Fierce Female Interview No. 23: Sophie Elwes – Fierce & Inspirational Adaptive Wakeboarder
• • • Sophie Elwes sustained a spinal cord injury 9 years ago and is now an adaptive wakeboarder and inspirational podcaster. We spoke to her about her podcast ‘A Life Less Ordinary with Sophie Elwes’ and her love for the ocean, just near the lake after she had been out wakeboarding. The perfect setting.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Sophie. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Sophie. I sustained a spinal cord injury nearly 10 years ago when I was 22. Before that I was very focused on my career and social life, I had just graduated. I fell from a roof terrace and it was really bad when it happened. I broke several bones and sustained a head injury and was in an induced coma for six weeks. The doctors said ‘I had a 40% chance of surviving’. Thankfully I made it trough but was paralysed from the head down.
It was a really rough period of time. I was in the hospital for six months in total. It was definitely really challenging, I became paralyzed. It was a real blow and it just knocked my confidence massively.
And yet, you’ve been out on the water today! You have come such a long way!
Yes! I’ve been on the water today. Just had my second set, which was a good one. I think I’ll feel it in a couple of days because it’s a real toll on your arms and shoulders, but it’s the best feeling ever!
In those first few months of my injury, I was devastated. I thought my life was done for, but actually adaptive sport and getting out of the comfort zone was the thing that was just so important to me.
So adaptive sport changed everything. It changed my whole life and it gave me something to live for really.
I really admire that outlook that you have, seeing the opportunity in everything. Can you tell me a little bit more about the opportunities that you’ve pursued?
I feel so fortunate. When I speak to people who are newly injured, people assume that having a disability is going to shut doors to you and in some ways it does, with things like access.
I live in London and it’s not a great city for someone in a wheelchair. There are a lot of doors that are shut to you. You can’t get in so many places, restaurants and shops. For me, it was really hard realizing that this city that I’d always lived in, I suddenly couldn’t access the same way.
I remember finding that really shocking, but actually if you kind of look around you and do the research and speak to other people who are going through or have been through a similar thing, there are so many opportunities out there. It’s not necessarily the things that you were doing before. Prior to my injury, you wouldn’t have caught me water skiing at every opportunity I could get!
There’s a lot of charities and organisations out there who run various activities to introduce you to, particularly sports like skiing. I think being exposed to new things, and learning from other people, and seeing what’s out there… There are so many opportunities, and I’ve done more than I would have done if I hadn’t broken my back.
That’s such an amazing story to hear. I’ve been following your progress with running Our Adaptive World. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Alpine Skiing was the first thing that I got really into. After a few years of living at home and being well looked after, I wanted to spread my wings a little bit and explore my limitations of what I could and couldn’t do, and get out of my comfort zone really. So I decided to go out to Winter Park, Colorado to spend a season learning to monoski. It was a perfect opportunity for me to be able to do that.
After a few months in Colorado I started race training with the team out there. It was definitely hard to start with but I loved that feeling of going fast and pushing myself. On my second season out there I got spotted by the British Parasnowsport head coach who invited me to come and train with the team back in the UK so I spent the next few years training and racing in the US and in Europe with the team. When I first came to Winter Park I met an amazing girl called Beth Requist who was a Paralympian who competed at Sochi in cross-country skiing.
After a few years, she decided to finish off racing and during my final season, we were out one evening drinking margaritas and eating Tacos at a place in Winter Park. I was contemplating finishing off ski racing and we were both thinking about what was next. We were chatting about the world, what we enjoyed, what was important to us and what we wanted to do with our lives.
She had switched to alpine so we spent a few years training and racing together and became really good friends.
We both loved adventures and travelling so we decided to set up a blog called Our Adaptive World through which we showcased the adventures we went on as a resource for other people with disabilities to inspire and inform them about what was possible.
