Megan Giglia refused to let her life-changing stroke drag her down. Instead, in the spirit of Norman Tebbit, she got on her bike and rode. Now she is a double world champion on two wheels with the Rio Paralympics firmly in her sights. Laura Winter hears her inspirational story
Two gold medals and two world records at the Para-Cycling World Championships, a nomination for BT Sport Action Woman of the Month, and a place on the GB Paralympic team beckoning. Megan Giglia is a rapidly rising star, and you get the feeling she has barely realised her true potential yet.
It has not always been such a smooth ride for the 31 year old, who saw her life turn upside down after suffering a catastrophic stroke which robbed her of mobility, speech, ability to swallow and her relationship. Her indomitable tale of recovery, her will to survive and her unwavering positivity against a devastating illness is indicative of the mindset which enabled her to become a world champion less than three years later.
According to the cyclist, “there are two Megan Giglias”. Pre-stroke and post-stroke. “Megan the first” was a fit and healthy 27 year old coaching aspiring rugby players and gymnasts. She had a blossoming relationship with Cherrie and her two children Ollie and Jacob. And she was on a mission to be the best and the healthiest she could be.
But after fainting several times at work, Giglia went to A&E and a lumbar puncture showed blood in her spinal fluid. A further CT scan showed a bleed on the brain that was leaking and causing pressure in different areas. Initial surgery to use fine coils to stop the bleed failed and Giglia was woken during the operation to give consent for a craniotomy to place clips in her brain.
“Megan the second” eventually woke up from an induced coma after two weeks in intensive care, with a tube down her throat and unable to speak. She had lost the function of her right side, her speech and memory were affected and she has trouble swallowing. A month after her operation, she was admitted to an intensive rehab facility.
But Giglia’s irrepressible spirit and ability to turn something terrifying into something positive was already apparent, despite all she had lost. “I was like a cheeky child in hospital. I was lively and bubbly, and always seeing the positive,” she said. “I soon discharged myself from rehab. It was boring and I wasn’t doing enough. But then it really hit me when I got home how severely affected I was.
“In hospital, everyone was ill and I was one of the stronger patients. I had family to take care of and as a coach I felt I could do my own rehab. I wanted that normality, but when Cherrie went back to work I was so scared. I then realised that simple things you take for granted, like tying your shoelace or making a cup of tea or a sandwich, I couldn’t do.
“A few months later, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. And Cherrie couldn’t cope. She did an amazing job looking after me. Her and the kids were a huge part of that process. But she was juggling work, kids, finances, while I was in and out of hospital winding the doctors up and joking around to deal with it all.
“At that point I took my bike and rode 120 miles to a friend’s house in Cambridge. I tied my right hand and foot to the handlebars, and I was pretty lethal. I arrived at 1am in the pitch black and then spent three weeks on her sofa, barely able to move. But then I spoke to her mum, who had terminal cancer. I was there wallowing in self-pity and here was this amazing person, who knows she hasn’t got long to live but was carrying on – there was no other option. She made me rethink things. I had to do something for me. She gave me back that focus. She told me she wanted me to find a sport and be the best I can be.”
This chance meeting encouraged Giglia to call up British Cycling, and just nine months after her stroke, and still needing to use crutches and a wheelchair, she went to a para-cycling selection camp for women. Six months later, and a year on from her stroke, Giglia was accepted on to the British Cycling Paralympic Development Programme.
But then, disaster. A freak accident in training saw Giglia somersault over the handlebars during a descent, and break her back. Luckily, her injuries were not as serious as first feared, and by January 2015 she had recovered to take part in her first international event, the Newport Para-Cycling International where she won silver in the C3 pursuit and bronze in the 500m TT. Giglia rapidly made these two events her own. She won gold in the C3 pursuit at the Manchester Para-Cycling International and two bronzes at the Road World Cup in Maniago, Italy, in the road race and time-trial.
This year, despite the successes of her embryonic career, Giglia readily admits she has not reached her limits yet. But she is not just cycling for her own self-indulgence. Yes, Rio selection and “at least one gold medal” is the plan, but Giglia has a mission that transcends silverware: she wants to inspire and support stroke survivors.
“I worked my butt off to be the absolute best I could be when I was accepted on to the ladder,” she said. “Every time I ride now I am still making leaps and bounds and I made a massive step up this year. But without the team I wouldn’t be where I am. Each time I race I dedicate it to someone else who needs motivation and support. The 500m TT at worlds was for Dave Smith, a teammate who is recovering in hospital.
“I want to put a bit back to where I’ve been. I realise the troubles, I know what others are struggling with. There is always someone worse off than you. I want stroke survivors to realise they are not alone. I can inspire them and be inspired by them.
“To be a survivor of anything you have to have a very strong character to recover and achieve what you want, whatever that may be. I want to promote the para-world. I love what I do and I am passionate about it. I never wanted a stroke, but it has given me an opportunity I would have never had. I appreciate life even more.
“Cycling is everything to me. It’s my world and it gives me a sense of being. It helped me find peace. Yes, there are hard sessions and I have setbacks and sometimes I want to cry, but it completes me. When I have emotions I am not ready or able to deal with, or I suffer a relapse, I have a blast on the bike and release those endorphins. I break that negativity. I live and breathe it, and enjoy it. Life is too short to be miserable or unhappy. You’ve got to enjoy what you do.
“Three years post-stroke, I am comfortable, confident and happy with who I am. I have created a new life and have never been in a better place.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.