A Peterborough dancer is on top of the world after helping England claim world championship glory – five years after being told she would never dance again.
Gemma-Louise Stevenson was part of the English Paracheer team which won the world championship in Orlando, Florida, last month, helping the national team defend their title.
Paracheer is a fully inclusive cheer leading contest, with at least 25 per cent of the team being made up of disabled athletes – with all the team members taking on incredible acrobatic stunts and tricks to impress the judges.
The 33-year-old former Peterborough High School (now The Peterborough School) pupil is a well known face as a journalist for Sky Sports, and suffers from Dystonia (which causes uncontrolled and sometimes painful muscle spasms), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia (a condition in which a change from lying to standing causes an abnormally large increase in heart rate) and Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) (a group of rare inherited conditions that affect connective tissue).
She had been a keen dancer before being told she needed a wheelchair – but after five years away, she is now on top of the world.
She said: “As I hadn’t danced for five years before I attended try-outs last August, despite growing up doing nothing but dancing and performing and initially making a career out of it.
“But once I became a wheelchair user I was told by so many people that wheelchair users shouldn’t and couldn’t dance that I’d convinced myself I would never dance again.”
She said it was her involvement in another sport, wheelchair tennis, that gave her the confidence to try out for the team, as well as her time with the Key Youth Theatre in Peterborough.
Months of hard work, including high intensity strength and conditioning work - paid off and Gemma said she was thrilled. She said: “(When I was told we won) Honestly I cried, and I’m talking completely blubbing like a baby.
“I don’t know what it was exactly but I think it was the end of five years of people telling me I couldn’t do these things now because I had a disability and the emotional baggage that had come with that just releasing itself when I realised everything everyone had told me I couldn’t do during that time I had actually managed to do.
“From being told I shouldn’t dance anymore by people because they saw the wheelchair before they saw me to suffering discrimination and judgement from my manager in my first job in the media because of the level of my disability. Mentally it’s been a tough few years which has seen me battling an eating disorder as well as coming to terms with my changing physical health.”