Laura Penhaul is a physiotherapist for Paralympics GB and was team lead for Coxless Crew, a group of women who successfully rowed unsupported across the Pacific Ocean in a pink boat called Doris to raise money for Breast Cancer Care and Walking With The Wounded (WWTW). They successfully completed the 8,466 mile journey and entered the record books as the first all-woman team to achieve this. Coxless Crew’s film, Losing Sight of Shore, which tells their incredible story is scheduled for release in 2017.
“…the people who inspire me most are the people who I’ve worked with… They have always made me question myself ‘what are my own abilities?’ If someone with one leg can go and climb a mountain then I can go and row an ocean!..”
Hooked on physio from the age of 12
I wanted to be a physio when I was 12 years old. I’ve been very fortunate to have known the career path I wanted to take from quite a young age. That came about because my mum is a nurse so when I was younger I always used to hang out at the hospital and wait for Mum to finish work, so I got to see the working environment which made me want to get into the medical profession.
When I was 12 a family member had an operation and they had physio to get walking again, so I learnt about the role of what a physio did and I really loved it, so from that I carried on to do work experience and I got totally hooked. Every decision I made became geared towards how I was going to establish a career in physio.
Working on placement the National Spinal Injuries Centre
So I went to do my A-levels to make sure I got the grades I needed for my degree in physiotherapy at Oxford Brookes University. Whilst I was doing my degree I worked in rugby and observed the world of a sports physio as I’d always had a personal interest in sport.
In my final year I went to the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital for an eight-week placement. That’s what gave me full exposure to working with disabilities in the role of a physio and the rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries. Seeing how to optimise people’s abilities when they’ve gone through such a traumatic experience and be able to help in giving some independence back, was something that sparked my interest in working with disabilities.
Specialising in trauma and realising the importance of mental attitude
Alongside that when I then qualified as a physio I went straight into working in the NHS in Oxford and I was fortunate to be able to specialise in trauma. I worked in the trauma centre of excellence in Oxford, and again that was somewhere that exposed me to people who had been faced with sudden life changing injuries, that required long periods of rehabilitation to regain function.
That’s what started to show me a difference in people’s mental attitude, and what makes one person, having gone through such a life changing and awful situation, turn that around to still see that they’re lucky to be alive, and then to push themselves to get the most out of themselves, in contrast to other people who only see the negativity.
As a physio I find it’s not what you do necessarily in your delivery of clinical techniques, because you can be a great clinician but if you’re not working with people who want to get better and who are willing to work with you, then you need to address that first and foremost in order to treat the person as a whole.
I continued to work with charities like the Back-Up Trust outside of NHS work as well as doing other different sports. I then went away and spent a couple of ski seasons working as a physio, and I then got into working with the British Ski Team, and then the British Disabled Ski Team for Vancouver 2010, which was my first Paralympic Games.
Following Vancouver, this carried me into London 2012 with Paralympics GB and then off the back of that I started working with British Athletics as lead physiotherapist on their Paralympic programme. I was then fortunate enough to see them through to the Rio Paralympics this year.
The Paralympics GB team did amazingly in Rio, exceeding everyone’s expectations. We came second in the medal table, the best Paralympics GB have ever achieved. British Athletics was planning we would get 13 golds but we got more, so that was awesome and the athletes success created a wonderful atmosphere.
There had been a lot of negative press going into the Paralympics after the Olympics. We had lower expectations going out there and we had the issue about the Paralympic funding that had been redirected into the Olympic programme, but we didn’t experience too many issues.
The accommodation was great but the crowds weren’t as large as we’d experienced in London and it certainly wasn’t on the same scale, but we made the most of every minute when we were there. The atmosphere in the village was great and I was incredibly proud of the athletes’ success.
Rowing across the Pacific as part of Coxless Crew
We were the first ever all-female crew and the first team of four to row from the west coast of America across to mainland Australia. We did it, which was great, and one of the other most important things was that we all stepped off the boat as good friends afterwards. Sticking together as a team was key.
The intention was that it would take six months, but unfortunately it ended up taking nine months, which was a heck of a lot longer than we had anticipated! This meant we had to ration food and there were other difficulties. I lost a lot of weight – two and a half stone, so I experienced health issues like bone density loss. Those are the bits you don’t necessarily see on the outside – physiologically I’ve had challenges since I’ve got back, but the body’s an amazing healer and it’s sorting itself out.
Keep calm and carry on…
We achieved it as a crew of six, with four on the boat at any one time. We rowed from San Francisco, with the aim of going to Hawaii for the first leg, but from literally four hours in I started to be pretty sea sick and a couple of the other girls weren’t feeling too great either. 48 hours in we hit a big storm and ten days in we went to check the hatches and unfortunately we had significant flooding, which had then got into the electronics, so this meant we had a mini electrical fire! Flooding on a boat and then a fire were two of the biggest nightmares we could have faced – that wasn’t too great a start!
