The Paralympian who refuses to be knocked down

There is a saying which is very close to Paralympian Claire Harvey’s heart. It goes: “It is not what you did, it is what you do next that matters.”

After an accident in 2008, she has since captained Great Britain’s sitting volleyball team at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and is now hoping to qualify for Rio 2016 in the javelin.

Having worked as a prison governor until the accident, Harvey developed a mentality within her every-day life which she later used as both a grounding and motivation for sporting success.

“Throughout my time as a prison governor, working with people who were in the most dire situations, I developed a belief that it doesn’t matter what situation you find yourself in, or what situation you put yourself in, there is always a way to make it better.

“When I had my accident I took this belief and thought, ‘This isn’t horrendous, I’m going to make something of this through sport’, reminding myself that it is not what you did, it is what you do next that matters,” she said.

Sport was already a large part of Harvey’s life. She had a passionate interest in rugby and played scrum-half for Saracens and Waterloo. Harvey maintains that sport, pre- and post-accident, taught her “it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, and it doesn’t matter how many times you feel like you’re not going to get up, if you just keep practising you absolutely will”.

This was one of the fundamental messages which Harvey repeated to herself through the darkest days of coping with her disability as she went through the processes of acknowledging and accepting new challenges and limits.

“It was a very long time before I actually started to think positively because I had no compass about what life with a disability would be like. All I had in my head were those stereotypical images I had seen as a child.

“It was cathartic for me to take up a disability sport, such as sitting volleyball, because it took me into an environment where disability was the norm and where people were very honest and open about their disabilities. It was very different to my up-bringing within a generation where if you saw a disabled person you didn’t stop to ask a question,” Harvey said.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 13: Volleyball player Claire Harvey attends the Team GB Paralympic launch at the Park Plaza Hotel on July 13, 2012 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 13: Volleyball player Claire Harvey attends the Team GB Paralympic launch at the Park Plaza Hotel on July 13, 2012 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

After being invited to a Paralympic Have A Go Day, Harvey developed an interest in sitting volleyball which ultimately lead to a place in the GB squad and the captain’s stripe for London 2012. The 41-year-old has fond memories of her time at the Paralympics, shared with other women from a similar disability background.

Harvey said: “It really helped my healing process and, although we all came from different backgrounds, disability bound us together. Being in an all-female team was also great. We all loved each other as a family and fought for each other as a family.”

Alongside the captain of the team was a vice-captain who had experienced a similar trauma. Martine Wright lost both her legs in the Aldgate underground explosion in the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. Both women helped each other overcome the pressures of competitive disability sport and a bond grew immediately.

“We spent a lot of time together and she is such an amazing person,” says Harvey. “I would never have got to know Martine if it wasn’t for our interest in sitting volleyball and our lives are much richer because of it.

“Martine turned up to training one day driving a car and I had never contemplated driving a car before. I thought, ‘Hang on, you have no legs, how does that work?’ So, she’s taught me a lot about how hand controls work for the disabled community.”

Unfortunately for Harvey and her team there will be no GB sitting volleyball team at Rio 2016 after their funding was withdrawn. Harvey believes the system which decides the fate of teams when it comes to the Paralympics is flawed.

“In the UK there is a philosophy that money follows medals. But how can you develop your medal potential without money? The team are still trying to compete in competitions and tournaments on a lesser scale, but without funding you will always struggle,” she said.

Harvey has always been one for challenges and admits she is a “what-if type of person”, so when the chance to try a different Paralympic sport presented itself through Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi, she grabbed the opportunity and went for the javelin.

“I was conscious that sitting volleyball was the only disability sport I had tried, but I didn’t know anything about throwing. So I just went and had a go and absolutely fell in love with it.

“I am now fourth in the world and preparing for the IPC World Championships in Doha later this month where I am looking to strengthen my qualification hopes for Rio by competing in javelin, discus and shot putt. I would love to go to Rio, but what is more important is that I can walk away feeling like I gave it everything and reached my best whatever that may look like,” she said.

When Harvey isn’t preparing for competitions she is also a mum of two, a senior consultant for KPMG and an ambassador for several LGBT initiatives. “Sport offers so much for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who may be trying to work out their identity, but there are still so few positive role models,” said Harvey.

“I try to challenge the community because we are so great at saying everyone should be tolerant of us. But we have a long way to go in terms of being inclusively tolerant of one another. I truly believe this can be developed through sport.”

Harvey and her partner Helen, a former England hockey goalkeeper, have two children together. Catherine is 23 years old, a judo black belt and a rugby player, who is training to be a PE teacher. Jordan, 15, enjoys rugby and American Football and his aspirations are to join the Royal Marines or pursue a career in  American football.

“I encourage my family to live a healthy lifestyle because sport benefits young people in so many ways. Being a full-time mum, you become a master of organising and you become tremendous at managing your diary,” Harvey said.

“I do like to the push the boundaries and think about what potential lies out there. But it’s ultimately about balancing everything, home, work and sport, while also realising that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Joyce 2Megan Joyce is an English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an MA in Sports Journalism from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. She covered all sports for a variety of media organisations while in Belfast, and currently blogs for BT Sport Rugby and writes for The Rugby Football League. Megan is reporting on Chelsea Ladies football team this season. Megan’s latest articles.

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