A Conversation with Stef Reid MBE, Paralympian, World Champion Athlete & 5x World Record Holder

A Conversation with Stef Reid MBE, Paralympian, World Champion Athlete & 5x World Record Holder

In this interview, I speak to Stef Reid, a British Paralympic long jumper and sprinter. She is a World Champion, four-time Paralympian, triple Paralympic medallist, and five-time world record holder. Stef has a degree in biochemistry, and her adventures off the track include acting, modelling (including being the first amputee to walk the London Fashion Week catwalk!), and serving as Vice President for The Leprosy Mission UK and British Athletics.  Recently, Stef competed in the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics and starred in the British reality TV show Dancing On Ice 2022, making it to the quarter finals and showing the world you can learn to skate with an artificial foot!

Stef was born in New Zealand to a Scottish father and English mother, grew up in Toronto, and moved to Dallas, Texas with her Canadian husband all before settling back in the UK in 2010. Stef’s talent and passion for sport were spotted early, and at 12 she was already dreaming of playing rugby on the world stage. But at 15, Stef was involved in a boating accident and suffered severe propeller lacerations. Her life was saved but her right foot was damaged beyond repair and amputated.

Q: Did your accident change your sense of identity?

[Stef Reid]:  My sense of identity definitely evolved, becoming stronger due to the accident. It stripped away aspects I believed defined me, teaching me a profound lesson at 15: what truly defines me is unremovable. For instance, I was ‘Stef the athlete’, valued for my ability to score goals and win races. However, post-accident, unable to perform these feats, I feared losing my worth. Why would anyone like me if I couldn’t contribute to victories?

Yet, the post-accident interactions were enlightening. While waiting for my mom after school, I expected to be alone, tired and recovering. Surprisingly, peers stopped to chat, showing interest despite my limited physical abilities. This experience reshaped my understanding of self-worth.

In essence, I learned that even if I lost every limb, my core identity – a hardworking, competitive, fun-loving person – would remain intact. My physical abilities as an amputee changed, but not my fundamental self. It was a powerful realization: my true essence is untouchable. Losses like money, job, or reputation can’t diminish my inherent qualities – my fight, attitude, grace, and resolve. These are constants, the unchangeable parts of my being.

Q: Do you think we ‘need’ a big event – like an accident or trauma – to have that same experience?

[Stef Reid]: Indeed, experiencing a traumatic event isn’t a prerequisite for profound realizations. However, such experiences can hasten these insights early in life. It’s crucial not to misconstrue this as a necessity for adversity. Once, as a keynote speaker in London, I encountered a couple, both employees of a prominent company, expressing deep concern for their 12-year-old daughter. Contrary to my initial thoughts about her potential struggles, their worry was her lack of challenges, despite their affluence, her prestigious schooling, and abundant opportunities.

This reflects our complex nature: we simultaneously dread challenges and fear their absence, creating a delicate balance. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the work of M. Scott Peck, the American psychiatrist. Amidst the widespread discussion on mental health, his definition strikes me as exceptionally insightful. He describes mental wellness as an unwavering commitment to reality, regardless of the cost. Peck’s perspective, surprisingly underrated, emphasizes the clarity that trauma can bring, slicing through life’s distractions and societal illusions.

These moments offer a stark glimpse of reality, a contrast to the daily bombardment of trivial concerns. As time distances me from my own traumatic experience, I sometimes veer off course, but these memories serve as a reminder to stay true to what I’ve learned. Trauma, in this light, can be a powerful teacher, though its lessons often require revisiting.

Q: How do you rebuild your mindset from where you were, to where you are, and then to growth?

[Stef Reid]: 
You raised a poignant point earlier, reflecting on a conversation with my mom. She highlighted the distinct experiences of parents with children born with disabilities versus those who witness their children become disabled. For her, observing my transition was a profound shift. As Stef evolved due to my disability, there was a sense of loss intertwined with pride. When seeing others admire my achievements, she couldn’t help but reminisce about my past abilities, like dominating a rugby field. This duality of emotions is complex – pride in the present juxtaposed with nostalgia for the past.

This experience resonates with me too. It involves grappling with the loss of a former self and the constant comparisons that ensue. It raises the question: do I need to redefine myself entirely? Is this Stef 2.0? Understanding and accepting that my definition of success and growth will continuously evolve is challenging.

You’ve touched on a significant point about instinctual responses to life-changing events. At 15, when the accident occurred, you were a typical teenager, yet you navigated this immense challenge largely through instinct. This is encouraging because it shows that resilience and adaptability are innate in us all, not dependent on philosophical sophistication.

My experience aligns with Scott M. Peck’s definition of mental health, emphasizing the importance of grounding oneself in reality. Recognizing and accepting the challenges ahead is crucial. If we expect an easy journey and face hardships instead, it leads to frustration and discouragement. Setting realistic expectations and being prepared to adjust them is vital.

Flexibility is key, especially in unfamiliar situations. Plans might need constant revision, and it’s important to be open to that. Your turning point came from Nurse Claudette, whose straightforward approach resonated with your competitive nature. Her challenge to move forward, seeing others overcoming similar obstacles, sparked a change in you. Although not initially enthusiastic, you started viewing your situation as a game of making things ‘less sucky’. This approach opened up new opportunities and transformed your journey into an adventure, a testament to the unpredictable nature of life and the discoveries made along the way.

Q: What drives you?

