Rare virus leaves Gerry with balance and co-ordination problems – but it’s no barrier to sporting splendour (From Gazette & Herald)
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Rare virus leaves Gerry Savage with balance and co-ordination problems – but it’s no barrier to sporting splendour
“THERE have been times where I thought, ‘I can’t do this’, I’ve got too much pain. I can’t co-ordinate myself well enough to do it’. I thought about giving up – but then I think, ‘What would I do?”
Every moment of doubt, every time she felt so tired she wondered whether she could even get on board a horse, every second when it seemed just too much, all the pain, the struggle and the sacrifice were made worthwhile for Gerry Savage in a circular piece of bronze.
She used to show cobs – those horses of strong bones and steady disposition – and had ridden most of her life before, five years ago, she was struck down with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
“It affects balance and coordination,” Foggathorpe-based Savage explained. “I had a virus and, initially, they thought it was meningitis. Then they thought it was MS – some of the characteristics are quite similar – but I still have scarring (on the brain) left from the virus.
“A lot of people make a full recovery from it, some make a reasonable recovery, and others are left the way I have been, with balance and coordination issues and severe fatigue. I still find it hard now. I expect to be able to do things that I could five years ago and I can’t.
“It was never a bother to come over to the stables, tack up and ride. Now I have to have a couple of people to help me get on. Certainly two people to help me get off.”
Savage didn’t quite have to learn to ride all over again, but she had to find a different way. It was a path that led to London 2012 and a bronze medal as part of the Ireland line-up that participated in the team dressage event at the Paralympics.
When she holds the medal in her hands – having had the best part of a month to comprehend a sudden rise up the ranks which only saw her begin international competition 18 months ago – Savage still can’t quite grasp the fact it is hers.
“I still feel, ‘Is it real?’ I look at the medal but I just don’t believe I have got it,” she said. “To begin with, trying to coordinate myself, with the horse and the balance, was quite difficult. I did struggle and I didn’t think I would get anywhere with it. It was hard work, but I was determined to do it. There are thousands of people with disabilities who do sport and I just thought, ‘Do it’.
“You have to work with what you have got, not what you had in my case. I don’t feel really disabled. I am disabled but I just think, ‘Get on with it’.”
Savage continued: “The Paralympics were just phenomenal, absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Nothing was too much bother. We competed at Greenwich Park, where the Olympics were held. It was a fantastic set-up. Words can’t describe what the opening ceremony was like. It was out of this world.
“We were only allowed to go for the parade in and stay for a very short while because we were competing in the next 48 hours. You couldn’t see anything for the cameras and the lights. The screams and shouts were deafening. It was brilliant. The atmosphere blows you away.
“At the first day of our event, there were 10,000 spectators there. We are just not used to that amount and I don’t think we will ever get that again at any Para competition. They were brilliant. It’s very difficult to keep your nerve. When I saw all the people, I just imagined they were cardboard cut-outs.
“I didn’t think it would be that big. It was a fantastic experience and, if I did another ten Paralympics, I don’t think it would have that atmosphere.”
Dublin-born Savage was recruited by the Irish squad following a chance meeting. When classification problems surrounding her disability halted her burgeoning career for nearly three years, she was forced to be patient until May last year.
Since then, however, she has made massive progress. On board Blue, who cost her just £600 as a foal, Savage finished tenth in the team ride, seventh in the championship test and fifth in the freestyle, the individual event which did not count towards team classifications, at the London Games.
“We all had good scores. I was really pleased with that. I just can’t believe that we got third,” she added. “We were actually in sixth place the night before. It was one of the journalists that came down from the media box who said it was unconfirmed but it looked like we had third place. Then it came up on the board and we just went barmy. We didn’t think we were in the running for a team medal.
“We were hoping we could finish in the top ten and we would have been happy with that. We got an individual silver and bronze as well. It’s pretty good going. I had no ambitions. My goal was to be in the top ten. Anything above was a bonus. I was ecstatic.”
Sunny Rio is the ultimate target now for Savage. But while, qualification permitting, she will be there, Blue, like her rider another survivor after overcoming a bout of the often fatal illness grass sickness, will not.
“I would love to do Rio but I am probably going to have to look for another horse,” she explained. “Blue is 12 now. I am worried about the travelling for her. She’s not a light horse and she’s not designed for very hot weather.
“I would like to do the Worlds, in 2014, on Blue – providing I keep my place on the team. She doesn’t deserve to be put under any stress.”
And, possibly in tandem with a new partner in four years time, Savage is hoping to bring some different colours back on the flight home from Brazil.
“If the horse is good enough, and the team is good enough, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t target gold,” she said of her Paralympic ambitions in 2016.
“I’d certainly like to be in the medals individually. I’ve got a bronze and I think, ‘I’d like a silver... I want gold’. Who knows? If you put the work in, and you have got the right horse, there is no reason why not.”