After narrowly missing out on a place in the Commonwealth Games swimming team as a teenager, Rachel Williamson decided to give the sport up for good. Now the former RAF medic is celebrating winning no less than six medals at the Invictus Games, partly thanks to the support of her SSAFA mentor Simon Goodwin.
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Despite only having the use of one arm, Rachel, 29, brought home two golds in Indoor Rowing and also scooped three silvers and a bronze in the pool at the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney.
"My aim at the Games was to give 100 per cent in all my races, aim for PBs and be happy with my events," says Rachel. "To gain six medals was amazing but I was more amazed by my teammates, for all our achievements and the barriers we broke just by supporting each other when the pressure was on mentally and physically. I still feel like it was all a dream. I feel more confident, happier and mentally stronger with the knowledge that anything is possible with support.”
Rachel, from Rutland, joined the RAF straight out of college as a PTI before later training as a medic and served more than 10 years before a rugby injury caused a premature end to her service career. "One day I was in work full time and the next day I was told I was out and I never wore uniform again. That was hard to take," she explains. "The unpredictable nature of my injury was a problem. All I did originally was sprain my right thumb back in October 2014 but I never regained the movement and now have no function in my right arm at all and a severe tremor. I have no grip in my hand so I have had to relearn to do everything with my left arm."
It was while Rachel was doing her resettlement package that she was offered a SSAFA mentor to support her through the transition to civilian life. She received her medical discharge in February 2018 and has been working with SSAFA volunteer mentor Simon Goodwin ever since.
"The RAF was my only job so I had never even had a CV or had to adapt to real life, and my injury changes everything too," says Rachel. "The SSAFA mentoring service was offered to me by my PRO. Initially I thought it wasn't really for me but then I decided I should give it a go. I’m glad I did.
“If it wasn’t for Simon I would not even have applied for the job I have now got or gone to the Invictus trials. His advice has been so helpful. He has helped me prepare for interviews and given me advice on life in general. He will always help me to find the positive in every negative. I really needed the mentoring because I think I was digging myself into a bit of a hole.
"One of the great things I’ve found about mentoring is that I can share my worries about life in general with someone without having to burden my family."
With Simon’s support Rachel has not only succeeded in winning a coveted place on the UK Invictus Games team, she has also landed a job at the new DNRC at Stanford Hall.
"I was swimming at quite a high standard as a teenager so it has been hard adapting to do sport with one arm when I had that sporting history. But with Simon’s encouragement I did the trials and did really well and it’s gone on from there. I gave it all up and promised myself I wouldn’t swim again and yet here I am."
Rachel started a new administrative job at DNRC in August 2018 working in the same department she was treated in at the Headley Court facility and utilising the knowledge she gained as an RAF medic.
"I’m lucky that I do see the positive in most things and I have just had to bite the bullet and get on with things but I wouldn’t have achieved half what I have without Simon’s support," she says.
Rachel recently competed in the British Indoor Rowing Championships taking seventh place in the 2k, Bronze in the 500m and Gold in the adaptive relay. She is now aiming for the 2020 Invictus Games and is training for swimming, indoor rowing and sitting volleyball in her spare time.