Vanessa Daobry admits she spent a morning in front of the mirror last week after a parcel arrived at her Haringey home containing more than 20 items of Great Britain-branded sports and casual wear.
Vanessa will be making her GB debut at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) European Athletics Championships in the Italian city of Grosseto from June 10-16 – and is relishing her new status as an elite athlete, including the free kit.
“I had to do a whole fashion show, just for myself,” she says. “It’s really, really nice kit – the first proper kit I’ve ever had.
“There’s competition gear, training gear and presentation gear if you get onto a podium or do a press conference.
“For someone who can’t stand shopping, it was quite entertaining. Every time I opened a little packet and saw ‘Great Britain’ on it, I was thinking, ‘Am I really allowed to wear this?’ But I’ve earned it and I’m proud to wear it.”
Vanessa, a wheelchair user who competes in the shot put, earned her GB selection after throwing a lifetime best of 7.21 metres at a competition in Bedford a fortnight ago.
The throw means she is ranked No 1 in Europe and No 4 in the world this season in her F34 classification – an incredible achievement given that she only took up shot put 18 months ago after attending a try-out session and being told she was a “natural”. Her first ever competition was little more than a year ago.
“I’m always pinching myself about what has happened to me,” she says. “It all feels very surreal because it’s been so quick.”
Barring any mishap or injury in Grosseto, Vanessa could well be pinching herself again later this summer when the GB team is announced for the Rio Paralympics. As things currently stand, she is very much in line for a place.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much,” she says.” It would be amazing, and very surreal again. It would be huge step for me because I’m very patriotic.”
In addition to her training commitments, 38-year-old Vanessa is coming to the end of a ‘New Beginnings’ course at UEL, which prepares mature students who have been out of education for some time to study for a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s been a very interesting course, in all honesty,” she says. “They teach you now just about university, about how you work within university, what the environment’s like, what’s expected of you, what you can access to get support. It’s amazing. I think every student should do something like that before they go to university.”
She plans to begin a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science at UEL in September, and maybe a master’s degree and even a PhD after that.
“I didn’t have the chance to go to university when I was younger so if the opportunity is there, I’m going to grab it with everything I can,” she says.
Her sporting ‘new beginning’ came in December 2014 when, after attending the throwing try-out session, she was invited to train with leading Paralympic coach Alison O’Riordan at the Lee Valley Athletics Centre in Edmonton.
After a lifetime of steadily worsening physical challenges, Vanessa admits she was initially hesitant – not least because she had recently undergone surgery. She was born with a muscular skeletal condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and also developed a neurological condition called Dystonia, which makes her body go into abnormal postures.
She has used a wheelchair for the last nine years after her condition degenerated to the point where she was pretty much confined to bed.
Although she had taken up wheelchair racing in 2012 with the Haringey Wheelers club to try to get fitter and improve her quality of life, she says she had no idea whether she could handle a new physical activity, particularly one involving hurling a 3kg shot. But then came her Eureka moment.
“It’s a funny story,” she says. “I was driving home from work and, on the way, I decided to treat myself to a lip gloss. A couple of ladies behind the counter said to me, ‘You’ve been coming here for years and you always buy clear lip gloss. Would you let us put some colour on your lips?’
“I thought ‘I don’t do that’ but I got tag-teamed and so I put on some colour. It was the weirdest thing. Travelling home, I thought to myself, ‘The world didn’t just collapse’. Even though it was a tiny decision, I thought I had done something really brave.
“So I just messaged the coach and said, ‘When are you next training?’”
By the end of the 2015 outdoor season Vanessa was already ranked No 1 in the UK. Now she is stronger than ever, thanks to the support that she has received from UEL’s strength and conditioning team and the access she has enjoyed to the University’s state-of-the-art SportsDock complex.
But, even as she makes her GB debut this month, Vanessa insists she is still taking things one step at a time as she learns more about the art of shot putting and also herself.
“I’ve surprised myself at what I’ve done but I’m still learning a lot,” she says. “I’m still learning about what my body is capable of.”