Wheelchair racer and Stonewall 'champion' Lizzie Williams talks about the two 'love at first sight' moments which turned her life around
Born with a rare bone disease, Lizzie Williams was so physically fragile that she couldn't support her own body weight until she was a teenager.
However, what she lacked physically she more than made up for with mental strength and has now battled her way from long stints on hospital wards to Paralympic hopeful and Stonewall champion, campaigning for LGBT equality in sport.
In an exclusive interview with NewsChain she spoke about the two times in her life she found love at first sight - wheelchair racing and meeting her fiancée, Rosa - and the pride she feels at being chosen as one of 11 Stonewall Champions.
Williams, 24, has spent her entire life in a wheelchair due to her condition - Osteogenesis Imperfecta - and was a keen swimmer with her eye on a spot at London 2012. But leading up to the games her life changed dramatically.
“The year going up to the games I was struggling,” she said. “I was always aiming to qualify for swimming but things out of my control got in the way. I had a fracture in my back that I had no idea about and was told I would have to have surgery.”
Unfortunately for Williams, despite medical assurance that the surgery had been a success, her planned five day recovery became a four-month stay in hospital that saw her hit her lowest points mentally.
“They said everything had happened the way it should have done but the surgeons said no one could explain why my body reacted the way it did. They didn’t know what to do with me in terms of my recovery so that made it a really difficult time.
“I was ridiculously depressed," she said. "I had my 18th birthday in hospital and because I was no longer a child I had to move to the adult ward. I was already pretty low and then I had to move onto a ward with five other women with dementia, having jelly and jugs thrown at me. That was my lowest and I couldn't see a way through.
"I was completely defeated and felt I had no purpose," she added.
“It got to the point my dad didn’t come and see me because it was so hard to see me so defeated and with no fire to push through.”
It was only when she realised what she would be missing out on that she managed to drag herself out of the dark times.
“There was a moment when I thought I could either just sit here and cry and mope or start making moves to change my future and get out of here,” she said, adding: “I wanted to grab my future and get the control back and that's what I did and sport helped me so much.”
In 2015, she experienced the first of her two “love at first sight” moments when she tried out wheelchair racing.
“There was a young kid at a Sussex disability event who recognised my athletic build and said I should come and try out wheelchair racing. That was it really,” she said.
“When I got in a racing chair I just loved it from the first moment and wanted more and more. It was pure love at first sight and I never looked back.”
For Williams, it is not just the pure physicality that endears her to the sport, but the sense of comradery with fellow racers.
“I just love being on the start line with an incredible group of athletes looking to go as fast as they can. It’s an individual sport but it’s a team thing in that everyone is encouraging each other,” she said.
A year later, “love at first sight” struck again when she was training at a camp in Switzerland and met Rosa, a Swiss Norwegian physiotherapist, to whom she is now engaged.
“I instantly thought she was a kind and genuine soul that I was intrigued to get to know. We exchanged numbers and spoke every day. I went back for a competition and we had our first date up a mountain. We had a picnic and ended up spending ten hours chatting and I knew that she was the one really.
“We’ve now been together for three years and got engaged two weeks ago in Norway.
“We were out in the forest and she gave me this look and I just knew and of course I said yes. I was laughing and crying at the same time and didn’t know what to do with my emotions!”
It’s been quite a few weeks for the wheelchair racer as she was also announced as one of Stonewall charity’s first champions of sport ahead of their rainbow laces campaign for LGBT equality in sport.
The charity aims to challenge anti-LGBT language and make it accessible to everyone. Stonewall now run an annual ‘rainbow laces’ campaign to help raise funds and support for LGBT equality in sport. Teams across a number of sports from football to netball and rugby don rainbow coloured bootlaces to show their support. 2019 was the first year Stonewall named ‘champions’ and Williams was among the 11 chosen.
“They literally just got in touch with me,” she said. “They had heard my story and wanted to make me one of the first champions. It was such an honour because as a young queer individual I was always searching for that role model and now I can be it.”
When asked how she is going to use her role she said: “I’m just going to highlight everything and show how important communication is. It’s so important."
The Stonewall champion finished with a piece of advice that she wished she’d had as a teenager: "It does get better. Keep believing, keep striving and keep going. You can do this. Just go for it and I am 100 per cent behind you all the way."