Interview: How Suzanna Hext Turned a ‘Freak Accident’ into Sporting Triumph.
As Suzanna Hext says herself at the start of our interview, “My story is a crazy one, to be honest”. The Truro-born Paralympic swimmer and equestrian still has her recent 50m freestyle gold medal win at the World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester fresh in her mind, but that achievement becomes more astounding when considering what it took from her to get there.
In 2012, Hext was eventing in equestrian at international level before she was hospitalised after what she describes as a “freak accident” breaking in a young horse. The accident left her with a spinal cord injury, head injury, crushed shoulder and shattered pelvis. In the hospital with little to do, she regained her motivation for sport as her accident coincided with the biggest multi-sport event in the world. “I was really lucky because the London 2012 Paralympic games was on TV when I was in the hospital,” she says from her living room over Zoom. “It gave me a bit of hope”.
Since then, she’s become a multi-disciplinary champion in para sports, with both para dressage and freestyle swimming in her repertoire.
EasyStand has been a core part of her journey in recent years. She uses the EasyStand Evolv, which has a manual pump actuator that lifts her to a standing position and allows her to gain the associated physical and mental benefits. As she prepares herself for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, we chat with her about her incredible story and how EasyStand has become a part of her physiotherapeutic routine.
Afternoon Suzanna! Tell us a bit about yourself and your story.
My story is a crazy one, to be honest. So in 2012, I had a riding accident as I was breaking in a young horse. He reared over and lanced on top of me, rolled off me and then rolled back across me again, just to add insult to injury. I had suffered a cord injury. I had a head injury, crushed my shoulder, shattered my pelvis for the second time. Within a split second, my life had changed forever. I’ve always been extremely active and to be lying in the hospital bed for months on end, not knowing what lay ahead, it was really tough.
Roll on two years and I went back to what I knew, which was getting back on the saddle in para dressage. Then in 2017, I got selected for my first championship: the European Championship in Gothenburg. I somehow came away with three gold medals which I’m still pinching myself about. It was something you dream of but you never think is completely possible.
Incredible! And you’re also successful in other sports. How did you get into competing in para swimming?
I started swimming for physio and fitness for riding and anyone who knows me will know that I am extremely competitive. That competitiveness took over and I did a couple of local galas. Someone said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about being classified for para swimming?’. Some part of me had thought about it but I didn’t really think anything of it. I got classified for para swimming nationally at the beginning of 2019 and then internationally in April. At that second meet, I was selected for the World Championships off the back of that race. It was pretty new to me, so it was a steep learning curve. I came away with a silver and a bronze at [the World Championship in 2019].
I’ve had a rocky journey. My health has been extremely frustrating. In 2021, I was selected for the Tokyo Paralympics. Leading into it, I was really struggling with a double ear infection, asthma, you name it, but I was determined to race and put forward what I could. So I raced the 100m and the 200m and came forth in two finals, which was pretty amazing considering [the circumstances]. They pulled me from the rest of the Paralympics just because I was just too ill by that point. I was flown home and went straight to the hospital.
Last year was a tough one. I had sepsis from Lanzarote, also from my ears, and ended up having to miss out on the World Championships last year having been selected. It was battle after battle and I was just thinking, ‘When is this going to end?’
I’ve had a lot of surgery over the last two years. I’ve had bilateral cochlear implants and now have had bilateral blind sac closures. This means my ear canals have been completely closed off to try and stop the risk of infection. I have no natural hearing anymore at all, so it’s just all my cochlear implants.
How has this year been for you?
This year has been tough but also incredible. I was selected for the World Championships in Manchester, which was amazing because of the home crowd. It was the first time I’d been allowed to race with my cochlear implants, [thanks to] a new rule, so I could hear the crowd as I wheeled out to the block. I literally had goosebumps.
The World Championships was an interesting lead-up, with being very ill and ending up in the high-dependency unit a few weeks before. I got discharged on the Saturday, had a training day on the Sunday and then raced on the Monday. I became a World Champion on Monday.
