Sue Willis and her longstanding love affair with a trike!
Sue Willis, who has had Cerebral Palsy from birth, hits the big 6-0 in the next few days; she’s celebrating this huge milestone by going to Blackpool with Leonard Cheshire’s Gloucestershire Wheels for All Project Leader MaryClare.
And she’s taking her new blue Tomcat Bullet trike with her – why? Because after thirty five long years of searching, Sue has finally found her perfect chariot.
Here’s the remarkable story of her love affair with a trike!
Love at first sight
Sue started life in a place called Hesters Way in Cheltenham – a town in Gloucestershire, home to the renowned Cheltenham Festivals (racing, cultural, musical, competitive and scientific). Sue lived with her parents and attended St Vincent’s School in Cheltenham until the age of 7 when she moved to live at a boarding school in Sussex, which had an alternative approach to the education of children with Cerebral Palsy.
Sue recalls her first experience of owning a ‘blue and yellow trike’ at the age of 7 and the sheer joy and excitement of being able to ride it. Her love affair with trikes began…!
When Sue left her home in Hesters Way for Ingfield Manor School, she made sure that her prize possession came along with her.
Happiness is the freedom of cycling
Ingfield Manor was a big school with big corridors so Sue was able to ride her trike at leisure, not having to adhere to the confines of limited space or uneven surfaces. Sue looks back on this experience as feeling ‘free and joyful.’
Day to day Sue used a manual wheelchair but whenever the opportunity presented itself, she would get back on her trike (with support from the staff) and ride to her heart’s content. The trike became an extension of her and so when she left boarding school at 16 to live with her parents again in Cheltenham, her love and passion for cycling was stronger than ever.
A waiting game
Sue’s parents invested in a larger trike and up until the age of 25 supported her cycling prowess. However, due to a number of restrictions including Sue’s decreased mobility, her parents simply could not lift her onto the trike any more (an issue faced by many families with similar circumstances). A sad day for all, but particularly Sue because it wasn’t until 20 years later that she had the opportunity to ride a trike again.
In 1994 Sue left the family home and moved to Gloucestershire House – the Leonard Cheshire home where she still resides today.
In 2000 MaryClare started working as the physiotherapist at Gloucestershire House and first encountered Sue’s enthusiasm for cycling in the aquatic therapy pool, where her unique swimming style involved a very energetic vertical cycling action with the help of one horizontal woggle as a ‘saddle’ and a second one as the handle bars!
When the League of Friends purchased a static powered exercise bike for the residents, which could be accessed by people in their wheelchairs and used passively or actively, Sue was one of the keenest and speediest active cyclists at 80+ rpm!
In 2013 Leonard Cheshire Disability organised a national triathlon event called TriTogether and the first real opportunity for Sue to cycle on a trike again, presented itself! The Gloucestershire House physio team chose three residents to take part and yes, the determined Sue asked to be a part of the crew.
Knowing her skills lay in cycling she was keen to carry out the cycle stint of the triathlon. The priority was to find the right ‘vehicle’ for Sue and after a few try-outs at Wiltshire’s Wheels For All weekly sessions a ‘companion trike’ was found to be the one that ticked enough of the boxes to enable Sue to cycle, albeit only after a 45 minute labour- intensive process of seat and pedal adjustments and adding of belts, foam blocks and various shaped cushions; with a hoist transfer out of and then back into her wheelchair every time.
There followed 9 months of training along with all the other residents who were keen to support the triathletes; in the pool, on the static bike and at the Swindon Athletics track inclusive cycling sessions.
Every one of those sessions involved the 45 minute process of adjustments and ‘tweaking’ to make the ride as comfortable as possible for Sue.
In September 2013 at Crystal Palace Park Sue and her two team mates took part in their first big sporting event and to her delight Sue completed the 15km distance with MaryClare – what a fantastic achievement!
When you find something that’s worth fighting for, you never give up
2013 was the year that the physio team started working on the development of a Wheels For All project for Gloucestershire. It was also the start of searching for a trike that Sue could ride independently – one that ticked most, if not all the boxes and was quick and easy to set up by volunteers and carers.
The solution came in the form of Tomcat, the Tomcat Bullet Apprentice to be exact, still under development by Bob Griffin and his team at the time. After quite a few sessions on the Bullet it was clear to see that the features on offer were exactly what Sue needed to get back on to three wheels!
All the evidence that had been gathered over the years to show how determined Sue was to get back to cycling independently; her obvious joy and luminous smile whenever cycling was mentioned in the various interviews, led to successful funding applications to the wonderful Barnwood Trust and Gloucestershire Disability Fund, and so the building of Sue’s Bullet Trike could commence!
“A bespoke built trike for Sue that allows a carer to hoist her easily onto the trike with minimal fuss and no extra cushioning. A trike that can be easily adjusted whilst Sue remains seated and comfortable. A trike that has carer control as an option but also allows Sue to ride independently. A trike that Sue can safely ride on an athletics track or a forest trail. A trike that can be transported to and from any location due to the two piece frame mechanism.”
To sum up in Sue’s own words:
“The Tomcat Bullet trike gives me a feeling of joy when I ride it and now I can ride on my own and go anywhere I want to!”
The future for Sue and her Tomcat Bullet trike
The successful development of the Gloucestershire Wheels For All projects at the Blackbridge Athletics Track in Gloucester and the Cannop Cycling Centre Pedalabikeaway in the Forest of Dean, will enable Sue to ride her bike regularly in two very different but fully accessible and inclusive environments.
Sue and MaryClare are also looking for the next cycling challenge to enter in 2019 and the Superhero Tri at Dorney Lake looks like it will hit the spot!
Sue hasn’t attended before because the companion trike was too difficult to transport, but now she can take part without that restriction.
And how is increasing the amount of cycling she does, going to benefit Sue?
According to MaryClare;
“Although Sue’s cerebral palsy isn’t progressive as such, it does exacerbate age-related changes such as muscles weakening and the reduction of joint mobility and balance that happen when little or no exercise is carried out. Regular cycling will help to slow down these changes and enable Sue to increase her muscle strength and joint mobility and subsequently improve her balance ability. It will also help Sue control her diabetes and manage her weight and arthritis more easily.
These will all benefit Sue’s physical health but perhaps the most important factor is it will give back the sheer joy, elation and happiness that cycling has brought to Sue’s life.”
From Tomcat’s point of view Sue is one of the most positive, inspiring and determined individuals the team has met and we are thrilled that we have been able to help reunite her with her one true love – riding a trike.