is taking a sports science and coaching course at university.

For his part, Bowie hopes changes in the Para pathway, with the introduction of international age group events, will help young athletes.

He said: “One of the things in Para athletics is that the competition can change very suddenly with reclassification or new athletes appearing on the scene or in your event.

“Fortunately, there’s been an introduction of junior and age group Para events. That should help development.

“I look back on my own career and my first big moment with GB and NI came at U23 level. Maria was competing at World and European level at 14.

“I cannot imagine trying to handle that – competing at an open graded event inScotland and then suddenly pitched into a major senior event. I think that would be so difficult to get your head around.

“Through all of that, Maria hs become very mature. I give her ownership of much of the training programme and the big picture we’re working towards rather than her just following my lead.”

Watch the full interview with Maria and Jamie on www.scottishathletics.org.uk

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