Nerys Pearce was left paralysed from the chest down after a motorbike accident at the age of 27. This summer she is swimming the channel, for the second time. She has racked up 10 medals at the Invictus Games and is on the way to becoming a champion F1 driver.
But there’s just one problem – she can’t get into her local Costa for a coffee.
Yes, despite all those incredible achievements, the simple pleasure of sitting down in her favourite coffee shop in Ascot and enjoying a latte with mates eludes her and that is very frustrating.
So she complained to the boss and he installed a bell outside the shop that she can ring for attention, which she acknowledges is very generous, but she’s still denied the full in-house Costa experience.
“It’s not just me that has these problems, it’s parents with prams, old people too. A ramp costs £40,000 I’ve been told, so I can understand why small independents won’t do it, but not the big chains. It’s something that would make the life of disabled people so much easier.”
In saying that, the 39-year-old former army medic goes out of her way not to have an easy life.
Despite her disability after a car reversed into her motorbike in 2008 she has gone on to become an Invictus Games medallist, world record holder and Commonwealth Games competitor.
Having had most of the racing season wiped out last year, she’s re-started her efforts to become the world’s fastest disabled racing driver, with all-disabled Team BRIT. In April she will be competing at Silverstone in a souped-up BMW 118, which clocks up to 112mph on the track.
This summer she will be launching her second attempt to swim the channel. Last year her attempt was stopped due to hypothermia. She was swept miles off track due to spring tides.
“The Spring tide in the English channel throws you. It’s 33km from England to France and I swam 37km and was only two thirds of the way across. The tide takes you straight east and when it turns, straight west. It took me a very long way. I got pulled out because, being paralysed from the chest down, I don’t have control of my body temperature and got hypothermia.
“I’m trying again in July and I’ve put a few changes in place, namely the way I take my food and water from the boat. I can’t tread water, you can’t hold on to the boat and it was moving forward and I was being thrown off the back. So I’ll take smaller feeds more regularly. I put on some weight thinking it would keep me warmer but it made me slower so I’m dropping the body weight so I can swim faster. I had a new crew and it was a first attempt, they’re going to encourage me to push harder in stints to keep my heart rate and my body temperature up.
“Success is built on failure and I will keep going until I succeed. It’s an opportunity to learn and move forward. I used to put so much pressure on myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing. When I concentrated on being perfectly imperfect I found that I’m much happier and the people around me I touch and meet are happier as well.”
Nerys joined the Army in 2004 as an advanced trauma medic. In October 2008 she was hit by a car when on her motorbike causing a range of serious injuries. Her left leg was completely crushed when it was trapped between the bike and car, her right leg was damaged, her right shoulder was badly dislocated and she sustained a serious head injury. She underwent a number of drug treatments and spinal blocks, until her body reacted badly, causing a spinal cord injury which left her paralysed from the chest down.
Initially Nerys found her disability extremely tough to deal with. But after realising that she “could stay like that for 50 years and do absolutely nothing, or I could look at my old life, which I loved, and get it back”, she threw herself back into sport.
“I was in denial at the time and thought it would fix itself but after becoming bed bound I thought my life was over and I’d rather not be here. Blesma (military charity for limbless veterans) found me in 2015 and saved my life.
“I loved my career in the army and I can’t go running up mountains any more, but I would never have been to the Commonwealth Games or held nine world records or met some phenomenal people had it not been for my accident.”
After embracing a new mindset, she sought challenges and adventurous opportunities wherever she could. She took part in ‘Enduroman’ a 300-mile continuous triathlon from London to Paris, racing as part of a team of adaptive female athletes for Help 4 Heroes and breaking the world record.
In 2016 she competed in the Invictus Games in Orlando winning ten medals in power lifting, rowing, track and field – the most any competitor has ever won in one games. In 2018 she competed for Team Wales in the Commonwealth Games in Australia, coming fourth in para power lifting and in 2019 she conquered ‘Race Across America’ known as the toughest cycle race in the world, on a hand bike with a team of seven adaptive sportswomen.
But Nerys isn’t just satisfied with competing in disability sport. She’s also making a huge impression in events that are open to anyone.
“I won a couple of open water races against able-bodied swimmers,” she says. “People would actually ask me why I was entering!” She answered them by winning. “It’s the love of sport, training hard, and always pushing to be a better version of myself. That’s what’s important, not disability.
“I’m still surprised by my results. I won the River Adur 5km open water swim, for example. Competing has been great for me mentally. It has cancelled out lots of the negative mental health issues I had towards my injury and feeling that I was less than my former self. Hopefully, I’ve also countered the labels people put on those with disabilities.
“I have the power to show people that the seemingly impossible is possible, and that you can make a difference in your own life.”