We were both fortunate that we’d been able to travel so much but were aware that that wasn’t the case for many others with disabilities. There are definitely challenges involved but with the right information – the sky is the limit! We wrote blog posts, built a community via our Instagram account @ouradaptiveworld and created a YouTube channel to showcase our adventures. There’s been a great reaction from people all over the world. We had so many messages from people. For example, one girl who was about 16 reached out to us after she sustained a spinal cord injury having seen a picture of us skiing. She was previously a skier and didn’t realise, like myself when I was newly injured, that skiing would be possible for her.
It was great to be able to point her in the right direction to get started. It was amazing to know that we could open people’s eyes as to what was possible.
I never knew that adaptive skiing and waterskiing and wakeboarding was a possibility. So people reaching out to us being like, ‘that’s amazing. I didn’t know that was possible. That’s really inspiring.’ It’s an opportunity for us to promote organisations or charities, to reach out to people and get the word out there. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s a community and it’s an amazing one, really.
On that note, your podcast, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, can you tell us a bit about that? What’s the background there?
When I was ski racing, I would find myself at the bottom of a ski hill in America or Europe, on a training camp. There would be all these people from all over the world, who all have incredible stories.
There would be a blind skier from Chile, a female amputee from Japan. Each and every one of these people has an incredible story about how they have faced and overcome some of the biggest challenges you can imagine. They’re not necessarily all Paralympic champions, but they all love skiing, going fast and pushing their limits.
But being on the water is the best feeling in the world and having a disability has actually brought me to that, which sounds kind of odd, but it introduced me to the power of the water.
And I think that's really key with a disability and adaptive sports. On the waterski competition circuit in the UK we compete against able-bodied people which, although is a challenge, I kind of love. We want to be treated the same, pushed and challenged.
I started my podcast, A Life Less Ordinary with Sophie Elwes, after hearing all these stories from my time on the race circuit, and since then, of people who had overcome the most enormous challenges. I was just kind of thinking I’m so lucky to be hearing this, but my friends back home who are not part of this world don’t hear these stories. So it made sense to me, I wanted to get them out there.
It’s been super cool. I’ve been able to connect with some really amazing people, some hugely influential and many whose stories haven’t been heard, but need to be. Lockdown worked in my favour and I was lucky enough to interview Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Netflix’s Sex Education star George Robinson and the incredible Brett Moran who’s story is well worth a listen. The reaction’s been great – its nearly reached 4000 downloads.
You asked me if you can mention any other fierce females. My guest on episode six is Alana Nichols, a wheelchair basketball player alpine skier and adaptive surf world champion. She’s the only American female to win a gold medal at both a summer and winter Paralympic games and in the episode she talks about the meditative nature of surfing. She’s incredible.
Speaking of which you mentioned that you had been surfing yourself, you went down to The Wave in Bristol, is that right?
Oh, it was so cool. They’re really paying attention to make it as inclusive as possible. It was super accessible and when I was down there the adaptive team were there, as well as the men’s adaptive surf world champion Bruno Hansen. the USA adaptive surfing is a big scene so its great to see the UK following suit.
It was a great place for me to be introduced to the sport and I loved it. The staff and coaches had a great attitude and I think that’s really key with a disability and adaptive sports. We don’t want to be treated differently
Inclusion is everything. We just want to do the sport but it to be adapted in a way that works for us. Its definitely tricky given the nature and diversity of disabilities but The Wave are making great strides with that. I can’t wait to go back! I loved it.
Speaking of water and ocean, can you tell me a bit more about your connection with water and maybe how that connection with the environment or how that may have changed since you’ve been spending more time in and on it?
Totally. I’ve never actually been a particularly strong swimmer, and even less so after my injury. I got into waterskiing and wakeboarding through a lady that I know who used to be a ski racer as well. She was saying ‘you should come down and check it out’, And I was like, “go to Staines, and get in a wetsuit and go water skiing? What the hell?’
It sounded like a good weekend though so I came to try it out and it was amazing!. Luckily I took to it quite well. It’s tricky to get started, especially with my level of injury. I don’t really have any core, so it was hard to get up, but once I was up, it’s the best feeling in the world.
Being on the water as well. There’s something about it. Having a disability, I spend my life in a wheelchair, so just to be out there and be free is brilliant. But also understanding it, the ski and the water and the technical aspects. It’s a great kind of experience to not be on land and be somewhere where you can really truly be free.
