Weekend Interview: How inspirational wheelchair basketballer Sophie Carrigill turned despair into joy

Sophie Carrigill was a solid netball player in her early teens.

Sophie Carrigill in action for GB wheelchair basketball against Canada at the recent world championships. (Pictures: SA-Images)

The Wakefield Girls’ High School pupil was good enough to represent her county at the sport, but her main motivation in those formative years was to play netball for the fun of it.

In fact, she played all manner of sports in her youth – “I used to drive my parents crazy, ferrying me about,” she says with a smile – but as she acknowledges now, international competition would have proven beyond her.

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Then one day in 2010, at the age of 16, the course of Carrigill’s life was changed for ever when a car accident left her paralysed from the waist down.

GOING FOR GOLD: Sophie Carrigill, in action for Great Britain, believes that the teams silver-medal success in the world championships in Hamburg will only spur them on to defeat champions Netherlands the next time they lock horns in the Europeans. (Pictures: SA-Images)

Out of that initial desolation at being told she could never walk again, came a fight and a resolve that has taken Carrigill to within touching distance of the very summit of Paralympic sport.

For just a couple of months ago, Carrigill helped Great Britain’s wheelchair basketball team win a silver medal at the world championships.

Two years earlier, she was on the squad that finished fourth at the Rio Paralympics.

Fast-forward to the present day and Carrigill can be found in the gym at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, training 20 hours a week on the fully-funded wheelchair basketball programme that is gunning for gold at Tokyo 2020.

GOING FOR GOLD: Sophie Carrigill, in action for Great Britain, believes that the teams silver-medal success in the world championships in Hamburg will only spur them on to defeat champions Netherlands the next time they lock horns in the Europeans. (Pictures: SA-Images)

Indeed, such has been the upward trajectory of the last few years of her life and the opportunities she has created for herself, that this young Yorkshirewoman has to stop and consider whether the accident eight years ago might not have been as devastating as first feared.

“I took a while to recover after the accident, it’s obviously life-changing,” admits Carrigill, 24. “Looking back, it was hard, of course it was, but the people I had around me really made a difference; my family, my friends.

“They showed me I could do anything and never allowed my mind to rest.

“People ask would you change anything, and, of course, life would be easier if I could walk, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be, but the challenges I have faced and the person it has helped me become, I’m definitely stronger now and that part of it I wouldn’t change.

“This opportunity came about because of my disability. It gave me the chance to make it to this level and I grabbed it with both hands.”

The speed at which she reacted to the injury says everything about her mental strength. Within months she had been in contact with a charity that deals with the type of spinal cord injury she suffered and they sent her on an outward bound course that showed her what can be achieved with a disability, not what cannot be done.

“We did all sorts of crazy stuff on this outward bound course up in the Lake District,” she says.

“That proved to me that I really still could do anything. After that, I started playing wheelchair basketball and from there it was a quick progression. I got scouted by the GB team and quickly got recruited into the squad.”

By the summer of 2012, Carrigill was on the Paralympic Inspiration programme seeking inspiration at the London Games.

“I was 18 and went as a spectator with my dad,” she continues.

“It inspired me a phenomenal amount – it’s a cliche but it’s very true. I remember watching GB basketball play their quarter-final against Germany, which they lost, and saying to myself I want to be on that team to make sure they don’t lose next time.”

Carrigill was as good as her word. Four years later, after relocating to be with the GB squad at their base in Worcester, she helped Great Britain finish fourth at the Rio Paralympics.

The four-year development saw the wheelchair basketball programme gain more funding and they relocated again to state-of-the-art facilities at the EIS in Sheffield.

All that contributed to a medal breakthrough in Hamburg in August when the British women won silver, losing to the Netherlands – the nation that had beaten them in the bronze medal match in Rio – in the final.

“It was just phenomenal for us as a women’s programme, the amount of emphasis we had placed on those championships,” says Carrigill, who plays guard in a sport in which disabled classifications determine a player’s position.

“A silver medal meant the world to us. When we won that semi-final, that was really our win.

“We went into the final thinking whatever happens we have won in this tournament because we’d never won a Paralympic or world medal before, only a bronze at the Europeans.”

If a silver medal that represents a win may betray a collective naivete in a results-driven industry, then Carrigill is quick to reassure any doubters that it is all part of the journey and the learning curve – something she knows all too well from her own story.

“We didn’t settle for silver, we played our hearts out in that final,” says Carrigill, who now lives in Leeds.

“The Dutch deserved to win, they’ve gone an entire year without losing, they’re an amazing team, but we’ll be coming to get them next time, the Europeans in June, 2019 is our next opportunity.

“The silver gives us something to fight for. With another year of training behind us we feel can beat them.

“The world championships have given us a real platform.”

Ditto the men, whose wheelchair basketball team won gold at the world championships.

The success of the wheelchair programme, one that receives National Lottery funding through UK Sport to support full female and male squads, is in stark contrast to the predicament the able-bodied national basketball programmes face.

In a competitive international climate, the basketball programmes’ inability to trouble the medal podiums at Olympic level has led to heavy funding cuts that have severely hindered the sport at a national level.

“The wheelchair game has overtaken the able-bodied basketball game, which is great for me but a shame for the sport as a whole,” says Carrigill, who is studying for a Masters in sports psychology at Sheffield Hallam University to support her sporting career.

“We’re performing and we’re consistently getting medals, both men and women, juniors and Under-25s. We’re in a fantastic place.

“We’re so fortunate to have funding through UK Sport and the National Lottery which we wouldn’t be able to do this without.”

Even if funding were not in place, one imagines Carrigill would find a way to be successful.

For eight years she has been refusing to allow her disability to inhibit her, choosing, instead, for it to give her a new lease of life.