AS a teenager, Sarah-Lee Marchesi was a talented rower and seemed to have a promising future in the sport.
She was stroke of the girls’ quad at Henley Rowing Club and was breaking records for her age group on the ergo.
Then it all came to a sudden end when she “caught a crab” during trials at Dorney Lake for the the Junior Inter-Regional Regatta in Nottingham.
The scullers never recovered and were knocked out of the competition but much worse was to follow for Sarah-Lee, who was then just 13.
She was diagnosed with arthritis, ending her rowing career prematurely and crushing her hopes of representing Team GB at the Olympic Games.
She had to miss three months of school, was virtually bedbound and had to wear wrists splints and take strong drugs to combat the disease.
But Sarah-Lee is both tough and determined and now, nine years later and at the age of 22, she has overcome her condition to go to university and become a talented netball player.
She also recently completed her first half marathon.
She says: “I want to prove to the world that if you are diagnosed with a lifelong disease you can still compete and achieve your dreams.
“I was devastated not to be able to participate in sport. I was rowing and playing netball at club level as well as doing rounders and running.
“To have that taken away from you within a week was just the worst thing that could happen when you take things like walking for granted.”
Sarah-Lee was born in South Africa and moved to Twyford when she was seven.
Her mother Alison is a customer services specialist and her father Patrice is a geophysicist who lives in South Africa. She has a sister, Chantal, 25, who is a sales and marketing manager.
She attended the Piggott School in Wargrave and took up rowing when she was 11 after members of Henley Rowing Club visited her school.
Each member of her class was given a test on a rowing machine and Sarah-Lee managed one of the best times so was invited to train at the club.
She and her crew would train after school on two days a week for two hours and for up to six hours at weekends.
At 13, she achieved the best 2km ergo time for someone of her age at the club and was being tipped for glory by her coaches.
However, then came that fateful day of the trials.
Beforehand, Sarah-Lee had been suffering from a painful and swollen wrist but she didn’t tell anyone.
She recalls: “A couple of weeks before the race I had noticed that my finger joints were swollen, which I thought was really strange.
“I told my mum my little finger looked odd and laughed about it with one of the boys at the club but I just thought it was nothing.
“Just before the race my wrist was quite sore. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do it’ but I didn’t want to tell anyone.
“During the race I was in quite a lot of pain. We had practised so much and I’d never caught my blade in the water before.”
Yet that’s what happened.
“Everyone in the crew knew it was me,” says Sarah-Lee. “If you catch a blade it messes up the whole rhythm. The girl behind me hit my blade because I was out of time. We finished last because once you catch your blade in the water it takes a long time to get the speed of the boat going again.
“After the race my wrists were really sore and I was upset because I felt I had messed it up for my whole team.
“They were annoyed but it happens even to people who don’t have arthritis.
“I remember in a race before that one of my crewmates caught a crab and I felt annoyed but didn’t hold it against her.”
That race was her last time in a boat for two years and the end of her competitive rowing career as within days all her joints had flared up.
Sarah-Lee was taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading but doctors could not come up with a diagnosis.
At first, it was thought she may have been suffering from rheumatic fever, an infection which causes inflammation of the joints and can affect the heart and brain.
She was placed in a private room for four days in case she was contagious. Weeks later, she was referred to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford, where she was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
The disease differs significantly from arthritis commonly seen in adults and can disappear when a child grows up.
In effect, Sarah-Lee’s immune system was attacking her joints and she had to be taken out of school and remain in bed for almost all the following three months as she underwent treatment.
She recalls: “I couldn’t walk — I couldn’t even lift a spoon to my mouth. I have memories of my sister Chantal feeding me.
“Things that you don’t even think of, like getting out of the bath, walking down stairs or even getting out of bed were really difficult.”
She had to wear wrist splints to prevent her from clenching her fists while asleep which could have caused her joints to become deformed.
“I would wake up in the morning feeling so stiff,” remembers Sarah-Lee. “The splints were made especially for me and I had to wear them for a year until I was put on the right medication.
“I would lie in bed and wish to be able to walk without being in absolute pain. I would look at people who would ask for lifts down the road and I would think ‘you should appreciate being able to walk’.”
She was given methotrexate, a low chemotherapy drug, but it made her sick and so she was put on the anti-inflammatory etanercept.
Sarah-Lee calls this a “miracle drug” as it helped her to gradually regain her strength and return to normal life as a teenager.
She continues to take the drug while in remission.
She tried rowing again when she was 15 but found it too difficult and had to give up her favourite sport for good.
She says: “It was a dream for me to row at the Olympics or play netball at a really high level and it dashed my hopes of ever being able to do that. When I went back to rowing, I’d had two years off so all the progress I had made was for nothing.
“I hadn’t completely recovered. It was intense rowing at club level and my body couldn’t cope with that anymore. It was completely different.
“I felt very disheartened because in my head I still had the body of the girl that was stroking the quad in the inter-regional trials and now I was suddenly right at the bottom of the pile again.
“When rowing 3km up the river, if my joints hurt, which they often did, I would have to row all the 3km back to the club in pain.
“In the end I was honest enough with myself and realised I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I had always dreamt of in rowing.”
Sarah-Lee studied for her A levels at The Henley College and then went to Durham University to study modern languages and is now in her final year.
She has been able to play netball and was part of the first team that reached the semi-final of the British Universities and College Sport Championships.
Last month, she took part in the Great North Run in Newcastle to raise money for Arthritis Research UK and awareness of her condition, which affects one in 1,000 children, mostly girls.
Sarah-Lee says: “When I went back to school after having that time off people said to me, ‘I thought grandmas got arthritis’.
“I want to raise awareness that it doesn’t just affect the older generations but it affects younger people as well.
“I was known at school for being quite sporty and I guess it was a shock to everyone that I got this condition.
“It’s a crippling disease and people don’t realise how much it can affect your life. There are people in wheelchairs now as a result of having arthritis.
“I was lucky that I was given the right support and put on the right medication.”
She has found running to be a great help in combating the disease as it maintains the strength of the muscles around her joints.
She says many arthritis sufferers become disillusioned when they are diagnosed with the condition and don’t try to fight it but exercise was crucial to her recovery process.
“It made me feel like I could maybe go on to do sport again,” she says.
“I’ve kept myself active ever since I was diagnosed but quite honestly I never thought I would be able to run 13.1 miles yet now I can.”
Sarah-Lee completed the Great North Run in one hour, 51 minutes and 47 seconds.
She says: “I really enjoyed it and beat my target of finishing in under two hours.
“It was challenging but I felt pretty good when I was running. I felt a bit achy the next day and my joints were a bit sore.”
As to the future, Sarah-Lee would love to play netball at a higher level and hopes to pursue a career in journalism, marketing or the civil service.
She says: “I don’t think I could ever give up sport after having it taken away from me. I just couldn’t live without it.
“I’ve realised how important it is to keep going. I kept the arthritis at bay by keeping my joints really strong and it’s something that I love doing.”
lSarah-Lee raised more than £600 for Arthritis Research UK. To make a donation, visit www.just giving.com/sarah-lee- marchesi