Phillipa Gray has packed more into her 26 years than many have in a whole lifetime. The paralympic cyclist has travelled the world and, with pilot rider Laura Thompson, picked up gold, silver and bronze in London in 2012. She’s also broken a world record and been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. But the high achiever says her toughest challenge has been deciding to let it go.
“When you’re only 26 and you are using the word ‘retirement’, it feels a bit strange,” she admits.
Phillipa has a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which affects hearing and sight. The athlete is deaf and has a visual range of three degrees, while most people have 180 degrees. “It’s like tunnel vision. If I’m in front of someone, I can’t see their ears or the size of their chin or their forehead,” she says.
But recently, Phillipa has been experiencing total blindness for up to a day at a time, which was brought on by tough training. This prompted her decision to make the most of her vision while she still has it.
“Sometimes you think something like blindness is not going to happen to you. You forget that Usher syndrome is a degenerative condition, so it’s been a reality check,” she says, the tears flowing.
Top of her to-do list is white-water rafting – something she couldn’t do as a cyclist in case she broke a leg. She also wants to live in Italy – a place she fell in love with four years ago and it’s where she met her partner Sean Finning (30), a Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning cyclist.
Further down the list of immediate priorities is starting a family together. “It’s in the future... Mum will drop it into a conversation, as in, ‘You can have babies now’– and I’m like, 'Nope, not yet!’” she laughs.
While Sean’s training to be a pilot rider at the next year’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Phillipa’s other love is her new massage business. It’s something she wanted to do after completing a Bachelor of Science with Nutrition from the University of Otago, as well as two diplomas from the Southern Institute of Technology.
“I don’t need my eyes to massage – my fingers do all the talking,” she laughs.
It’s a career that could take her around the world again – as a massage therapist for other athletes. And if and when her sight completely goes, she might return to cycling.
“But for now, it’s nice being able to see the little bit that I can see and I want to make the most of that,” she says.
Words by: Anastasia Hedge
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