Paralympic gold medallist Pam Relph tells her story
PUBLISHED: 11:32 23 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:54 27 September 2016
Derek Pelling Photography
She's an inspirational torch bearer: Pam Relph recently headed to Brazil to defend her treasured rowing title and gold medal
Pam Relph felt her whole world was at an end when, aged 20, disability forced her to leave the Army career she had spent years preparing for.
But as one door slammed shut behind her, another suddenly opened up in the form of a glorious career as a Paralympic World Champion, gold medallist and recipient of an MBE.
The 26-year-old, from Weston Turville, Aylesbury, who was first diagnosed aged seven as having the degenerative condition psoriatic arthritis, recalls: “I was told by the Army I was not continue my career because I was not suitable to be deployed.
“I had joined up when I was 16 and was really devastated that, aged 20, the career I had trained for and studied for came to an end. I had a strong military background in my family and wanted to carry it on. I was really gutted. Every major life decision up until then had been based on me getting in to the Royal Engineers.”
But, in her hour of need, Pam’s family came through for her.
“My whole family went through that process with me,” she says. “I called up my mum, gutted and in tears and was completely at a loss over what I was going to do next. I had no plans.
“My sister, Monica – who is a rower - put the feelers out with the GB Paralympic team to find out whether I would qualify. I had never previously rowed competitively but the military experience makes you tough and makes you work hard. I guess I had the mental capacity for it already and it was just a case of physically learning to row.”
Pam’s arthritis means the bones in her right hand and right fist are fused together, severely decreasing her strength in this arm.
When she learnt her disability did qualify her to be a Paralympian, she was excited, but still had reservations.
“It took me a good year to come to terms with trying to compete as a disabled person. I never would have considered myself to have a disability.
“I didn’t want to allow my condition to beat me. It wasn’t long before I realised that going to the Paralympics isn’t second best. I have this condition and I am not going to let it beat me. Going to the Paralympics was proving to myself that I was the super tough person I thought I was. The competition was fierce and you find yourself training alongside the Olympic team.”
Despite her initial reservations, Pam’s progress was remarkable – she want from rookie in 2010 to world champion in under a year, at the World Rowing Championships in Slovenia.
She won a gold medal in the Legs Trunk and Arms Mixed Coxed Four event alongside crewmates Naomi Riches, David Smith, James Roe and Lily van den Broecke, the cox. They completed the one kilometre course in a time of three minutes, 27.10 seconds, finishing nearly five seconds ahead of the second placed Canadian boat. The result meant that Great Britain qualified a boat for the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. The crew repeated their gold medal result at the Munich World Cup event in 2012.
The passion for her sport still burns bright and she trains two to three times a day, six days a week. Each training session is 90 minutes to two hours, so it’s five to six hours a day.
Pam, who is funded by UK Sport and the National Lottery, also enjoys public speaking engagements and is passionate about the empowerment of the disabled. She says: “Disabled provision is getting better, and sport is an amazing way of driving that forward. A lot of people when they think of disability think you have to be missing a limb or in a wheelchair, but a lot of people are like me with an invisible disability.”
Pam, who went to school in Wendover at John Colet, is also passionate about her roots in the Aylesbury Vale, and about Stoke Mandeville’s legacy as the birthplace of the Paralympics.“I am massively proud of the fact I come from here and I brag to everyone that I come from Stoke Mandeville. I feel very passionate that I come from the birthplace of the Paralympics. I was diagnosed at Stoke Mandeville when I was seven.”
Perhaps one of her proudest moments came in 2013 when she was awarded an MBE by Prince Charles: “I told him I share his birthday. He said all the best people are Scorpios – he was lovely, really chatty and funny.”
All of this glory is a far cry from the awful moment in 2010 Pam learnt her Army career was over. “It was devastating at the time,” she says. “But you know what they say about every cloud - and my silver lining was rowing.”