Gold medallist Reid switches to silver screen
Stef Reid, a champion paralympian after losing her right foot, tells of her latest role – as an actress
The first thing you notice when meeting Stef Reid, the current world Paralympic long jump champion, is that she does not walk, she marches. In the attempt to keep pace with her as she strides purposefully across the indoor athletics track at Loughborough University, it would be helpful to borrow a bike. But then, even Chris Froome might be pushed to catch her. The confidence of her stride is extraordinary to observe given that she is missing something normally considered essential for such ambulatory speed: a right foot. Hers was sliced off by a speedboat propeller when she was just 15.
Her stride, however, has not always served her well. She has just made her film acting debut, working on a short feature movie The Energy Within, which tells the story of an athlete struggling with recent traumatic limb loss. And, while on set, the director, Samuel de Ceccatty, pointed out that the ebullience in her step was somewhat at odds with the fragility of the character she was playing.
“Sam said to me, ‘I need you to act unconfident, and you’re still marching into the room’. That was the thing I struggled with most. The walk is so much a part of who I am now.”
Reid never anticipated becoming an actor. Sport was always her life. But then, as she was training full time in preparation for Tokyo in 2020 (to her huge disappointment the long jump is not one of the Paralympic disciplines invited to the Commonwealth Games), she received an email out of the blue from De Ceccatty. He was inquiring if she might be available for a feature he was planning about a disabled runner.
“He did a Google search and my name came up. He thought I was perfect, he didn’t know if I could act. I was so excited by the idea. But it meant he had his work cut out. Not only did he have to write and direct, he had to give me acting lessons.”
His tutoring clearly paid off. Reid is very different on screen from the character filling the indoor circuit with positivity. Her smile is absent, her sunny disposition nowhere in sight in her portrayal of
Julie Bennett, an angry, dispirited athlete traumatised by a recent accident. Though, despite her evident optimism, she says that she did not have to travel too far into her past to find inspiration for the part.
“It’s not my biography,” she says of the film, which can now be seen online. “But emotionally it was my story. Yes, I’m bubbly now, but there were a lot of dark places on the way here. Sam warned me I was going to have to revisit some ugly emotions, ugly circumstances. I remember after the first block of filming going home and feeling depressed. It brought back a lot of horrible memories.”
And she has plenty of those. Reid was a promising scrum-half, with ambitions to make rugby her career, when she was run over by a boat while messing about in a lake in Canada. Among the lifethreatening injuries she received, her right foot was severed. And her immediate response was not exactly upbeat.
“I was angry, overwhelmed with rage at times, yelling at my mum for ridiculous things when she was trying to help. Sport was so important to me, part of me thought what’s the point of life without it? I was put on suicide watch in hospital.”
The hurt was not solely emotional. “For the first few months I was in physical pain all the time. You’re in pain walking. Everything you do is framed by pain. Plus I had a perpetually itchy right big toe, and I didn’t have a right big toe. It was just ridiculous. It drives you insane.”
Once that initial discomfort had finally subsided, once she had become acquainted with a prosthetic limb, once she could walk again, like the character in the film, her presiding instinct was to pretend nothing had ever happened.
“I thought the way to succeed as an amputee was to fool everyone that I wasn’t one. For my first two years at university, people had no idea. I didn’t want them to know, I just wanted to fit in. Pretending was the result of shame and embarrassment. I didn’t want pity. I hated that. It never came from a point of maliciousness, but I couldn’t stand that look people gave me.”
What changed everything – her sporting chances, her attitude, her whole approach to life – was technology. In an attempt to rediscover the joys of sport, at university she had taken up sprinting. At first she was not getting very far, nor was she going very quickly. Then she discovered the joys of carbon fibre.
“When I first started running I didn’t invest in a blade. I tried to run in an ordinary prosthetic and constantly had hip problems. When I tried one, the most wonderful surprise was how natural it felt. It helped me to run properly again, without any pain. The difference was night and day.”
There was also a psychological plus. Rather than hiding, she found herself flaunting her difference, exactly in the manner of her sporting inspiration.
“I know he’s now completely discredited, but there’s no denying how important Oscar Pistorius was to me. He was a trailblazer. He made things possible. He took us from, ‘Aw that’s so sweet’, to ‘These guys are so good they must be cheating’.”
It was after becoming acquainted with a blade that she found a facility for the long jump. And began to win competitions. Born in New Zealand to British parents, resident in Canada, when she finally achieved her long-held ambition of international representation, she was suddenly faced with a choice.
“When I first started I wasn’t great, so I wasn’t getting many invites. There wasn’t a line to sign me up. Then I got a surprise medal for Canada in Beijing. With London hosting 2012, I knew what Britain was committed to do for the paras. I wanted to work with the best, so I came here.” And she has been in Britain ever since, pledging her sporting allegiance to the GB team, winning silver in Rio, then securing the world title last summer. Now at the peak of her long-jump powers, she has her sights on gold in Tokyo, relentlessly training.
“I tell you one thing about long jump,” she says, as she stands in the landing area at the end of the runway at Loughborough’s indoor facility. “You get sand in everything. Your shoes, your clothes, your car. You can never escape the stuff.”
Though she managed to escape long enough last April to make a movie. The film, she says, delivers an important point about her trade. “The superhuman narrative is great, but we do see a glamorised version of being a para athlete. It’s all blades and glory. And seeing us in an environment where we excel, you don’t know what everyday life looks like. What this film points out is that it’s tough to get there. Miserable at times.”
Yet the demanding nature of the route to success has, she reckons, served her well. After coming through what she has come through, nothing daunts her. Not even the process of becoming an actor.
“I’m keen on doing more,” she says. “I did an audition for a part in a BBC drama pilot. I got rejected. That made me feel like a proper actor.”
‘I thought the way to succeed as an amputee was to fool everyone that I wasn’t one’
Champion spirit: Stef Reid during training (main), making her film debut (right) and after winning a world title in London (below)