[Stef Reid]:  My aspiration, both pre- and post-accident, has always been to fully embrace life’s offerings. It may sound cliché, but I genuinely seek to experience life to its fullest. This means seizing every opportunity, being wholly invested in whatever I pursue. It’s important to recognize that this looks different for everyone, given our unique contexts and starting points. For me, success isn’t about the endpoint; it’s about the journey – the growth from where I began and the rich stories gathered along the way. I’m passionate about setting ambitious goals, committing fully, and approaching them with courage and audacity.

Regarding being a role model, I believe that’s a universal responsibility, not exclusive to any individual. After becoming an amputee, I was initially uninformed about disability. The visits from two people, a male athlete and a typical girl, were eye-opening. Their normalcy and resilience were incredibly reassuring. It’s through such interactions that we profoundly impact others. Each person, regardless of their family, community, or public profile, has the capability to influence positively. It’s not about consciously assuming a role but about living authentically and striving for personal best. In doing so, we implicitly empower those around us, a responsibility we all share.

Q: Is this why events like the Paralympics are so important?

[Stef Reid]:  I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my athletic career, which spanned from my accident in 2000 to my retirement in the summer of 2022. This period allowed me to witness the remarkable evolution of the Paralympics. My journey took me from a high school track, where my mom was the sole spectator with her ‘Go Stef go’ sign, to competing in stadiums filled with 80,000 people.

What’s truly astounding is the shared background of many Paralympic athletes. Initially, when the Paralympics and parasports were relatively unknown, these athletes were often the ones overlooked in PE classes, chosen last for teams, and discouraged due to their disabilities. Despite being perceived as underdogs and constantly told that sports weren’t for them, they found a way to compete and excel.

A standout moment for me involves an armless Chinese swimmer. His ability to perform freestyle using a dolphin kick is impressive, but even more extraordinary is the coach who saw potential in a child with no arms and decided to train him as a swimmer. Stories like this underscore a powerful message: you don’t need to be the obvious choice or follow conventional paths. Creativity, perseverance, and the willingness to improve after initial failures are key. This mindset can lead to incredible achievements, regardless of how unlikely they may seem at first.

Q: Have we become too ‘frightened’ to have honest conversations and ask questions about disability?

[Stef Reid]:  The use of theatre as a medium for addressing disability issues is fascinating. It creates a space for those awkward, often unasked questions, providing an opportunity for dialogue. However, within the disability community, opinions on this approach are mixed. While some, like myself, welcome questions, others feel they don’t owe anyone an explanation on demand.

My personal stance, and I speak only for myself, not the entire disabled community, is to respond positively to any question, no matter how awkward or inappropriate. I believe it takes courage to ask, and even if the approach is off, the curiosity is commendable. My goal is to make these interactions positive, offering guidance on a more appropriate way to ask in the future.

For instance, at the gym or on the track, people often express admiration for my athleticism but then ask if I compete in the “normal” Olympics. I respond humorously, highlighting the importance of language and the underlying assumptions about disabled athletes.

My husband Brent, who has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair, experienced a similar situation on a cruise. A well-intentioned man expressed surprise at seeing Brent out and not in bed, which was both amusing and a bit perplexing. We gently corrected his assumption, mentioning Brent’s career as a software engineer.

It’s crucial to allow space for mistakes. We all ask misguided questions at times. I recall a Twitter post discussing the government’s decision to remove the dedicated disability minister. A visually impaired person humorously pointed out my use of “short-sighted,” reminding me that I too can make errors.

The key is to create an environment where it’s okay to be wrong, as long as there’s a willingness to learn and engage respectfully. Everyone deserves the chance to be understood and to grow from these interactions.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Stef Reid]:  As I grow older, I find myself increasingly contemplating my legacy. This introspection seems natural, reflecting on the evolution of my career and self. As a young athlete, there was a focus on personal achievements – it was all about me, my goals, and my ‘little kingdom.’ However, with age and more life experience, my perspective broadened. I began to realize that life isn’t just about individual accomplishments; it involves the larger world and the collective well-being of everyone in it.

The desire to know that my life had meaning, that I utilized my time effectively, and that my efforts were noticed is important to me. But my view of legacy goes beyond mere recognition. It’s about the knowledge and experiences I’ve gained being actively reinvested into the world before I pass away. To me, that’s the true essence of leaving a meaningful legacy.

Q: What has been the role of faith in your life?

[Stef Reid]: To illustrate my point, let’s consider a common experience at airports. Imagine standing in a queue for three hours without any explanation. The frustration in such scenarios stems not just from the wait but from the lack of communication and understanding of the reason behind it. Even a brief explanation, like an unexpected medical emergency, can significantly ease the annoyance, as it provides context and a reason for the delay.

I draw a parallel between this situation and life in general. My belief is that we can withstand almost any challenge if we understand there’s a purpose or reason behind it. Enduring pain or hardship becomes more manageable when it’s clear that it’s leading to a greater good or an important goal. For instance, my coach, Aston, would set tough workouts, but I was motivated to complete them because I knew they were designed to improve my performance. In contrast, facing pain or challenges without any apparent reason or purpose feels futile and disheartening.

This mindset doesn’t imply that I expect life to be smooth sailing all the time, nor do I claim to have all the answers. However, the belief that there is a reason behind every event or circumstance gives me the strength to persevere, even when I’m unhappy or struggling to see the point. It’s this understanding of purpose that fuels my resilience and ability to keep moving forward.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.