International Women's Day: Six inspirational sportswomen share their stories

Ahead of International Women’s Day next week, we’ve asked some truly inspirational women to share their stories.

From healing the trauma of childhood sex abuse by climbing mountains, to rowing the Atlantic while fighting cancer, these women detail how they overcame the most challenging times in their lives and went on to achieve great things.

Whether you’re experiencing trauma or just stuck in a rut, there is something here to uplift and inspire you.

Kelda on life’s roller coaster

Kelda Wood, 49, suffered a freak accident at the age of 28 when a bale of hay fell on her, causing major issues with her ankle and ending her professional sporting career.

‘Life changed in that moment and I spent nine months in and out of hospital,’ she says.

‘After suffering for ten years, I decided enough was enough and I needed a challenge. I decided to climb Kilimanjaro and this was the first step in taking my life back. Then I climbed Aconcagua and this was where I finally found peace with who I am.

‘I then retrained as an outdoor instructor and set up the charity Climbing Out, which aims to rebuild confidence, self-esteem and motivation in people who have been through trauma.

‘In 2019 I rowed the Atlantic solo, despite a fused ankle, and was the first adaptive person to do so. I wanted to inspire others to do something amazing and I ended up rowing an extra 700 miles, as I couldn’t go in a straight line.’

However, 2020 was a bad year for Kelda – her father passed away and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

‘Life can be s***,’ she says. ‘We spend so much time wasting energy on bad things that happen that we can’t control. But life is a roller coaster and that same year I was awarded an MBE and then did a triathlon in 2021. I trained hard and found ways to adapt. It meant I was back in control, not defined by another trauma.

‘Everyone’s journey is different. But for me, if I acknowledge, accept and action the trauma in my life, it puts the control back in my hands.’

Silvia and overcoming sexual abuse

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, 47, grew up in Peru where she was sexually abused between the ages of six and ten by a close family friend.

Aged 18, she moved to the US where she numbed the pain of her childhood trauma with alcohol and sex, until she found healing in the mountains.

‘My life was spiralling out of control so I decided to partake in a healing session of ayahuasca [the plant-based psychedelic thought to bring about profound life change],’ she says.

‘On seeing myself as a little girl surrounded by enormous mountains, I decided to put the vision into action and get to the base of Mount Everest. Here I felt a sense of safety, belonging and acceptance. I was then committed to climbing the seven summits (plus the Oceania summit in Australia) and I became the first openly gay woman in the world to have completed this extraordinary journey.

‘I am currently on my way to complete skiing the North and South Poles. I don’t know how to ski, so I am looking at this journey with a true beginner’s mind. I would love to explore the deepest points in every ocean, too.’

In 2014, Silvia also launched the charity Courageous Girls to help survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking find their own inner strength.

She wrote a book, titled In The Shadow Of The Mountain, in 2019.

‘I hope the book inspires people to have faith in their own resilience,’ she says. ‘I’m now almost four years sober. I want people to know they are not alone and there is light in the darkness. They, too, can do unlimited wonders.’

Lohani on the fact family doesn’t define you

Lohani Noor, 53, grew up in an Asian family, battling racism and incredibly religious parents.

She ran away at 16 to avoid an arranged marriage and lived on the streets before finally going into a children’s home.

‘I was so traumatised when I left home, I was afraid of my own shadow,’ she says. ‘I lost all sense of myself and years later I now know I was experiencing complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

‘At 19, I discovered I was super-strong and started bodybuilding. I found the gym a safe place to vent my anger, frustration and sadness. At 23 I was travelling the world. Because of my PTSD I was convinced I would be caught and harmed, so I was always on the run from an invisible enemy. To this day I have huge gaps in my memory, as trauma fragments you.’

While competing as a bodybuilder, Lohani also trained and qualified as a plumber and later a building services engineer. In the following years she married, divorced and discovered she was pregnant.

‘I wasn’t in a committed relationship but decided to bring my child into the world and worked on a building site until I was 34 weeks pregnant. Although they were grief-riddled days and I felt unloved, I felt so much joy at the prospect of becoming a mother. The greatest learning I’ve had is that of being a parent.’

After her son was born she took a lecturing position and retrained in psychotherapy.

