Suzanna Hext interview: 'In the water I feel free. I’m on a level with everyone else and it feels like the challenges of daily life fade away'

In six months time, Hext hopes to be in Tokyo with the British swimming team for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games

Suzanna Hext photographed at the Health Hydro Pool in Swindon
Suzanna Hext's long-term goal is to compete in two different sports at the Paralympics Credit: JOHN LAWRENCE

She may have been left paralysed from the waist down following a riding accident but Suzanna Hext considers herself one of the lucky ones.

"I probably shouldn’t be here today on paper," she explains. "But I am and that’s what makes me want to push myself and see what I can get back out of my life. Life is precious, a gift that makes you want to make the most of every opportunity."

Exactly six months from Tuesday, Hext hopes to be in Tokyo with the British swimming team for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games. Had it not been for scheduling clashes then a spot on the para-dressage team might have been a possibility too. And yet even merely contemplating sporting options could never have been imaginable in the immediate aftermath of the life-altering events of July 26, 2012.

One day before the start of the London Olympic Games, for which talented eventer Hext and her family had equestrian tickets, the then 23-year-old was breaking in a young horse. Suddenly the colt, weighing more than half a ton, reared up backwards, landed on her body and rolled over her head-to-toe twice.

"I instantly had no feeling from the waist down," she recalls. "I remember the air ambulance arriving and me just saying 'I can’t feel my legs.'" Hext had crushed her shoulder, shattered her pelvis 'within an inch of its life' and, most seriously of all, suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury.

What followed was an extended period in hospital that would test even the most positive of characters. Hext's 24th birthday, Christmas and university graduation all passed by amid multiple trips to the operating table.

"It was all pretty dark,” she says. “It was more the constant operations. You thought you were getting somewhere and then you would have an infection or a complication and you would have to go back for surgery. That was really hard mentally. I got stuck in a bit of a rut. I lost a sense of my identity. It had always been around sport or riding."

Most people would not consider going anywhere near a horse again. Instead Hext used getting back in the saddle as her driving motivation and in July 2014, she rode again. That was only the start, too, for three years later she became a triple gold medallist at the European Para Dressage Championships. “Mum had her hankie out, dad was crying," she says. "They’re farmers from Cornwall. They had to move their life up near Oxford initially after my accident. This journey has had a massive impact on the family."

Suzanna Hext training in Swindon Credit: JOHN LAWRENCE

Hext is banking on her parents being able to get someone to manage the farm so they can travel to Tokyo, provided she succeeds at April's swimming trials.

Initially she was using the sport as a way to maintain her fitness but, after following up on a suggestion to get classified at the start of 2019, Hext flourished in the pool and last September won freestyle silver and bronze at the world para championships in London. The moment was particularly poignant given she had watched the London 2012 Paralympics from her hospital bed. It also provided her with a welcome buzz.

"Before my accident, eventing was quite high adrenalin," she explains. "The first time I dived into that pool in London and the roar of the crowd started I was like 'oh my word'. In dressage you could hear a pin drop. But I love both sports for different reasons." Aside from the paralysis, another long term impact of Hext's accident is the diplopia (double vision), vestibular disorder and progressively worsening dystonia (muscle spasms), all due to the head injury she also suffered. 

She relies on a wheelchair although a month ago, seven and a half years after taking her last steps, she was able to walk again using a pioneering robotic device known as a hybrid assistive limb or HAL while on a British para-swimming training camp in Suzuka, Japan.

"It was an incredible feeling, a dream come true," explains Hext. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I was imagining walking onto the yard like I used to.”

Hext admits she would have her old body back in a flash. But new passions and an unending gratefulness to those who have helped her enjoy life again have the 31-year-old looking forwards.

"I have a dream to compete in two sports at the Paralympics [at Tokyo in swimming and para-dressage at Paris 2024], which is the biggest thing that gets me out of bed in the morning," she states.

"In the water and on the horse, I feel free. I’m on a level with everyone else and it feels like the challenges of daily life fade away. It’s my settled place. I want to keep that as long as I can."

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