Former Lancashire champion swimmer struck down by Lyme Disease pens her story
She may look smiling and well in these photos but for Sophie Ward, just getting out of bed every day is agony.
This is in stark contrast to the young swimmer, Olympic-bound, who once trained 24 hours a week and lived her life in the pool.
A former British-record holder for 100m butterfly as a 14-year-old, now 25, Sophie is trying to live with the cruelties of Lyme Disease and the associated food allergies and illnesses which ended her swimming career for good.
Despite ‘going to a dark place’ personally she has fought back and is now fighting for recognition and awareness of a disease that is frequently misdiagnosed and little understood despite the millions of sufferers.
Her story, which she has chronicled in new book ‘In the ‘Lyme’ Light’ is a brave one for Sophie, from Garstang.
“Swimming was my life,” she says.
“ It was my career path, I wanted to go to London 2012 that was my goal since I was about 10 years old.
“I was on the World Class (Olympic) London 2012 programme, that was the goal, that was the dream, everything was set up.
“I did a lot of competing for England as well as Great Britain, at the European Youth Olympics when I was just 13. It was my life.
“The dedication I got from that has helped me through the ill health I have.”
“I went to China to watch my friends compete at the 2008 Olympics just to get a feel ready for 2012 ,” she says.
“I was absolutely amazed by the Olympics and soaked up the atmosphere.
"It’s a long way to travel so from there I went sightseeing and to the Panda Sanctuary which is where I was bitten by a tick.
I didn’t know because I just came down with a fever.
“When the Olympics was on it was all western food and when you go sightseeing it was all Chinese food, very different to food here.
“So when I got bit of a fever we just thought it was the food.
"I was given two days of antibiotics by a doctor and then I felt fine.
“Four years later I had given up my swimming as I could no longer train the same so I was absolutely shattered as my dream was gone.
"I was lost, I’d given my whole life to swimming.”
Sophie had succumbed to what, many years later, would be diagnosed as Lyme Disease - a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks.
“I used to do 100m and 200m butterfly - my best stroke - and front crawl, all distances. I really enjoyed it. I won bronze, silver and gold at the European Youth Olympics. That was insane and made my Olympic goal definite.
“After coming back from there I had the British record for 14-year olds on the 100m butterfly as well so swimming was my life.”
Her training regime as a young athlete was gruelling - but losing that was worse for Sophie.
“You are training 24 hours a week and juggling school on top, you don’t have time to explore other hobbies. you have to give your heart and soul to it.
“So you get up 4am, in the pool to train from 5-7am, quickly get changed, get to school for 8.30am, do a full day there, then whip to training from 5-7pm and do an hour of land training then home at 9pm.
“I went to Kirkham (Grammar School) where they are quite heavy on homework so I’d be doing that until 10.30pm, 11 at night.
“Your body has to be so fit and you’re are competing at weekends as well and travelling across the country and sometimes abroad.”
Then she was taken ill and at first doctors had no idea what was wrong.
She was losing weight and in a huge amount of pain.
“My body wasn’t bouncing back the same from training,” she explained.
“I was getting water infections recurring, migraines, food intolerances, sore throats, sickness and I just couldn’t find any answers. All my tests were coming back fine
“They were like - are you depressed, are you crazy?
“When people are telling you that you begin to question yourself - you are so used to your body being so fit and having a few days rest, then getting back in the pool.
“When you can barely get out of bed and your joints are freezing up, you can’t function as the migraines are so bad.
“You get brain fog and start thinking ‘What am I? Who am I? I’m struggling to work as I can’t function properly and the doctors aren’t helping me.’”
She was forced into retirement aged just 15.
“When it had gone - it was what to do with my life?” she says. “I’d kept up with schoolwork because my swimming career was always going to end. But you don’t expect it to end at 15 when you expected to compete until you are 25/26.
“But I couldn’t keep up. I was exhausted, had stomach issues, my joints were bad. I had very bad migraines like I’d been hit by a bus and felt heavily hungover every morning. I couldn’t function properly, got sore throats all the time, and was generally picking up illnesses and unable to shake them off.
“I was having to reduce my training, thinking I had torn muscles.
"I was having Botox into my stomach - anything to help with the pain but it wasn’t subsiding.”
By 2009 her dream was over.
“Not having a focus was so alien, that goal was gone, which makes you wonder why you are getting up in the morning.
"I went to a dark place.
"I’m guilty of a few years playing the victim then I reached a point when I had to accept it, there was no quick fix, no getting better.
“I had to spend a lot of money privately to try to get better and back in the pool.
"You hold on to any little glimpse of hope for getting back your health.”
Sophie is now a blogger and administrator for lymediseaseuk.com and presenter on Chorley FM.
Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium spread by ticks.
It is tricky to diagnose and often missed.
High profile sufferers include Alec Baldwin and Avril Lavigne.