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Feb 20, 2019

Blindness proves no barrier for sporting glory

Tony James talks to Paralympic gold medallist Lora Fachie about life in the saddle and learning from failure

You’re riding a racing bike at 50 mph, you can’t see where you’re going and your safety - and in extreme circumstances, your life - are in someone else’s hands. It takes a special kind of person to cope with that sort of challenge and they’re hardly likely to come more special than Lora Fachie MBE.

Blind since childhood, Fachie is a Rio Paralympic gold medallist and tandem pursuit world record-holder. She has also made what to most would be a massive disability into a positive life-enhancing experience.

On the back seat behind her pilot and team-mate Corrine Hall, as they gear up training to six days a week in preparation for next year’s Tokyo Paralympics, Fachie knows how dangerous her sport can be and relishes the risks she takes.

“I love it,” she says. “I thrive on the feeling of going so fast and not really being in control. I’ve had some really nasty crashes – it took me two years to completely regain my confidence after one in 2014 - but you put your trust in the person on the front of the bike.

“There’s complete trust between Corrine and me. In a race we know what the other is thinking and we are equals in the team and the medals we win are for both of us.

“When I first started tandem racing I didn’t really consider how dangerous it was. Crashes hurt but you mend, and you’ve just got to get back on the bike,” says Fachie, who went skydiving on her 30th birthday and can’t wait to do it again. “When I give up racing, it could be my next big challenge.”

A warm and engaging person, Fachie loves her life. “I wouldn’t have my sight back even if I could,” she says. “I’ve accepted what I have and if I woke up tomorrow with sight, I really wouldn’t know what to do with my life.

“I love having a guide dog, I love riding on the back of a tandem. If I was to change now, I’d be back to square one. I have lived my life not being able to see and it has given me incredible opportunities like competing in the Paralympics and meeting amazing people.”

Fachie comes from a family which knows all about plunging fearlessly into the dark. At home in Liverpool her mother and two brothers could only make out if it was night or day and her father’s congenital cataracts gave him very limited vision.

Not that this stopped them having successful sporting careers. Fachie’s mum was a 1,500m recordbreaking runner, and two brothers played blind cricket and blind football for England.

“Our visual impairment was never seen as a barrier to stop us doing the things we wanted to do,” Fachie remembers. “My parents always encouraged us to take any and every opportunity that came up.

“We were just an ordinary family which became very good at problem-solving to complete everyday tasks. None of us could see what we were doing and we walked into each other a lot. The neighbours also got used to seeing us out with four guide dogs. But apart from that we were normal! I never regarded my lack of vision as something to hold me back.”

Until she was five, Fachie could still read large letters and played football and cricket with her brothers. “The only reason they let me join was that I could find the ball for them when they lost it.”

From then on, her sight deteriorated until she needed a cane and a guide-dog but her determination to succeed at whatever she tackled only grew stronger. As a teenager she took up athletics and broke her mother’s record. “I found my mum’s old running spikes in the back of her wardrobe and she became my role model.”

Fachie attended a mainstream school but when she asked to take a PE GSE exam, her teachers tried to dissuade her. “They were worried my lack of sight would cause me to fail. But I took the exam - and was the first student in the school to get an A*.”

At 17 she took a break from athletics to study physiotherapy at the University of Birmingham but discovered that this was not to be her ultimate challenge. “I realised just how much I missed sport. I missed competing - and especially the feeling of winning.”

When it was announced in 2005 that London would host the 2012 Paralympics Fachie dreamed of competing but had given up athletics. She was looking for a new challenge and serendipity provided the answer.

Listening to commentary on tandem racing at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics she became fascinated by the sport. “I thought it was amazing but had no idea how to get into it,” she remembers.

What happened next would profoundly change her life both professionally and personally. She heard about a visually impaired Beijing Paralympics runner who had successfully switched to tandem racing, found a contact, and two weeks later was paired with experienced able-bodied cyclist Rebecca Rimmington for her first tandem ride.

She says she instantly fell in love with the sport. “As a child my parents bought me a bike but we couldn’t take the stabilisers off. I can’t ride a solo bike but on the back of a tandem something just clicked.”

Something also clicked with Scottish-born gold and silver medallist Neil Fachie who had been her initial inspiration. They became close, married in 2016, and are now a charismatic Paralympics power couple.

Rebecca Rimmington was Fachie’s pilot when she joined the Great Britain cycling team in 2009 and the pair competed at the 2009 and 2010 track world championships. The following year, with a new pilot, Fiona Duncan, she won silver at the UCI para-cycling track world championships and went to the London 2012 Paralympics as a serious medals contender.

It wasn’t to be. Fachie and Duncan finished fourth in two velodrome events and eighth in the road time trial. In the road race they had a 14-second lead going into the final lap only to have a jammed chain on the tandem and eventually finish seventh.

Fachie admits she was devastated. “I felt I had let my friends and family down and never wanted to get on a bike again. I decided to give myself a year to see whether I could enjoy riding a bike again and it was becoming world champion in 2013 that really rekindled my love for the sport.

“It was at this point that I realised that failing at the first attempt was nothing to be ashamed of and that I could be a Paralympic champion. I learned a lot from the setbacks of London 2012 and they made me a much stronger person.”

She won the 2013 world championship in Canada with another pilot, Corrine Hall, and the following year the new team dominated women’s tandem racing, adding the road race championship to their collection and double golds in Spain and Italy.

But Rio 2016 was the golden target, involving six-days a week training and strict health and nutrition regimes - and it paid off. After years of hard, gruelling, work, Fachie got her Olympic gold after breaking the world record in the tandem pursuit, plus a bronze in the road time trial.

The successful partnership with Hall has continued, with gold medals in track and road events and building momentum for the defence of their Paralympic title at Tokyo 2020.

“Of course I want to win gold in Tokyo,” Fachie says. “But I want Neil to win more. If I’m not doing well he’s there to work out what’s going wrong and is my best critic.”

Already she is thinking about life after Tokyo and is currently doing a nutrition course with the Future Fit Training organisation, for which she is an ambassador, as part of an eventual new career “I’m hoping that the lessons I’ve learned in sport can help others succeed in whatever they want to do,” she says

“My story has taught me that it’s ok to fail but not ok to give up. You can learn from failing and come back stronger. So keep on trying and one day - as happened to me - that dream might just come true.”

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