Triple gold medal-winning para dressage rider Suzanna Hext has been selected for the Tokyo Paralympics as part of the British swimming squad.
Suzanna, who evented up to CCI2* (now CCI3*-L) before a life-changing riding accident nine years ago, told H&H she traces her success in the pool back to watching the para riders at London 2012 from her hospital bed.
“When I was lying in hospital it was during the London 2012 Paralympics. At the time I was stuck in quite a big rut,” she said. “I’ll be completely honest, I guess I’d lost me as a person — my sense of identity has always been sport.
“Seeing the London Paralympics was a massive boost for me, as it made me realise that actually, regardless of what had happened to me and my accident, there were still things I could do. Even if it wasn’t the Paralympics, there was a future ahead of me. So I kind of owe it to that. I guess it just landed at the right time for me.
“I remember my surgeon coming in and saying ‘you’ll never ride again, you’ll never walk again’ and I was like, ‘watch me’. And the only reason I could do that is because I was seeing people with similar disabilities, from either having had an accident or a disability from birth, still go on to achieve massive, incredible things.
“To now be going to a Paralympics myself, probably not in the sport I would have expected to be going in, it feels pretty incredible.”
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Suzanna, 32, thanked everyone for their help and credited the support she had in getting back on a horse after her accident for where she is today.
“I just want to give back to everyone that’s given me so much over the past nine years since my accident,” she said.
“I was speaking to Pammy [Hutton] the other day. She was the first person that got me on that path to getting classified, getting back in the saddle on Amo and then Abira. Without that journey, this [swimming] journey probably wouldn’t have happened. It was that helped me believe in myself again.
“I know [what I’m doing in Tokyo] is not on a horse, but actually that journey has helped me to this, as I probably wouldn’t have thought anything was possible.”
Suzanna won Grade II individual, freestyle and team gold at the 2017 Europeans aboard Abira. In 2019, she also received her swimming para classification and that year won silver and bronze at the World Championships.
She said receiving the call-up for Tokyo “still feels a bit surreal”.
“I’m just hugely excited and proud to be able to represent my country. I just want to go out there, give it all I’ve got and enjoy every moment,” she said.
“I’ve just had so much support to get here. It’s been such a long journey to get to this point, but with a massive amount of support, both from equestrian and swimming, my family and my friends. It doesn’t just happen on its own.
“Obviously Covid over the past year has added to this crazy whirlwind of a journey that I’ve been on, but I’ve also had quite a few setbacks over the last year. I’ve had two ear operations, and ended up in hospital in bits and pieces with various issues. So I think it almost makes it even more special that I’ve managed to battle through and keep going and still get selected.”
Suzanna added moving home to Cornwall during the first lockdown meant she could swim in the sea while the pools were closed, which she said stood her in good stead.
“My parents live by the sea in Cornwall, so I could continue swimming — okay it was a different form of swimming, and it meant I could also set up a gym at home as well and my brother adapted the rowing machine,” she added.
“One of the biggest things that helped is when pools still weren’t open, but lockdown had eased enough, I started training at Chanelle and AP McCoy’s pool and used that the rest of the summer last year. I think other people weren’t back in the pool at that point, so that definitely helped. It was just a massive support to be able to go in and do that.”
Suzanna added that she is looking forward to seeing who is selected for the dressage side at the Tokyo Paralympics and supporting them too.
“I’ve had massive support from both the team at British Equestrian and British Swimming. I was kind of blown away to see on Instagram and Facebook that British Equestrian had put up a post about my swimming selection. It was really nice that they had kind of recognised it and I still feel kind of part of the equestrian community, I really appreciated that,” she said.
“I have so many happy memories equestrian wise and nothing will ever take away from that.
“The thing I find with both riding and swimming is that it just gives me so much physically and mentally. I feel free and like all my challenges kind of fade away when I’m on a horse or in a pool. That feeling is really hard to describe to anyone. When I’m on a horse, it’s like the horse is my legs, and then when I’m in a pool, I feel free because I’m weightless.”
Her rising success in the pool coincided with Abira retiring, so a lull in horsepower and the medal achievements she had in the pool with “relatively no swimming technique training”, made her decide to give swimming a serious shot.
“It was quite a scary decision. Although I was actually a good athlete in terms of sport alongside my eventing before my accident, riding had always been at the forefront of my life. That has always been my focus, even when I was running at a reasonable level,” she said.
“Riding is such a massive part of my life. Pammy, the team at Talland, Henritetta Cheetham and all she’s done – all those guys mean the absolute world to me because I wouldn’t be here without them.
“You never know what the future holds. I would love to get back and ride down that centre line again, but it’s not quite as straightforward – you need a good horse, owners and everything else. I see myself definitely getting back into the riding side of things again, but I couldn’t say right now exactly what I’m doing post-Games because I guess it depends slightly on the Games and how they go.
“If my accident has taught me anything, it’s that life’s too short – you’ve just got to enjoy the journey. I just treasure everything I’ve got at the moment along the way and that’s all I can do, is to give it everything I’ve got.”
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