But whilst a lot of athletes live in fear of injury, Stef’s is part of what makes her who she is today. After getting caught in a boating accident at the age of 15, resulting in the amputation of her lower leg, Stef thought she’d have to leave behind her love of sport and put her dreams of pursuing professional rugby aside in favour of academics; but whilst studying bio chemistry on a full scholarship she rekindled her love of sport, which in the end she decided to jump into.
“It was a tough choice but I decided I wanted to pursue it and give it my all!” Stef says, her voice ringing with a thick Canadian accent even after having moved permanently to the UK. “When I was studying I got back into Sport, and I had a really great coach who helped me, and they said, you know, I don’t really know what i’m doing, they’d never trained a para athlete before, but I had no idea either so we learnt together!”
The learning must have gone well, because Stef won bronze for Canada in the paralympics in 2008 and a silver medal in 2012 representing team GB. The choice to switch her allegiance to the UK was not an easy one however, and involved her taking a year out of professional sport to show that she was serious about the move - but it was a choice she has not regretted. “Competing in London as a member of team GB was amazing. In many ways GB paralympic athletes are the best the the world, we’re the most supported, the best funded, and something special happened in 2012 where it really kicked off the need for paralympians and spurred on the athleticism and the strength.
I knew from the outset that if I wanted to do this I’d do it and be the best that I could be and If I wanted to do it I needed to do it right and I knew that it needed to be GB - it was a really natural choice for me.” Speaking to Stef on the phone, it’s made abundantly clear that anything she puts her mind to is in reach; the fierce determination and upbeat attitude that flows through her conversation is contagious. This attitude is also probably down to the immense training Stef is currently putting her body through for the London Para Athletics Championships in London this year, and according to Stef it’s really all about timing.
“Probably the hardest thing about athletics is that you can’t do your best for 8 months, you need to try and peak when you need to, so when your race is. What a lot of people don’t realise about sport is your body can’t handle being at peak form for over 3 weeks, so that’s why you need a really good coach and really good training to make sure you’re in peak form at the right time - I think we’re doing well this year!” This revelation about the sporting world leaves my head reeling, but Stef’s explanation of the ins and outs of the world of Para sport is even more interesting, and relates to the second part of her job with the Para Championships: Punditry. “My race is quite early so I have time to work with Channel 4 doing punditry in the field! For a lot of people they don’t understand paralympic sport, it can be quite confusing but you don’t need to be a paralympian to enjoy para sport - they just have to understand it. I want to help people love it by explaining all the different categories. It starts with an understanding of the philosophy - the categories work because we want to try our hardest to make it an even playing ground and once you understand them you can love them!” Though the next few minutes were filled with an in depth description of the different types of races and categories that take place in para sport, I’d recommend tuning into Channel 4 to hear Stef discuss it in her own words. Instead we moved the conversation on to para sport in general, and the challenges associated with being a para athlete.
“My first professional race was in 2006, but the idea of professional is different in para sport because most of the time we don’t get paid for races. We’ll make our money by sponsorship or motivational speaking; getting paid as a para athlete is very rare.” Stef tells me, pointing out the main differences to that of being an able bodied athlete. “But it makes us creative, we’re creative of making a name for ourselves, so for example a lot of us are really well educated be cause we know we’ll need a backup for when we retire, I think it makes us really tough and really resilient.”
And being tough and resilient is one thing Stef thinks that she has built up with the loss of her limb, which although sounds slightly cliche on paper, hearing her tell her story and the way she moved past it evokes feelings of strength and motivation. “When you’re in an accident later in life, there’s a whole mourning process you have to go through. You need to take time and acknowledge that ‘this sucks’! It is really unfair; but it’s important that you give yourself a time limit. You can have a pity party for yourself but it’s going to be done at this point, then I can’t go back, I can only move forwards.” Although her words resonate strongly with losing a limb, they are also poignant words of advice for anyone going through anything no matter the amount of trauma. She recounts to me meeting the parents of a young girl who seemingly had everything handed to her, and remembers being somewhat shocked at their concern that she hadn’t been met with enough challenges in her life. “There’s something in tackling adversity and challenges which gives you strength” she reflects with a calm, steady voice, “but you don’t need to artificially create challenges; life is hard enough.”
And seemingly hard to be a woman in the sporting world, Para Athlete or able bodied. When our conversation drifted to the Strong and beautiful shoot Stef did with us last year, she brought up her frustrations at the way women are represented in adverts, especially those for Sporting brands. “We live in a very visual society, and I’d like to be part of the narrative that aims to change it to make it more realistic. We need to be moving towards a better image to show young girls that there aren’t ideals. We need to get away from showing this artificial ideal of beauty.” It’s her strong feelings about editing this narrative that has made her a somewhat reluctant fashion model. “I will continue to model so long as I feel i’m contributing to positive imagery.
Strength and femininity are not opposites - it’s about breaking down this idea of what a normal woman would look like, Bryony said something in our last shoot about how she looks into the mirror and expresses love for her body, and that was incredible to hear. How rare it is to hear a woman say ‘i love my body’! You grow into your body; at first I was so embarrassed by amputated leg that I tried to hide it, but once I learnt to love it I ordered a bright pink running leg because I was ready to show it off. As an athlete, your body isn’t just an object, it’s a tool that can be transformed into something.”
Celeste Shirt and Trouser Set - I love the material. Nice to come home after a day covered in sweat and sand to slip into something soft and silky. I also really like the star pattern - good reminder to dream big and reach for the stars. I also love that there are pockets - very practical!
Jamie T-Shirt White - I love pieces that can double as outerwear. My first thoughts upon seeing this were sunglasses, mojito, and beach volleyball. It makes the perfect swim suit cover up!
Caitlin Cami and Short set - it is simple and easy to wear but also beautiful with the sheer mesh inserts. It makes even washing up after tea feel glamourous!
Laura Balcony Bra - practical and beautiful - can you sense a theme? Life is hectic and complicated so I like everything else to be as straightforward as possible. I like simple things that have been made beautiful with some special touches - like the three ribbon strapping in the front.