It’s good to push yourself but it can be risky. I tend to go pretty hard so I’ve had a quite a few big crashes. I’m kind of notorious for it. But mostly near misses, some big tumbles. But being on the water is the best feeling in the world and having a disability has actually introduced me to that, which sounds kind of odd, but it introduced me to the power of the water. But also nature; playing sport in the great outdoors is the thing that helped me through the hardest times and showed me what’s important in life
The last couple of questions were focused on who you might look up to. And also any advice you might, but like younger women, who are maybe looking at different kinds of options for adaptive sports, or maybe don’t quite have the confidence or aren’t quite there yet. What advice would you give to them as well?
Something I’ve realised is that there’s real power in stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s a difficult thing and it’s easy for me to say now, but actually that is the thing that has given me the ability to push myself and to take risks and find real exhilaration and joy. I also love that it forces me to be in the moment. That’s always been key for me and a huge reason why I do the sports I do.
I love bringing people down here. I had a couple of friends down here today and it’s a different environment from what they’re used to. Most of my friends live in London, they don’t do this sort of stuff, they’d go to the gym or go running for exercise.
It’s a lake just beside the M25 – you’d never expect to find such happiness here! You get in a wetsuit and it’s really unfamiliar, but the feeling when you’ve done it, that you’ve just stepped out of your comfort zone and you’ve embraced it. For me, that’s my therapy.
Access Adventures run some camps for adventure sports (including waterskiing, wakeboarding and kitesurfing) for people with disabilities so if you’re interested, definitely check them out. There’s a few other organisations out there too.
My advice is to step out of your comfort zone and push yourself even if a little bit but do it in a safe environment. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own fears and challenges. So whether it’s sporting or something else, but finding a way to step out of that safe zone is powerful.
That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that. And what does the rest of the year and beyond hold for you?
It’s beautiful weather right now. So water skiing and wakeboarding are on. I really missed it over lockdown. Lockdown was okay for me. I was still working so I was keeping busy, but we had a really big heatwave and I remember just going outside and looking at the blue sky and being like, ‘I know where I need to be.’ I missed it loads because it’s so good for my mental health. Its common knowledge that sport is key for a happy mind. Spending all day in a wheelchair where your mobility is restricted, I need a release for that. It’s an opportunity to get out of my wheelchair and get those endorphins going.
I’m really happy to be back and I’m going to make up for a lost time cracking on with waterskiing and wakeboarding, and hopefully, hit a wakepark at some point. That’s another thing I really want to work on, I’ve only done it a couple of times, so lots of work to do.
Many lakes are still inaccessible to people with disabilities, some are improving, but more needs to be done to enable more people with disabilities to be able to enjoy these sports too.
My aim is to try and break the world record at the next World Championships which is in Australia in January 2022. It’s a bit of a way off so lots of time to practice. Lots of work to do but hopefully I’ll reach my goal.
Alongside work, I’m now gearing up for the second series of my podcast. I’ve loved doing the first so I’m excited to have some more conversations with inspiring guests.
All of the guests in the first one have incredible stories. The last two were particularly moving for me. I feel really blessed to be able to have those sorts of conversations and get advice from people, and how they have dealt with some of life’s most challenging circumstances.
Well, I can’t wait to hear that as well. You’re a huge inspiration to us and really appreciate you sharing your story. The final thing is, you’re wearing our beautiful Surf Leotard and you looked so fantastic in it.
It’s gorgeous. I love it so much. The material is amazing. I love the fact that the materials are sustainably sourced, that’s super important to me. It affects all of our lives, protecting the environment is something you have to think about, in every aspect of your life. Many of us have been raised as a society to not be thinking about those sort of things and it’s time for that to be completely shifted.
So you’re doing amazing work and it’s gorgeous as well. So thank you. I’ll have to wear it to the next world championships and hopefully, it’ll bring me some good luck!
Thank you so much for taking the time and it’s been amazing talking to you. We’ll see you or hear you in the next podcast.