The “miracle athlete” in our midst

While Oscar Pistorius grabs the headlines spare a thought for young Ryan Farrington, writes Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian. And use your SJA website to comment on the differences between his article and that by the Mail‘s Des Kelly on a related theme

It has been the week of the miracle athlete. But perhaps we have concentrated on the wrong miracle athlete. In last weekend’s English Schools’ Championships an 18-year-old, Ryan Farrington, finished fourth in the senior boys’ 100 metres and won a gold medal with the West Midlands sprint relay team.

At 7, Ryan started shaking and developed problems with his speech. He was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. There is no known cure and it is extremely rare for children to suffer from it. By 9, Ryan was having terrible spasms and could no longer walk properly. By 11 he was confined to a wheelchair, which he was forced to use for the next two years.

“The pain was unbearable,” he says. “I can’t really describe it.”

His mother Lisa can: “He used to scream constantly. The spasms down his back were so bad that it looked as if his skin was rippling.”

When things were at their worst, Ryan would be admitted to hospital and put on methadone. He was told that the only permanent pain relief (diazepam injected into the spine) would leave him unable to walk – and that even without such relief he might not walk again.

“I said straightaway, ‘No chance’,” he says, “went back to physio and practised walking using hand rails. After they told me I might not walk again I was so determined.”

Whenever he felt down, his physio, Samantha Butts, told him not to give up. Things improved. When he regained movement in his back he decided he wanted to learn taekwondo – he is now a black belt. Next he decided he wanted to play football. Then he decided he wanted to run fast.

“Ryan’s always been in a rush to get everything done because he doesn’t know what tomorrow holds,” says Lisa.

At 15 he joined Birchfield Harriers, the celebrated athletics club that nurtured Denise Lewis, Ashia Hansen and Mark Lewis-Francis. Amazingly Ryan is now Staffordshire champion at 100m (10.86 sec), 200m (22.19) and 400m (51.9). He is coached by Steve Platt, who guided Lewis-Francis to gold in the Olympic 100m relay.

“I wish all my athletes were like him,” Platt says. “Rather than tell him to do more, sometimes you’ve got to stop him. It’s incredible how he can run like this when he can’t even walk properly. I think it’s the momentum that carries him along.”

Those who never saw Ryan in a wheelchair cannot believe he was ever in one and those who did cannot believe he is now running. One consultant told him to quit athletics because it could aggravate his condition. He ignored him.

“I thought it was stupid,” he says. “In my opinion it’s making me stronger and it can’t be making me any worse.” When he runs he feels pain free.

Ryan, who is still looking for a sponsor, refuses to think of himself as disabled. He recently applied to university. When he received a form for disabled applicants he told his mum: “I ain’t disabled. I’m just a little bit dodgy.”

Lisa finds it hard to believe the progress her son has made. “You can’t describe how you feel. You cry at any point. In my heart just to see him get on the line and run is fantastic. You couldn’t wish for any more than for him just to be there.”

But Ryan does. He wants to represent his country. “My main priority is to get a GB vest – for anything.”

He knows it will be hard. There are days when the pain is so bad he cannot get out of bed and has to cosh himself with codeine. At the end of races he often holds his back with his hands and limps away like an old man.

“He could wake up and not be able to walk tomorrow,” Lisa says. “We try not to think about that. It’s something we don’t talk about. Ryan says, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.'”

Could Ryan be a contender in 2012? Platt thinks it is too early to say but he is not ruling it out. “Ryan’s got to go considerably faster,” he says, “but the potential is there.”

What a story that would be – the boy who was told he might not walk again, sprinting for Britain at the London Olympics.

It is a dream scenario, of course. But if anybody can make the impossible possible, it has to be Ryan Farrington.

Read the original Hattenstone article by clicking here.

And now compare this piece with Des Kelly’s column from Tuesday’s Daily Mail on Oscar Pistorius. Post your comments in the box below