WE’RE INSPIRED BY...
Triathlon has opened up a whole new world to Stephan and Di Couture as well as their very special daughter, Chloe – a para-triathlete in the making
STEPHAN AND CHLOE COUTURE’S STORY PROVES THAT THERE’S NO BARRIER TOO BIG TO STOP YOU COMPETING.
“There’s a saying, ‘disabled child, disabled family’. But that is not us”
Lying in a bobbing kayak, with the warm sun on her face, Chloe Couture is the picture of contentment.
Her hand trails in the water as she is towed by her devoted dad Stephan, 51. He performs a careful, smooth breast-stroke, glancing back every few seconds to check she’s ok.
All too soon for Chloe, she’s back on dry land. Like any triathlete she needs to ease back into training gently. She has a few big events coming up this season and Stephan doesn’t want her to overdo it.
Ten-year-old Chloe has been attracting attention and melting hearts at triathlons all over the country since she started competing with her dad last summer.
Stephan and Di adopted Chloe six years ago. She had cerebral palsy and sight problems and as a result, has no peripheral vision and experiences a delay in processing vision in her line of sight.
“Doctors warned she would never sit up, speak, or feed herself. She didn’t speak, didn’t move, but now look at her,” says Stephan.
Behind us, his determined daughter is pushing herself up and down the dock in her wheelchair – her little jaw set determinedly, her ponytail-plait swinging with effort. As she comes to a gentle slope, she instinctively hunkers down in the seat to make herself more streamlined – increasing her speed. “She’s a natural,” says Stephan.
“There’s a saying ‘disabled child, disabled family,” says Di. “Yes, looking after a disabled child is exhausting – but we were determined that wouldn’t be us.”
As a teenager, Stephan had been a keen cyclist – competing in time trials and road races. “I always loved cycling but it fell by the wayside over the years,” he says. “But I’ve always been fit and active – swimming for fun and climbing peaks like Snowdon and Mont Blanc.
“We bought a child carrier big enough for Chloe, and climbed Snowdon with her on my back, twice.”
Breaking into a trot during one walk, Chloe squealed with delight. “If we really secured her into the carrier, I could hold onto her feet, to stop her legs swinging, and jog along. She loved it. With her free hands she’d fiddle with the labels on the back of my neck, or grab leaves from trees as we passed.”
On a family day out at a National Trust property, Stephan broke into a run pushing her buggy downhill. “She laughed as we picked up speed. I realised that being outdoors just sparked something
within her, and this was something we could do together.”
Stephan tracked down an all-terrain buggy that could manage cross-country routes. He started off with brisk walking, then introduced a mixture of walking and running between lamp-posts, gradually building up distances; their first race was a 5k Santa run in Stratford in 2011.
Meanwhile, Chloe was developing in leaps and bounds. One afternoon, the family were at a garden centre coffee shop when Chloe started to use the metal bars around the service island to pull herself along. As she pulled, the buggy wheels turned a fraction. Sensing the movement, she pulled again. While her parents watched in astonishment, Chloe began to inch her way around the island.
The proud parents invested in a wheelchair and painstakingly taught her to turn the wheels herself. At the same time Stephan introduced cycling to their regime. “By removing the front wheel of the buggy, I could attach it to my bike and take her out cycling. I fashioned little wedges and cushions to make her secure and she loved it.”
As Stephan picked up speed, he could hear her delighted cries behind him. “If we’re going faster I’ll shout ‘hold tight’ and will also shout ‘left, left’ or ‘right, right’ which tells her which way she needs to lean if we’re turning a corner.”
Just one more discipline and they’d be able to do a triathlon. Chloe couldn’t swim, but what was to stop Stephan towing her in a kayak? So last summer, a nervous Di watched as Chloe’s kayak was lowered into nearby Cliff Lakes, Warwickshire – an open water swim venue. Chloe, wearing a wetsuit and lifejacket, simply exclaimed “ooooh,” and laughed joyfully.
“Swimming breast-stroke means I can spot easily and see, hear and even ‘feel’ how Chloe is at the same time,” Stephan explains. “Between strokes, I can shout ‘Chloe good?’ and she’ll shout back ‘Good,’ to let me know she’s ok. I was worried that front crawl would stop me doing that. I also learned that to get round a buoy I’d have to almost hug it before going wide to get the kayak around it as well.”
Their first triathlon was a Para Tri event at Dorney Lake, Eton, last July. “It was brilliant – Chloe loved the whole race atmosphere and the cheers,” says Stephan. “In fact, we loved it so much we did three races in one day. As we crossed the line, Chloe had her arms out triumphantly. It gave us the confidence to carry on taking part.”
Within weeks they had completed a triathlon in Derby and the Brownlee triathlon at Harewood House in Leeds.
“Why shouldn’t they have that thrill to compete in triathlons?
“I always say to organisers ‘we’ll start wherever and whenever you want; all we want to do is take part. In Leeds,we swam so well we even caught up other racers!
“At Derby, Chloe wheeled herself the last 300 metres of the run and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The family has been overwhelmed at the support. “Huub have provided wetsuits, booties and gloves to keep her warm in the kayak while other sponsors like Ronhill and Sprayway have given technical clothing so Chloe stays snug in the buggy all year round.
“Staff at Cliff Lakes have given us our own changing room and even accompanied us to the Brownlee Triathlon to provide safety support on the water.”
Dad and daughter now train every day, and the family has more races lined up this year. “Our next race is in a lake shallow enough for me to walk along, supporting her for the 50 metre swim while she kicks her legs. Then we’ll do the 2.5km bike and 750m run together.
“Our earliest races were just 5k on the bike, but we’re aiming for a half Ironman distance next.”
The parents are also waiting for the delivery of a bespoke tricycle for Chloe – which supports her while allowing her to pedal. “The salesman insisted she wouldn’t be able to manage it, but I sat her on it and off she went,” he says proudly.
“The tricycle will really build up her leg strength,” adds Di. “In time, we would love her to walk and we’re going to give her every opportunity. Stephan is convinced she has it in her to one day do triathlon by herself.”
Stephan is passionate about getting more families involved and has set up The LadyBugs Trust (ladybugstrust.org.uk) – with the motto “Life’s too short not to”.
“It’s hard work and takes a lot of organisation to get a disabled person ready for the event. Our transition times are shocking,” he laughs, “but why shouldn’t they have that thrill? Even when a person can’t communicate, you can just see something in their eyes – that spark.”
When it’s time to leave, Chloe signs a heartfelt “thank you” to me and smiles as she blows me a kiss. Like everyone else who meets this incredible little girl, I melt.
She’s a champion – in every sense.
The family pose with the Brownlee brothers after racing their eponymous race