EN’s Samantha Clark catches up with Claire Lomas, a British event rider whose journey to recovery from a 2007 riding accident continues to inspire.
When we last spoke to Claire, she was eagerly awaiting the arrival of her ground-breaking robotic suit that will help her stand up and walk. The suit has now arrived in England, and Claire has about three months until the London Marathon, which she hopes to complete to raise funds for Spinal Research. I caught up with Claire briefly after her first week of training in the suit; despite being “knackered,” her determination and positive energy remain undiminished, to wit raucous laughter, naughty giggles, the odd swear word and lots of jokes, plenty at her own expense.
Claire is the first person in Britain to be trained in the robotic suit, and in fact the clinic in Hull, Cyclone, isn’t even finished, nor are the staff fully trained yet, so it’s something of a learning process for everyone at the nearby Village Hall, as they all learn from the team from Israel where they suit was originally made,
“It’s a bit trial and error, really. I’d love to steal the suit so I could train at home because I’d get so much more practice. I’m allowed two sessions next week because they’re having to pay for the Village Hall and all the staff. If I had it here I could just do it every day until I mastered it, but I’ve got to just go with what they can do. I can only try my best. The last time was a lot better and each time I’ve improved. The machine doesn’t go unless everything is right, and only then will it take steps, so at first I was getting stuck quite a lot. I had to learn to shift my weight, tilt my pelvis and move my crutches all exactly right at the right time, it’s really difficult. It’s got a battery and it’s all computerised, it’s so technical, a very, very clever bit of kit! I have sensor pads on my shoulders and I have to have everything in the right place, so I can’t take a step with my right leg if I’m not weight shifted onto my left leg, but the difficulty is that I can’t feel my legs, so that’s what I’m trying to get the hang of at the moment. I’ve just to keep on plugging away. I hope I can do the Marathon, but I can only try my best and push on towards it. They’re hopeful I will, I just don’t know how long it’s going to take me to click.”
Luckily Claire’s friend who she first met at a Lucinda Green clinic, who she parked next to the day she had her accident at Osberton, and whose idea it was to do the Naked Calendar lives only a couple of miles away from the Village Hall, so Claire stayed with her last week, and was also able to bring a special guest who she hopes will walk some of the marathon with her – her daughter Maisy,
“She can pull herself up now so she’s trying her best. She thinks I’m rather odd in that suit, she kept laughing and was practically swiping me off my feet in her walker! You have to watch out for her, she’s crazy in that thing, she doesn’t care who she bashes into or anything, little hooligan! She’d better not walk on her own too early, I don’t want her to beat me at her age, beaten by a one year old!”
The first day of training in the suit is usually dedicated to just standing and maintaining balance as it’s so physically demanding but by the end of her first week Claire was already close to 20 steps,
“They were really pleased with how I did but it’s never good enough for me, I always feel I could do better. They said I exceeded expectations so that was nice to hear but when it’s yourself, it’s never good enough is it? It wouldn’t be good enough unless I started running down the road! Realistically, I knew it would be difficult, and I thought it might not even be possible. I just didn’t know what it would be like, but I think I can crack it. Ideally I’d like a bit longer than 12 weeks to get to the Marathon, but I’ve got no choice, you’ve just got to go for it and try your best. It reminds me of ski-ing because when I first started I couldn’t do it at all, every 2 metres I’d fall over and it was so frustrating, I hated it, there was nothing fun about it at all. The only thing that kept me going was watching videos of the experts ski-ing and how much fun it looked, but learning was horrible, just irritating and lots of bad language! Like learning to ride as well, it was repetition, and making mistakes, and this is very similar.”
Claire reflects that working with horses and her eventing career probably stood her in good stead when it came to dealing with the recovery from her accident,
“I’m quite lucky, I’m not that miserable really, I’ve got little Maisy and Dan. Of course I’d rather not have the spinal injury and I’d love to be back to normal, but I’m getting on with life and I’m alright, but there’s a lot of sad people out there who haven’t got my kind of support. If I hadn’t had the friends and family and all the people behind me that I had things might have been very different again. It would just be so hard to deal with all this without everyone being so kind. I think having done a sport really helped me mentally; I worked hard when I was eventing, I produced all my own horses from pre-novice and worked with what I’ve got. My top horse was very difficult, well both of my top horses were, and I spent hours going round and round in circles and I still never got great marks,and I think it sets you up well, you have to learn to be patient! They were both quite live wires, which was great for cross-country but they certainly taught me patience and perseverance too!”
Claire on a recent ski-ing trip, about to embark on her first black run, encouraged (“not that I needed any encouragement!” by good friend and ‘brides-boy’ Henry Dove. “When I had my accident I was worried I would never have the excitement like eventing again- but that was not the case- Cecil (monoski) gives me some scary moments!! Love it!”
The Matt Hampson Foundation has donated ten thousand GB pounds towards Claire’s cause to walk the Marathon,
“Matt’s amazing, when you see Matt and what he has to cope with – he’s on a ventilator, he can’t even breathe for himself, let alone move his arms or anything, it hits home that it can happen to anyone at anytime, there are so many young, sporty people who get injured. You don’t really appreciate being able to walk and all the things that go with it, like having a pee even, until it’s taken away from you and suddenly you can’t.”
And in turn Claire is determined to raise as much money and awareness as possible for Spinal Research in the process. Claire doesn’t know how long it might take her to walk the London Marathon yet, she jokes that at the rate of 17 steps a day she might be 85 years old at completion! Spinal Research have permission to take as long as she needs, and she’ll welcome extra company along the route, for motivation, to collect donations, shaking buckets to collect extra change, and with someone on each side of her for safety in case she should lose her balance. Realistically, if she can walk a couple miles a day, it will take about two weeks, but Claire laughs again, and points out that the longer it takes, the more money she hopes to raise,
“Every penny we can raise, even if it’s just a dollar or two, if everyone gave that it’s a lot of money, it doesn’t need to be a big amount, it’s just getting what I can for Spinal Research.”
Claire is back in training this week and you can follow her progress on twitter. Please consider donating whatever you can via her justgiving page, and if you find yourself in England at the end of April/beginning of May, which is right around Badminton time, why don’t you plan to walk a mile in London with her too? Many, many thanks to Claire for her time, her infectious enthusiasm, joyful spirit and incredible strength. Thank you for reading and caring, and helping. Go Claire, and Go Eventing!