Dreaming of Rio

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Stephanie Millward’s dreams of swimming for England at the Sydney Olympics were shattered when, at the age of 17, she was found to be suffering from multiple sclerosis. Now, 34-year-old Stephanie is in training for her third Paralympics. She lives in Box, Wiltshire, with her husband, Adrian, 50.

“Until I was diagnosed with MS my life was perfect. My talent for swimming had been spotted and developed at a young age. At 15, I became English schools’ swimming champion and national age group champion, breaking records both times, and began training with the GB Olympic team.

The following year I was selected to swim for England in World Cup meetings abroad. The Olympics in Sydney 2000 was a dead cert.

Then, while competing in China in 1998, I began to feel nauseous and wobbly and a ‘bounce’ in my vision left me tripping over and walking unsteadily. I was favourite to win the race – but came eighth.

I then developed a pain down my left side, as if my body was trying to break through too-tight skin. When an MRI scan showed swelling and scarring on the brain doctors said it was either an infection, lupus or multiple sclerosis. I’d never heard of the last two conditions and insisted I was fine. I’d still go to the Olympics. But my condition worsened.

I’d swim into the pool wall while training and was too weak to climb out afterwards.

Four days after my 18th birthday, in September 1999, doctors confirmed I had the relapsing remitting form of MS, an autoimmune condition of the central nervous system. Nerves in my brain and spinal cord had become damaged, disrupting the transfer of signals to the rest of the body.

Symptoms vary from person to person and usually wax and wane. But mine were continuous and even doctors were shocked at my deterioration. I was in constant pain, struggled to walk, talk, see and move, with terrifying spells of blindness and complete paralysis.

After failing my A levels and losing my university place, I survived on disability benefits. I couldn’t bear to watch coverage of the 2000 Olympics. Consumed by anger and rage, I sank into depression, drank excessively and self-harmed.

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Stephanie is a patron and ambassador of Just4Children