Inspirational para-athlete Victoria Baskett on her sporting ambition and embracing her disability
If there's one thing more important to Victoria Baskett than competing as a para-athlete at the highest level, it's raising awareness about the opportunities sport provides for people with disabilities.
And coming from this 23-year-old, that is certainly no platitude.
Victoria is currently competing for the University of Sheffield, as part of the university's Elite Scholarship Scheme. She participates in competitions such as the BUCS National Championships and has, for the last two years, been an athlete at the Loughborough International Athletics Meet, in the 100m.
Victoria is also clubfooted.
“It certainly slows you down and when I started doing athletics again after a break at university, it’s been really challenging," she says. "To get to know what you can’t do, but also to know what you can do has been challenging.”
Her love of running was evident from an early age but having clubfoot, a birth condition where the feet are rotated inward and downward, made the joy of pounding her feet on the ground short-lived.
“It can be incredibly painful,” she tells NewsChain. “I found that when I hit a certain mark, about 1500 metres or two miles in, it [the feet] just sort of went. I fell out of love with the sport a lot in that moment because I was always a little bit slower."
Far from being one to hide her disability, Victoria actually chronicles her experiences in her blog ‘Diary of a Para Athlete’ where she discusses her 'relationship' with her leg.
She says: “It is like a love-hate relationship as it is not exactly a modelled leg. Sometimes I look at the leg and don’t feel very comfortable with it. But I have also been blessed in a way because I am now able to do para sports due to the disability and I would like to think I have the opportunity to help others as well.”
Having a disability can impact life away from sport and Victoria says that perceptions from the public can have its ups and downs.
“When I’ve got boots on and someone asks me what sport I do, and I say I do para sports they say ‘do you?’,” says Victoria. “To the untrained eye, it is not an obvious disability. That being said, I have also experienced it where I have a large disparity between my clubfoot calf and my normal calf. The foot is also a very odd shape and it is really short.
“Two experiences stick out. First when I was in school and my foot was bruised. I was in the girl changing rooms when I took it out and I remember one of them saying ‘Oh my God, what have you done to your foot?’ It took me a minute to remember that people don’t have feet like mine.
“Another experience was one in Dorset in summer and I was wearing shorts. Wearing shorts is a real big thing for me because I’m very conscious of the fact my calves are incredibly small and I’ve got quite muscular thighs. I could hear a young kid behind me saying ‘Mum why are her legs so different?’
“These things have made me incredibly self-conscious and it’s made me aware of how things are driven by appearance. On the plus side, it has also taught me to come to terms with it.”
This self-consciousness was palpable when Victoria went for her classification in para sport. It has been more than two years since she was classified as a T44 para-athlete [an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs] but she remembers it like it was yesterday.
She says: “To be perfectly honest, I went in and I thought ‘I don’t belong here’. I felt like such an imposter. I got to the point of not seeing myself differently to anyone else to such an extent that I questioned whether I was entitled to be here?
“I walk in and I see a girl with a blade and a guy in a wheelchair but when I spoke to one of the people there, for the first time, I met someone who also had clubfoot. He said you have every right to be here as clubfoot varies a lot depending on the person.
“When I did get the classification, I was absolutely ecstatic and over the moon. I remember jumping and hugging my Mum. I had been given this opportunity that so few people are going to get and I can’t let this go to waste. The feeling I had on that day drives me a lot.”
‘Mum’ has been a really important figure for Victoria. As a single mother, Ruth understandably had to work very hard but instilled in Victoria the values of independence and the feeling that she was not a different person to any other.
“She is so tough,” Victoria says. “She has always been one of those people to get on with it. Don’t get me wrong, she is very caring, but she is one of those people who would say ‘if you fall off a horse, you get back on’.
“I completely live by that now and I am so grateful for that because I could very easily feel sorry for myself and go into a little hole. It also actually took me a really long time to realise that I was a bit different and maybe that is because Mum just didn’t treat me differently at all. She has always been really understanding and that has been really important to me to have that.”
That understanding is something Victoria obviously values, but it is not universally shared by everyone. When asked about the state of para sport and how she thinks it is looked at, Victoria thinks there is a distinction.
She says: “There are two types of people. There are people who see para sport as really overcoming something that makes people who are ‘para’, to put a statement over it, in comparison to people who don’t have a disability that is classifiable. In all honesty, I think there are people who don’t see para sport as on par with able-bodied, or they see it as slightly less.
“I can understand both arguments. I can understand the latter argument since para sport hasn’t received nearly enough attention, nearly as much support in the past, but it is getting better.
“I think it boils down to other people to be willing enough to open their minds a bit more and be more respectful to the amount of work that goes into para sport. It’s very easy to think para sports is a bit of a doss sport, but that is not the case at all.
“But I think it is also down to the athletes as well. In every para sport, athletes need to be okay with demonstrating how much work they put in. Also not being dismissive if someone comes across as ignorant to how much work goes into it.
“I opened an Instagram account and started ‘Diary of a Para Athlete’ a year after I started in athletics and I thought ‘I don’t know if I should be doing this?’ It was quite a lot of information to be giving out and I thought ‘am I good enough to be doing this?’ But actually, what made me end up doing it was that there aren’t many people talking about para sport and open to chatting about it.
“I think that is really important in order to break down the stigma and being more open in conversation.”
“I want to raise awareness about para sport more than anything,” she says. “If that means that I step into the realm of international competition, that’s amazing but if it doesn’t then that’s absolutely fine.
“If this develops into something awesome, then that’s amazing. If not, then I’ve given it a go and not wasted the opportunity.”