Ruth Wilson, a mum of two, took up triathlon to help her cope with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Today, she is a world-class talent. Words Fiona Duffy Images British Triathlon / Dave Tyrell; Nick Hill.
Standing on the podium, wearing a gleaming medal and clutching a posy of flowers, Ruth Wilson couldn’t have felt prouder.
The 46-year-old mum of two had not only beaten stiff competition to take third place in the European Duathlon Championships in Madrid this year but she had done it in spite of Parkinson’s Disease, a disabling condition that she had kept hidden for six years.
The athlete from Doncaster endures agonising pains, stiffness and tremors just to get out of bed each morning, let alone cross the finish line of such a tough sport. In October, Ruth took on an even bigger race at the World Duathlon championships in Australia storming home in fifth place, despite suffering pain and stiffness from the long flight, and an ankle injury.
Talent-spotted by the GB Paratriathlon team, she now dreams of an Olympic medal in Tokyo in 2020. Her achievements are all the more astounding as she only took up the sport six years ago to cope with her devastating diagnosis.
Ruth was at work when she first suspected something was amiss. “I was filling out some paperwork when a colleague asked what was up with my thumb. I looked down and saw that it was twitching.”
Soon the tremor was affecting Ruth’s entire right arm. It would shake constantly, often waking her at night. Ruth’s GP referred her to a consultant at Doncaster Royal Infirmary who broke the news. Ruth’s father, a former marathon runner, had been diagnosed with the same condition 25 years ago, and now relies on a mobility scooter.
“Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that affects not only brain function, but mobility and movement,” Ruth explains. “Apparently, it’s incredibly rare to inherit the condition from a parent. I think it’s just unfortunate that we’ve both got it. I decided that I wasn’t going to let the disease beat me.”
Just weeks previously Ruth had rekindled her childhood love of running. She had been the north-east champion for the English Schools Cross Country Championships and also ran 800m and 1500m at county level.
After leaving school, Ruth gave up running to bring up her two daughters Gemma, now 27, and Beth, 19.
Despite her positive outlook, the diagnosis hit her hard. “I had a couple of really low weeks where I felt depressed and stopped running. Then I just snapped out of it. I thought ‘I can’t let this beat me’ and that’s when I decided to take up triathlon.”
While Ruth had been a talented runner, she couldn’t swim or ride a bike.
“As a child I was terrified of the water. In my first pool triathlon I got out twice saying, ‘I can’t do this’ and my best friend Jenny insisted I get back in.
“I persevered with the bike, learning how to change gears, master clip-in shoes and turn right.”
By now, Ruth was juggling her training and racing with night shifts as a Tesco team leader. At weekends Ruth’s mum would pick her up from a shift and drive to her races, while Ruth slept. With the help of her coach, professional cyclist Kevin Dawson, and physiotherapist Andrew Coulson, Ruth quickly made improvements and was soon winning races.
“I still struggled in open water. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been brought back to shore in a
canoe,” she laughs.
Ruth continued to keep her illness secret, and fellow racers assumed her tremors were caused by nerves or cold.
“I wanted to win a race on my own merits. I didn’t want any special treatment or people letting me win because they felt sorry for me.”
Last year, Ruth qualified for the ETU European Age Group Sprint Duathlon Championships at Horst in the Netherlands, where she came sixth, and just missed a medal at the World Championships in Spain. This summer came her proudest moment – medalling at the European Championships.
“It was the hardest race I’ve ever done but I beat Anke Lakies from Germany by one second. As I got my medal my daughter Gemma cried her eyes out.”
The World Championships in the autumn was particularly tough.
“The long flight to Australia caused a lot of problems. A twinge in my ankle led to indescribable pain in my right calf. I told myself ‘I haven’t come all this way to not finish – just suck it up.’ Much of the race is a blur so I was thrilled to come fifth.”
After another panic attack in open-water swim this summer Ruth finally agreed to look into paratriathlon.
“It sounds strange but I don’t class myself as disabled, but the races are much quieter as you’re only racing others in your category.”
After assessements with British Paratriathlon she was classified as a PT4 athlete.
“I won gold at the National Championships at Mallory Park, Leicestershire, in July, and at the Eton Dorney Para Tri series in August breaking the course record.”
She was astounded when paralympic legend David Weir picked her for his relay team that afternoon.
“I told him he was amazing but he said, ‘Ruth, you have it worse. We have always lived with this but you have had to adapt and overcome each obstacle.’ I’d never thought of it like that.”
Her performances attracted the attention of the GB paratriathlete selectors and in October she was accepted on to the talent squad.
“I’m now attending training camps and working towards the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics,” she says.
“My Parkinson’s is progressively getting worse, but triathlon is what keeps me going and helps me cope. Even on a rest day I have an easy jog or ride just to ease the pain. It’s a way of life.
“I have my ‘little moments’, when I’m alone, but that’s when you go for a run.”
Ruth has been particularly touched by sponsorship and support. “A friend paid for my flight to Australia while our local pub raised £1,000 to cover my accommodation costs.
“I’m also supported by Rocktape (their tape helps to relax my muscles reducing my tremors and holding me together during races), my local running shop Metres to Miles, TomTom Cardio UK, Trizoo and Salming. I’ve even had a small grant from North Lincolnshire Council. I just want to do them and my family proud.”
For now, Ruth is determined to compete for as long as she can.
“My condition is deteriorating but my motto is ‘dream, believe, achieve.’ Hopefully I can inspire others to never give up – no matter what life throws at you.”