Continuing with the theme of blogging about people that inspire me while they’re still alive, today I want to tell you about Nikki Emerson. Most of you have probably never heard of her and I think that’s as much a sad commentary on life as it is on the state of reporting about people who don’t fit the mould. I’ve lifted a lot of these details from her website, to fill in the bits that I either don’t know or don’t remember so well. You can see it here: http://www.nikkiemerson.co.uk/
I grew up with Nikki, albeit distantly. Her father and my father were close as youngsters and when I was born, Nikki’s mother Helen was my godmother. Her father later became my brother’s godfather, so our familial links are tight. When Nikki was younger her family were very much into horses and she was heading for a glittering career as a champion show jumper and dressage rider. She’s a smart girl, very clever and an academic star. She was accepted into Oxford University to study neuroscience and psychology.
Then in 2008 disaster struck. On the way home from university, she was in an horrific car crash that broke her spine. She was told she would never walk again. Here’s the thing that sets Nikki apart. I’ve met a lot of people with spinal injuries. A lot sink into the grim darkness and never surface again. Most try grudgingly to make do with what they have. Some take the compensation payouts they get and just try to live comfortably. Not Nikki. What makes her so extraordinary in my eyes is that in a very short time after the accident, she set herself a goal and then moved heaven and earth to achieve it.
Within a couple of months she was back at university, but that wasn’t the dream of which I speak. With riding no longer on the cards, she turned her sights towards the Paralympics, inspired by watching the ones in Beijing from her hospital bed. (Shout out to Stoke Mandeville!)
She started out training with the GB rowing team, but a few months after that she was asked if she would consider wheelchair racing. Not long after that, she was training with the then Dame (now Baroness) Tani Grey-Thompson. In 2009 she qualified for the London Marathon.
2010 was Nikki’s first golden year. She came fourth in the London Marathon and won four medals at the under-23 world track championships. I remember watching the marathon at home and being furious that they kept referring to the runners as being “the first British woman over the line” (like being in a wheelchair makes you not a British woman. For shame, BBC.). Nikki was the first British woman over the finish line that year and it was well-deserved. At the end of 2010 she was ranked 6th in the world in her class. Think about that. Less than 2 years after her life being derailed in such a monumental way, she was competing as a world class athlete at the very pinnacle of the game.
In 2011 and 2012 she qualified for the paralympics, but wasn’t chosen as part of the British team. It hasn’t deterred her and she’s still training hard and working as an ambassador on behalf of various charities, as well as studying for her Master’s degree.
So what do her achievements mean to me? Why am I blogging about her? Why does she inspire me? The simple fact of the matter is that I can’t think of anyone else in my life who more perfectly embodies the human spirit. I remember visiting her in the hospital and she was still cheerful and smiling. Her strength of character and drive to succeed are just astounding. Absolutely astounding.
And that’s the thing. Really awful things happen to really good people. She’s beautiful and smart and a lovely person, from a good home and a loving family. Being a fine human being can’t protect you from the pitfalls and accidents of life. It’s how you deal with them that makes you extraordinary.
Whenever I have dark days, whenever things happen that seem to turn my world to crap, I think of her and it shames me. In part it’s because nothing that happens to me is as bad as hearing I’ll never walk again and part of it is that I’m wallowing in my misery instead of making something of it. Nikki got handed lemons by life and she didn’t just stop at the lemonade. There was sorbet and lemon meringue pie, cocktails, hard boiled sweets, tarte au citron, drizzle cake and curd, along with a plethora of other lemon based things.
Stuff happens. Your life can change on a dime. It’s up to you how you deal with it. You either let it take you down, or you use it as a springboard to reach for the stars.
That’s the other lesson that I’ve learned from her. You can’t ever set your sights too high. You have to dream big and then throw everything you have at it. Don’t just settle for “getting back to where you were”. If you want to get into sports, aim for the Olympics, the biggest sporting festival in the world. If you’re a writer and you’re getting rejected, try something different and aim for the stratospheric orbit of the James Pattersons and J K Rowlings of this world. Whatever field you’re in, look at the pinnacle of that field and head for it, whatever may stand in your way.
You can’t just sit back and wait for things to come to you. Nikki works hard, studies hard and trains even harder to get where she is today. We should all have even half her strength of character to chase our dreams, whatever they may be. I remind myself of that when I’m tired and not feeling the words or I don’t want to sit and focus. My dream isn’t going to come to me. I have to fight for it.
Nikki is, in my eyes, the physical embodiment of hope and determination. She inspires me in so many ways. I hope her story can also lift you.