A former teenage rock-climbing champion is taking on all-male wheelchair rugby and aiming for the GB squad – after breaking her neck in a car crash. Ashley Hamer met her.
At the age of 17 Beth Monks was part of the British Rock Climbing Team.
Climbing was in her blood and was all she ever wanted to do – pushing her body and mind to the limit.
“Climbing was all I knew. I started when I was seven and I’d always done it with my dad,” says Beth, now 21.
“All my friends were climbers and everything I did was based on it.”
But then a car crash in May 2009 changed Beth’s life forever.
The crash left Beth with a broken neck, her body paralysed from the chest down.
Striving to rebuild her life, Beth, now in her second year at Sheffield University, has started training with one of the UK’s oldest wheelchair rugby squads, the Nottingham Marauders.
When faced with the prospect of a life in a wheelchair rather than hanging from a cliff-edge, Beth just became even more determined.
She spent a year in spinal rehabilitation which only reinforced her athlete’s aspirations and led to her new passion – wheelchair rugby.
Despite the wheelchair, Beth sits tall. She still has broad shoulders, wears her chin high and grins easily.
“I feel stronger from starting rugby in September,” says Beth from Southwell, Nottinghamshire.
“It is a shock when [the players] barge into you but it’s fun – and their strength is amazing.”
Beth is the lone girl training with the Marauders and, according to coach Neville Burrell, one of only five UK women pursuing this full-contact sport.
But this doesn’t faze Beth.
“Maybe it’s because of my background in climbing,” she smiles. “It was very male-dominated and guys can be a laugh.
“Rugby was intimidating at first but I’m comfortable around men.”
Despite the scrum battles and head-on collisions, Beth says she is unlikely to injure herself further playing rugby. She insists that rock-climbing felt more dangerous.
Her coach Neville said wheelchair rugby, which started in Canada in the 1970s, suits tetraplegics.
“We don’t have the function and muscle to play basketball, he says.
Tetraplegia results from a major neck injury or illness damaging the spinal cord and leading to degrees of paralysis in the chest, legs and arm muscles.
Wheelchair rugby became a Paralympic game in 1996.
It is unique because men and women are classified equally and compete on the same teams.
“It took off because there was a lot of demand for a team-sport we could play together,” said Burrell.
Beth travels an hour to train with the Marauders at Nottingham University’s Sutton Bonnington sports centre.
She feels it is a worthwhile effort on top of the academic demands of her English degree at Sheffield.
Several past and present members of the GB wheelchair rugby squad train alongside her at Sutton Bonnington, and with the countdown to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games well under way, Beth is surrounded by inspiration.
“I’m looking for things I can do now which replace climbing,” she says.
Her quest has already included ski-karting, sailing and paragliding.
However, she believes she can reach an equivalent competition level in rugby as she previously achieved in climbing – and the Marauders are behind her.
“I’ve matured a lot since my accident but I don’t feel like a different person.
“I’m not afraid to do new things.”
University plays a big part in the redefinition of Beth’s life. She always intended to get a degree and started her course straight after 15 months in medical rehabilitation.
“I didn’t want to wait another year to study,” says this determined young woman.
She is refusing to isolate herself by committing to physiotherapy full-time, but she is also aware that her emphasis on academic success means her physical recovery will take longer.
Beth is learning to master her situation but frustration is commonplace.
“My life revolves around what other people can do for me.
“I need that help so I need to rely on other people.”
She has no grip in her hands and cannot feel her fingers. “If I’m doing something and I drop it, I can’t pick it up because I can’t reach and grab.
“One of the reasons I lacked confidence is because I got [uncontrollable] muscle spasms. These have reduced a lot though – from becoming more active.”
However, it remains difficult for her to go out alone and ordinary tasks she previously gave no thought to now take meticulous planning.
“I’d like to be able to be able to just go for a walk by myself – or a wheel,” she smiles.
Nevertheless, Beth is tough. She says her life is becoming easier. She is settling into her new skin.
“It takes a lot of work just to get a little way – but I’m a lot happier now that I’ve become so much busier.”
Beth admits that she is not entirely self-motivated. She puts her success down to a formidable support network.
“I have really positive people around me.”
Her parents – and especially her dad – have worked hard since the accident to expose Beth to all manner of new sporting opportunities.
Kenny Stocker, whose outdoor-equipment company Alpkit have continued to sponsor Beth since her climbing days, says he has watched her confidence explode.
“The accident opened a new chapter in her life and brought with it a plethora of new and challenging activities that affected her independence.
“But her pig-headed drive and ambition have carried her through a tumultuous period with an unstoppable force.”
Remarkably, Beth wants to drive again.
However, in order to do so she needs a fully-powered electric wheel-chair.
“But I don’t want one. It might give me more freedom, but I would feel more disabled.”
Her current chair is moderately power-assisted. She likes to be forced to use all the muscles she does still have.
Beth is willing to sacrifice elements of her independence to propel herself in amongst her able-bodied contemporaries.
Last summer, Beth went on her first holiday abroad since the accident.
She visited her boyfriend Dan, who was climbing in Italy.
“That was really good. I felt my age again. And even though I know that I’m not fully independent, I felt like I was able to do normal things.
“I liked what doors were beginning to open to me again this year.”
Beth is impatient to progress and it is clear this girl is excited about the future.
“I think one of my problems is that I’m always thinking about the future.
“When I go to rugby and I see how strong and independent they are I want to be there now!”
Her confidence has been battered, but Beth is young, realistic and quietly intrepid.
She has old dreams that still smoulder while new ones are fast taking shape.
“I want to drive again and to sort out care, so I can travel like I wanted to before my accident. I’d like to do well in my degree.
“Above all, I want to become a lot more independent, get stronger and get better at rugby.”
Still at so early a stage, Beth’s recovery prognosis is unclear but so far, she is defying all expectations and if anyone can achieve her full potential it is Beth.
Wheelchair Rugby was invented in 1977 by a group of Canadian quadriplegic athletes, who were looking for an alternative to Wheelchair Basketball that would allow players with reduced arm and hand function to participate on equal terms. The sport they created incorporates elements of basketball, handball and ice hockey. It first appeared in the Paralympic Games at Atlanta in 1996, when it featured as a demonstration sport. Its debut as a full medal event followed at Sydney 2000. At London 2012, the Wheelchair Rugby competition will take place at the Basketball Arena.