So there we were, sitting off the west coast of America in an area of fairly heavy shipping traffic without any lights or beacons to let people know we were there, so we had to make a tough decision to turn around and row to Santa Barbara back on the mainland to get the problems fixed. We were 500 miles offshore at this point. For me that was the biggest disappointment. It was a pride thing too – we’d all worked so hard to make sure we didn’t look like we were just going to be a bunch of girls who were floating around and then gave up after ten days. That was a bugbear for me, but I soon got over it when we were back in the boat and on our way again.
Santa Barbara to Hawaii – Hawaii to Samoa – Samoa to Australia
So then we went to on to Hawaii – that’s where Izzy, who was in the fourth seat, stepped out, and then Lizanne came and joined us for the middle leg, where we crossed the Equator. The journey from Hawaii to Samoa should have been about 60 days but it turned into 97.
Because it was an El Niño year, it threw the winds and the currents. ‘The doldrums’ can just be 500 miles across the equator (where you get counter-currents that make you spin round in circles) but in reality these turned into 1,500 miles for us. In our little rowing boat we got pushed right, left and centre. You usually need a little bit of wind to help you along in the right direction so it made it was fairly tough rowing for the majority of it, that’s for sure!
When we got to Samoa, Meg joined us on the last leg and what should have been 45 days took us 76 before we finally got to Cairns, and that was bliss! It was an amazing feeling to see our families when we got there safely. That moment will forever be the most elated I have ever felt.
Support from Kylie Minogue … and Backstreet Boys
The row has introduced me to people I would never have met otherwise in a million years. We met Kylie Minogue and she was just amazing – so down-to-earth and very approachable. I also got a personal video greeting!
We did a lot of work with our sports psychologist as there are times when you’re out at sea that you have to find coping strategies for difficult situations. It’s about when you need to get yourself into a different mood – so if you’re in a real grump you have to get yourself out of that, and vice versa, if you’re really bouncing you might need to calm yourself down so you can get to sleep quickly.
So it had been awful weather and I was in a really grumpy mood and I needed to power through. I was listening to my usual motivational tunes on my iPod and nothing was working, and then all of a sudden I came across this tune I hadn’t heard for years and it took me back to teenage days. I loved it and it totally snapped me out of my grump, so I wrote about it in one of my blogs, and Sarah Moshman, the director of our film, Losing Sight of Shore, picked up on it.
At the time she was filming Dancing with the Stars – the US version of Strictly Come Dancing – so when she read my blog it was quite amusing because the song I said that got me out of my mood was Backstreet Boys, and she happened to be filming with Nick Carter. So of course she mentioned it to him. We got a call on the satellite phone and she played me a message from him. It was so funny – the Backstreet Boys knew about us!
Losing Sight of Shore
Sarah Moshman has been an absolute superstar and has become a true friend. I’m really excited to see the film take shape. It will premier at a film festival in 2017 and off the back of that she’s looking to come over to London for a UK tour.
Since we’ve been back all the team have been sharing our story. As we are all different personalities and had different roles within the team, we all present from different angles regarding our experiences. My angle is from a team leader perspective, reflecting on the performance, preparation and planning of the row. Emma does more talks in schools aimed at motivating the kids, getting them into sport and pushing their boundaries. Meg is doing the same thing at university level. Nat speaks to people about the spiritual side – staying in the moment and being mindful – as that was her strength during the row.
If anyone wants to invite us to speaking engagements, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Supporting Adaptive Grandslam
Currently I work part time three days a week as a consultant with British Athletics on the Paralympic programme. Since getting back from the row I was massively fortunate that British Athletics were amazing to still keep a job open for me – the row got delayed by about three months, so obviously that was quite a long chunk to be away in the build up to Rio.
They gave me the opportunity to come back from the row, and also finish off everything from the row with media and other bits and pieces, and still keep my hand in with all the physio side of it.
Now, post Rio, I’ve had a couple of weeks out and I’m making plans for what will happen next. There’s a fantastic team called the Adaptive Grandslam who are a crew of ex-military injured veterans are aiming to be the first ever adaptive team to climb the seven highest peaks in the world over two continents.
There’s only ever been eleven people who have managed it, this would be the first adaptive group to ever achieve it. I’m supporting them with bringing together their performance network, so how they prepare for climbing peaks such as Mount Everest and co-ordinating the medicine and science side of things, as well as the training, conditioning and physio to play a small role in helping them make it possible to achieve the extraordinary.
The people who inspire me most
I’m very fortunate where I am in my career now to have been able to get more into the expedition side of things which is just great fun – I love it! It’s also about giving back to the people who have helped me. That’s the biggest thing with doing the row in the first place – the people who inspire me most are the people who I’ve worked with, whether it’s through British Athletics, Adaptive Grandslam guys or previous trauma patients. They have always made me question myself ‘what are my own abilities?’. If someone with one leg can go and climb a mountain then I can go and row an ocean!
Everyone has their own Pacific Ocean to cross, it’s having the confidence to lose sight of the shore in order to overcome it and reach new shores the other side to a journey unknown.
It’s a constant reminder at the back of my head that I’ve got NOTHING to complain about. People that inspire me just crack on, and that’s the mentality that they have, which is a huge motivation. The more people I can see gaining that attitude and motivation from these experiences, the better.
National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital image credit: sijon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons