Lizzie Bennett overcomes the odds to become champion vaulter
When you read a description of all the things Lizzie Bennett has had to overcome in her life, it is hard not to be filled with admiration.
It is very clear, even after a short period of time in the 28-year-old’s company, that she would not be looking for such praise though, and would probably even be uncomfortable with acknowledgement of her para-equestrian vaulting achievements.
Bennett’s route to sporting success is one of the most interesting, more unusual and yet ultimately rewarding tales that you are likely to hear, and so it is fitting to learn about it at a time when she is giving back.
The venue is the College of West Anglia in Milton, and the occasion is a coaching session for five young people looking to learn the skills of vaulting.
It is a sport that Bennett has excelled in since taking up two years ago at the Cambridgeshire College Group of the Riding for the Disabled Association, having started riding with them in 2014, and for anyone not familiar with the discipline, the easiest way to describe it is gymnastics on horseback.
There is a more than a hint of daredevil about the exploits, and that is where the element of admiration comes in, but more on that later.
The first question though has to be how much courage is involved to perform such feats as balancing upside down on one shoulder on a moving horse?
“I think not everyone would necessarily think they have it,” says Bennett. “It is daunting trying it on the barrel for the first time, and then it’s really daunting trying it on the horse.
“Then doing it by yourself without someone there to support you, doing it in a competition, doing it in a canter, each of those times you just have to think this could go very wrong but I need to try it and then I will find out.
“Quite a few times with me, it has gone really wrong but then you work out what you did, and not do it next time.
“You need to have the courage to get over that initial thought of what am I doing, and then the courage when it goes wrong – which it will – to do that whole process again.”
At this point, it is worth putting into context why Bennett’s achievements are so commendable and inspiring.
When she was just 13 she hurt her back doing a gymnastics vault. Six months down the line, however, an MRI scan revealed she had not just hurt her back, she had cracked three, possibly four vertebrate, and the discs in between them were completely crushed.
By that time, more harm had been done causing permanent pain, weakness and spasticity in her lower back and legs.
With the injury requiring more treatment, she met Professor Rodney Grahame, a world expert on Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS), and Bennett’s hypermobility had caused him to ask some questions.
It was not until Bennett was 22 though, so nine years later, that she was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos.
And Bennett, who uses a walking stick for support, takes up the story.
“I found it quite interesting how the disease has changed in peoples’ eyes. Just before I saw Prof Grahame, I had also been referred to an NHS rheumatologist and the GP had said ‘does she have EDS?’ and he said categorically no because she has pain in her muscles.
“Professor Grahame looked at that and said of course she has pain in her muscles and wrote him a stroppy letter.
“A consultant rheumatologist would be the first person you would go to.
“Growing up, I had all of those things but it was so vague and at the time everyone said we don’t really know what it is. It was amazing to get a diagnosis and think that’s why this happens and this happens.”
It is why Bennett’s story is so inspiring, when you consider that she is now a leading para-equestrian vaulter.
Sport was not always her first love, and between the ages of 13 and 22, she dedicated herself to music.
Bennett was in the National Youth Recorder Orchestra and English Schools' Orchestra and going to Junior Conservatoire, earning a place to study there, but her ambition had been to attend the University of Cambridge.
She attended Peterhouse, but as time went on, the EDS was having an impact and giving her discomfort in her wrists, which made playing the oboe difficult.
A reintroduction to sport arrived in the form of rowing, specifically coxing, and it became a salvation during a difficult time in Bennett’s life with the sudden death of her father, and also opened a pathway to other sports.
She got a classification for para-rowing, and while at a national training camp was introduced to the concept of the RDA, and was also told about a wheelchair racing group.
Competing at the World Half Marathon Championships followed, while there was vaulting success with RDA National Championships title wins three years in a row.
It is where the admiration comes in, but maybe it is just that Bennett, who has also been going to the Cambridge Gymnastic Academy for the past two years, is a determined character.
“Some people say I’m stubborn, and I’ve heard obstinate as well,” she jokes.
“I reckon some of it is that I’m not as afraid as falling off stuff as other people. I fall off the beam and the bars all the time, I spend more time falling off than being on them.
“Some people get really nervous about that but I’ve done it so many times that I know it’s not that bad. Also, if I hit my legs on the way down I don’t feel it.
“That’s the thing where I think I don’t want to be that person, I want to be this person that does it anyway – to hell with the consequences.”
It is difficult to do credit on paper to just how difficult equestrian vaulting looks, and it is put to Bennett whether she has fear when doing the routines.
“With me because I’m really stubborn, sometimes that’s bad, and every time I start to feel myself being afraid, I think this is exactly what I don’t want to be,” she says.
“I have this image in my head of not being afraid of things. For me, it does spur me on to do something because I desperately want to be able to do the thing that scares me.”
Sport has given Bennett so much, you can see that by her eagerness to give back to the pupils at the RDA, and it is difficult to know whether it is surprising or not but it has also helped her physically.
“EDS is something where you get progressively worse and my health has probably got progressively worse but my ability to cope with it has got better,” she says.
“Things like going upside down, I used to black out all the time, now I black out after a little while. I can cope with it better; and I’ve learnt how to cope with it and all of these other things so it’s definitely helped physically and made me stronger and fitter.
“It definitely gets you out and about so you get to meet other people which is very important especially people with disability.
“It’s fun and it feels good to be good at something.”
With Bennett’s guidance and advice to her young proteges, you sense that they will also go on to get as much out of sport as their mentor.