Teenager disabled by meningitis going for Rio gold
KATHERINE COOKSLEY knows how far determination can take you.
KATHERINE COOKSLEY knows how far determination can take you.
The 18-year-old para-equestrian dressage competitor has overcome her disability to represent Great Britain twice and now has her sights set on the Paralympics in Rio in 2016.
Katherine, from Emmer Green, contracted pneumococcal meningitis with septicaemia when she was 21 months old. Her condition caused a hemiplegia, which resulted in significant left-sided weakness.
She also had the three middle fingers on both her hands amputated and suffered impaired hearing and loss of binocular vision.
Katherine was four when she was introduced to riding as a form of therapy.
She recalled: “I really enjoyed it as it gave me a sense of freedom. I did not have to worry about what my legs or body were doing, the horse was carrying me and it would get all my joints moving without too much hassle.
“When I was eight I wanted to do more as I was a very determined child. Over the next couple of years I managed to move up groups and discovered jumping.
“This was great fun and, having no fear, I went into the jumps very fast, which used to worry my instructors.
“Unfortunately, due to my unequal balance, I spent nearly as much time on the floor as on the horse.
“I’m sure they had an accident book just for me. I used to fall off all the time — if the horse decided to stop or throw its shoulders down I would come off because of my balance.
“It bothered my parents but I did not care, I just laughed and jumped back on. Once my instructor had to stop me from getting back on after the horse had thrown me off three times.”
Katherine was 14 when she was bought a horse, Gemset, by her parents. She said: “Gem and I became great friends, going on long hacks and jumping as often as we could.”
In October 2010, the pair were talent-spotted while riding Gem in the yard at home.
Katherine said: “I was asked if I had tried para-dressage. It was a shock as I had never really thought about it — I had never really considered myself as disabled.”
She was put in touch with Clive Milkins, a para-dressage equestrian coach, with whom she still trains.
Katherine recalled: “I went to see him twice and he said he thought I had talent. I never thought I would get into dressage as I loved jumping.”
A few months later, in March 2011, Katherine achieved 79.09 per cent in her first dressage event.
She qualified for the national championships at Hickstead three months later and finished in seventh place.
A month later, she won a first and second at the Riding for the Disabled Association’s national championships.
Katherine said: “That was incredible — it was only my first major championships and I was placed so I was really happy. It all happened in such a short space of time.”
In September that year Katherine learned that Gem was injured and required a long period of rest to recover.
However, her sadness turned to joy when she was selected for British Equestrian Federation’s Excel Talent programme and gained a place on the talented athlete scholarship scheme, which is funded by the Government.
Then she was selected for the federation’s world class programme.Katherine said: “It was a huge achievement with only 18 months of competing behind me. With all the problems I had and with Gem going lame, I was thrilled.”
In February last year, she found a new equine partner, Roh-Gold (Rohan), with whom she hopes to compete in Brazil.
Katherine says: “My aim is to win gold there. It is all about performance and progression but I believe that I can do it.”
Two weeks after being paired together, Katherine and Rohan competed at the winter championships, then at the Hickstead national championships, where they won one class and came second in the other.
Katherine then won the young riders section at the two-star international at Bishop Burton Agricultural College in North Yorkshire. She said: “I love the way you are in harmony with the horse. You can get such a big impressive animal to do whatever you want when you have a bond.”
Katherine, a former pupil of Emmer Green Primary School and Highdown School, lives at home with her parents, Rob, who works in exchanging, and Gill, a consultant for accountants Ernst &Young, and brother Alex, 22. She is studying equine management at Berkshire College of Agriculture.
Her condition still affects her but she says: “I don’t have to go to all the appointments that I did when I was younger.
“I am weak all down my left side, am deaf in one ear and I have limited use of my right eye so only see through one eye at a time.
“It does affect my riding because normal reins are quite difficult to use as when the horse pulls they slip through my fingers.
“I have specially made loop reins so have adapted my riding and now my hands are a lot more stable. My hands do get very tired sometimes but I can overcome that and I work with a laptop instead of writing by hand.”
Katherine was part of the campaign group that worked with MPs and the Meningitis Research Foundation to raise awareness of the disease and to support the release of the pneumococcal vaccine into the Childhood Vaccination Programme, which was achieved in 2006.
She said: “Pneumococcal meningitis is not recognised as much by doctors as some of the other forms of meningitis.
“The doctors knew I was ill but they did not recognise what it was. I got it again when I was four and that time my mum knew the signs and I was treated very quickly.
“Being involved in the vaccination programme really helped me mature because I was doing something for somebody else — all the other young children and babies. It was amazing when it was approved.
“I do not want other parents to go through what mine went through. It was a very long time that I spent in hospital and even once I had been discharged there were at least weekly hospital appointments to do with my hands, then there was physiotherapy and occupational therapists. The doctors thought I would never walk again.
“My parents have always considered me to be able-bodied. I think that attitude has helped me as sometimes parents can be too protective of their children and do not encourage them to go out and fulfil their ability so that they do not learn to overcome their disability and live with it.
“With disabled children I think you should get them to do as much as they possibly can for themselves. I would not be where I am now if my parents had not had the attitude and determination that they did.
“I managed to get back on my feet and walk again and now, unless I am really tired, you cannot even tell that I have problems. I am determined to get everything I want out of life. If I was not I would have given up by now.”