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 Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Jim White

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)

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