What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis that you overcome with EasyStand?
EasyStand helps me with bladder and bowel function, as well as [maintaining] bone density. I find that I really like using it in the morning because it helps my tone and spasticity. I also have dystonia and being able to stand and lengthen out helps me for the rest of the day. Also, things like relieving pressures, and helping my circulation and skin health.
What led you to explore solutions from EasyStand?
I found EasyStand online, as I’d seen a few people that had EasyStand as well. Plus, the physios for Oxford Centre for Enablement said about how much it would benefit me. To be honest, I wish I had explored it earlier now that I know how much it helps me in everyday life and in my body. I like the ease with which I’m able to get in and out of it independently and not have to worry about needing support. I love the feeling of being upright and the benefits that come with that.
How much do you use the EasyStand? Is it every day?
Obviously, my life is crazy manic, so I would love to use it probably a couple of times a day if I could! When I do find the time to use it, I use it 30 minutes at a time, and I generally do a lot of my admin work when I’m standing there or watching something whilst I’m standing. Sometimes I do some shoulder band exercises.
How was your experience of working with the EasyStand team?
I got the EasyStand delivered in December 2020. The whole process was really easy, clear and helpful, I felt looked after really well. I always felt like I could come back and ask questions if I needed to. They’re so approachable in just the way they are.
Is there anything you don’t like about the EasyStand?
No, not at all. It’s perfect.
When you’re not training, is there anything else you like to do?
I’ve been learning sign language, I’ve just finished my level one BSL (British Sign Language). I’m also hoping to become a performance lifestyle advisor. In the future, my ideal [path] would be within sports because, for me, I want to be able to give back, whether it’s within sports, the deaf community or people who have had life-changing accidents.
What does the future look like for you? It doesn’t sound like you’d be stopping anytime soon.
The focus is towards Paris 2024 now. It’s head-down training at the moment. I had a little break after the World Championship but I’m back in the pool again. We’ve got trials in London at the beginning of April 2024 and then (fingers crossed!) all being well, body-wise and everything else, Paris in August.
I haven’t got any plans to stop anything. People think I’m mad because my swimming is in crazy, anti-social hours of the morning. I get up at four o’clock and five o’clock in the morning every day apart from Sunday but I’m a morning person anyway so I find that relatively okay. It’s hard but rewarding. Without the team I’ve got around me, I’m nothing. The support I get from everyone is amazing. I’m very, very lucky. They’re all on my side, they’re all working with me to try and do the best for me and you can’t beat that.
Do you have any advice for those who are coming out of hospital just as you were in 2012 and wondering what to do?
It’s really important that people understand the benefits of using a standing frame. I think people almost brush it to one side once they’ve left the hospital and say, ‘oh, just I’m in a wheelchair, that’s my life’. But you can help yourself and your function, whether it be bladder or bowel function or whatever. EasyStand has made a huge difference to me. I just wish I could get in it more hours in the day!
Once I left the hospital, I worked really hard on the physio side of things to try and gain as much function as I could to help myself and I still do to this day. I think it’s important not to neglect that side if it’s an accident like mine.
My perspective on life has completely changed since my accident and you treasure every moment and the ones close to you that little bit more. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in a rut after my accident because I was. I don’t know if it was just lucky timing in some ways, but having the Paralympics on TV made me realise that actually my life isn’t over and it doesn’t have to be just sport. There is a whole world out there and it’s pretty amazing no matter what you’re going through, so just explore it and see what you can do. There are loads of opportunities out there. Some people understandably go into a hole and give up, but it’s good to open your eyes to look at what you have in front of you.
I’m a big one for gratitude. In the morning, when I do my nebuliser, I write three things every day that I’m grateful for, and quite often they’re the same things but it really centres you. It’s something that I’ve done for a few years now and it’s made a massive difference.
Learn more about the EasyStand Evolv today and see how our standing frames can benefit your mobility today.