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Working as a Physio at the Paralympic Games

03 Oct Working as a Physio at the Paralympic Games

Halo’s Lucy Bell talks about her experience of working as a Physiotherapist with the GB Equestrian team at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The question I often get asked is what I actually do whilst I’m away on a trip with a sports team.

The most important thing is the preparation, a trip takes a lot of planning to make sure we have everything we need and the right space to work in when we get there. 

For the recent Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the sport logistic team sent out a whole container full of kit back in March, 6 months before the games, including large items like physio beds, air conditioning units and fridges down to little items including towels, snacks and of course a kettle for tea! The container goes by sea freight and was parked up at the venue about 2 weeks prior to the Olympics (our logistics team is the same for equestrian in Olympics and Paralympics, so we share the container and kit).

I have worked with the Para Equestrian team since before London 2012 and we have regular training and squad days throughout the year, so I know the athletes really well and I’m aware of their acute problems and the ongoing maintenance they need. Treating Paralympians is effectively the same as treating able bodied athletes, except that we also have an underlying disability to contend with, which needs taking into consideration and managing depending on the neurology.

Ten days before leaving for the games, the horses the athletes are taking have to spend 10 days in quarantine, which is normal procedure for travelling to the Far East. This is to check they don’t have any diseases or illness and are fit and well to manage the 20-hour trip. This was done in Leicestershire, so the whole team of riders, coaches and grooms were based there for this period.  This was a great opportunity for me to go in and treat the riders for a few of the days to make sure we were on top of any niggles or injuries prior to leaving.

I flew out with the athletes and coaches, we had a direct flight from London Heathrow, and it was quite nice to be back on a plane after such a break due to covid. We had to do lots of covid testing before leaving, with regular PCR tests during the two weeks pre-flight as well as daily lateral flow tests during the final week. The plane was quite empty, mainly just those going to the games, our group was joined by some of the basketball team and some athletes competing in weightlifting.

On arrival into Japan, we had to have more covid tests and wait for the results before we left the airport. Then we had a bus trip to the hotel where we would be based for the following 2 weeks. We were staying in a hotel because the sport had decided to stay out of the athletes village to reduce the likelihood of mixing with other teams and therefore reduce the covid risk.

At the hotel the British Paralympic Association had set up a mini gym for us to use as we weren’t allowed out the hotel due to covid. We had bikes, a big mat area and lots of equipment to use. We shared with the other sports staying at the hotel, mainly some from athletics and a few from badminton.

As staff looking after the athletes, our main aim is to make sure the athletes get to the field of play in the best shape possible and with everything they need, ready to perform at their very best. 

In the Paralympics we have 4 athletes plus their support team to look after and I’m responsible for providing physio support to everyone in the contingent. In Tokyo we had about 18 on the support team, these included coaching staff, grooms, vets and farriers, so it can be quite busy but as we don’t normally have too many injuries I am able to focus on prehab and performance specific sessions for each athlete.  

Due to the temperature and humidity in Tokyo, approximately 30-38 degrees and 70- 80% humidity, we had lots of heat strategies in place to help keep the athletes cool.  Earlier in the year the athletes spent time in a heat chamber doing workouts to mimic the conditions they’d experience at the games, during which they were monitored and even had their sweat analysed to make sure once at the games they were fully prepared and had enough electrolytes and fluid on board to still excel in the conditions. 

Our event was held outdoors. The timetable had been altered so that we were only competing in the cooler evenings. No event started before 4pm, which really helped but made for very late evenings and often very quiet mornings. To help keep the athletes busy in the morning, we held a Pilates/Yoga class each day. This benefited both the mind and body, and prepared for the 45 minute commute to the venue each day. This Pilates/Yoga session was open to all the staff and therefore made it very fun. I led the session each day and found it really nice to see how people improved over the 10 days, we all felt a lot better for it.

On competition day I generally see each athlete prior to competing, each for an individual specific session depending on what we are working on. During the event I’m ‘on the sidelines’ ready to help if needed but always allowing space for the athletes to concentrate on their warm up and event.  Afterwards we monitor athletes’ health, and make sure they’re drinking lots of water and not overheating. We used cooling ice vests and other items to help with recovery.

Overall we were lucky to have no covid problems or big injuries whilst away. The athletes won 8 different medals including team gold which was amazing to witness and made the whole trip extra special! 

We now have a quieter few months ahead, where the athletes have a bit of a rest and we have regular reviews and analyse how we can do things even better, as all eyes are now on Paris 2024 which is only just around the corner all of a sudden!

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