She has since written a book and been a therapist on the BBC’s Sex On The Couch. Lohani says: ‘Don’t be afraid of life, it will kill you in the end no matter what you do. And know that, no matter what, you will always be OK.’

Kat on living every moment to the full

Kat Cordiner, 41, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 39, which was found while she was in the process of having her eggs frozen.

She underwent a radical hysterectomy and was in remission until June 2020, when she was told that the cancer had metastasised and was no longer considered curable.

‘After the first diagnosis, I cried my heart out, I didn’t want to die. But I was convinced I was going to beat it and more distraught at not being able to carry a child.’

Following the cancer’s return, Kat had gruelling chemotherapy followed by six weeks of daily radiotherapy over a period of seven months. After the chemotherapy, a benign cardiac tumour was found, which meant heart surgery in February last year.

‘Mentally I wasn’t in a great place, I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I potentially wasn’t going to have.’ But Kat’s motivation is: ‘A cancer diagnosis helps you understand life is a gift and not a guarantee, which creates opportunities to live like you’ve never lived before.’

She entered the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Rowing Challenge, completing the 3,000-mile crossing a few weeks ago, breaking the world record by seven days.

‘Crossing the finish line was overwhelming. The row had been my anchor in getting through the treatment. Nothing prepares you for rowing two hours on and one hour off for 42 days.

‘I was amazed at what my body had endured through treatment and yet, there I was rowing the Atlantic. It might sound like very underwhelming advice, but I try to take each day as it comes and break things down into smaller chunks, celebrating when you achieve something.’

Sally and how she rose like a Phoenix

Sally Haycock, 47, was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune illness that affects the peripheral nervous system, at the age of 39. She was completely paralysed and spent three months in hospital.

She begged her sister to take her to end her life in Switzerland.

‘My body was destroying its own nerves. The pain was excruciating and death was the preferred option.

‘However, there was a glimmer of hope when I responded to my second course of treatment. The human body is capable of the most amazing feats and when my neurologist said she doubted I would run again, it was the best reverse psychology.

‘I was tube fed and had to learn how to do everything again, from eating to standing. I borrowed a treadmill and began a few strides. I completed a five-mile race 18 months later and moved on to marathons.

‘I don’t have full sensation in my feet, but I just put up with it. I also fall a lot, where the nerve messages don’t get through quickly enough, but there’s no point moaning about it.

‘I had seen Ironman 70.3 and always admired the athletes. I trained hard and in 2019 I competed and thoroughly enjoyed the day. But could I do a full Ironman UK?’ Sally spent lockdowns training and last July, she went for it.

‘My swim was a PB and 112 miles is a long way on a bike for which we suffered biblical rain. But I made it through the toughest eight hours and then just had a marathon to run. The moment I crossed the finishing line I was overwhelmed. I had set myself a challenge and I had achieved it.

‘My advice to anyone reading this is, never give up. No matter how low you feel, how bad your life is feeling, there is always hope. Where there is hope, there is a future.’

Lauren and her battle against Crohn’s disease

Lauren Winfield Hill’s career as a professional cricket player was almost ended by the inflammatory bowel condition, Crohn’s disease.

‘About four years ago, I got home from one of the Ashes games and I had vomiting and diarrhoea every couple of minutes for about eight hours straight,’ says Lauren, 31. ‘I started having these flare-ups every month and I lost around 10kg.

‘I basically had diarrhoea every day, so life just became a battle. I really pride myself on my physical condition, but my benchmarks were going down and as a professional, it was demoralising. I felt fatigued, empty and generally like s***.

‘I started missing games and training sessions, and suffered anxiety about going to restaurants.’ Lauren’s energy was so depleted that she questioned whether she could continue to play at a professional level any more.

‘At the time I was playing for England and Yorkshire and I was lucky enough to have medical assistance.

‘We tried lots of cameras and tests until finally they saw the inflammation and diagnosed Crohn’s. Looking back I didn’t realise it, but the Crohn’s was draining the life out of me. I’m now on medication and injections and I’ve never missed a game since. I’m playing professionally for male/female series The Hundred and England again (we’re currently out in New Zealand for the World Cup) and I feel great.

‘It’s been such a challenging time, but you have to hang in there. You can overcome more than you think. Be kind to yourself.’

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