Kadeena Cox was one of GB's stand-out competitors at the Paralympics CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
For anybody of a carpe diem disposition, Kadeena Cox has just become your heroine-in-chief. As the first British Paralympian for 32 years to win gold medals in two separate sports, she is the face not only of the country’s all-conquering team at these Rio Games but of a philosophy that rejects any idea of enslavement by disability. A vibrant, sassy and inexhaustibly optimistic character, she coveted this feat because of a realisation that the chance might never come again.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Cox was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition often aggravated by exercise and exertion. It seemed at once to spell the end of any athletic career. Except she saw her circumstances, shatteringly altered as they were, rather differently.
Sport, at which she excelled to such an extent that she once trained for the Olympics, would be her route out of a world full of dread and introspection. Today, as she sets out her four Paralympic medals on the table in front of her, she can reflect that she made the correct decision.
“MS is so poorly understood,” says Cox, 25, whose knowledge of its progression is enhanced by her studies in physiotherapy. “I change day to day, not year to year, so I’ve no idea how I will be by the end of another full Olympic cycle. Come Tokyo 2020, I don’t know whether I’ll even be able to do one sport, let alone two.”
She says these words with a remarkable breeziness. Cox lives unapologetically in the moment these days, having added a gold medal in track cycling to her gold, silver and bronze in athletics, an achievement that most coaches warned her was borderline impossible.
Not since 1988, when Isabel Newstead won a discus gold and a shooting bronze in Seoul, has the British Paralympic community produced such a polymath. Even though team-mates Sophie Christiansen, Natasha Baker, Bethany Firth and Dame Sarah Storey left Rio with three golds to her two, Cox was the popular choice to assume flagbearing duties for the closing ceremony at the Maracana, by virtue of her astonishing versatility.
Cox’s mother, Jasmin, had been alarmed by the scale of her undertaking here. She had watched Kadeena, the third eldest of her seven children, suffer a stroke just months before the news came through that she had MS. She had kept watch beside her bed in hospital for months afterwards. The size of the Paralympic programme that her daughter pursued in Rio, let alone the success to which it led, defied maternal comprehension.
“She knows what I’m like, she knows that I like to push myself,” says Cox, sipping tea on the balcony of British House, a few hours before her triumphant homecoming.
“She was just hoping, with the nature of my condition, that I didn’t push myself too hard and cause myself another relapse. She didn’t want me to make my health any worse than it already is. But ultimately, she just wanted me to be happy.”
Cox carried the flag in the closing ceremony CREDIT: PA
Jasmin can rest assured that her girl has never been happier. Especially now that she has turned on her telephone to discover a message of congratulations from JK Rowling on Twitter. “Harry Potter was my childhood book!” she exclaims, excitedly. “It’s crazy. Crazy is my word of the Games.”
Now that Cox has inscribed her name among Paralympic icons, she says that she will switch focus for the months and years ahead to trying to maintain her own well-being. Four Rio medals represent the reward for what she has endured the past two years, with a bombardment of medication required to keep her MS under control.
It is time, she believes – regardless of what her doctors might say – to shelve some of the pills in favour of holistic, nutrition-based treatments. “Anyone on the amount of meds that I am would want the same,” she says.
“I take 18 to 19 tablets a day, plus an injection every other day. I get side-effects from some of the medication that aren’t ideal. Plus, I hate having to inject myself. It’s painful and it creates a few dramas.”
The drug that Cox has to shoot into herself is Copaxone, the trade name for glatiramer acetate. The trouble is that her triceps are too muscle-bound to cope with the injections, which can leave her in agony. Against such a backdrop, it is little wonder that she is looking for alternatives.
“There are a lot of books I am reading,” Cox explains. “I won’t do anything rash. But I struggle with dystonia, or uncontrolled movement, and I know that yoga and Pilates can help with this. So can hydrotherapy. It’s part of being a physiotherapist, I guess. I am very research-driven, especially when it comes to my body. I would rather exhaust all the resources available to me than pin all my hopes on one solution.”
The day that she was told she had MS is seared upon Cox’s memory. She had first sensed something was wrong when she noticed a peculiar tingling sensation in her leg, which rapidly worsened to leave her incapable of holding a pen or brushing a teeth. “It was an interesting one, because the doctor had worked out what he thought I had and refused to elaborate,” she says. “I had gone through the stroke already, and I had also had a car crash.
When I was taken for an MRI scan, the radiologist said, ‘We are going to put some contrast in’. At that point I thought, ‘Did I fracture something in my neck? Have I got a tumour?’ Everything went through my head, but it didn’t cross my mind for a second that I had MS.
“When they finally broke it to me, I remembered a couple of the neurological placements I had done for my course. I provided home care for a lady who had very severe MS. The thought that this was happening to me, too? It totally freaked me out. I just thought that I wasn’t going to be able to live my life. The notion of being in a wheelchair, needing somebody to look after me constantly, was horrifying.”
Psychologically, the breakthrough came when Cox learnt that there was a possibility she could still run. As one of the fastest able-bodied junior runners hoping to make it to Rio, the prospect of abandoning the sport altogether had been unbearable.
“Once I found this out, I felt somehow, ‘It’s fine’. From that moment on, I decided, ‘MS isn’t going to define me. My life doesn’t revolve around MS, MS revolves around me’.
“Running, you see, has been my big thing for years. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I am sure that I would not have recovered anywhere near as well if I had not had this to strive for. It has helped me massively from a physical perspective, and it has also enabled me to control certain parts of my condition. I would have been a lost girl without my sport.”
The unexpected aspect of Cox’s convalescence was that she could offer as much talent in the velodrome as she did on the athletics track. For months she has been shuttling along the M62 between Leeds and Manchester for training camps, having discovered that cycling was a natural fit for her MS.
Cox competes in the women's T38 final CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
“One day in the gym,” she recalls, “my strength and conditioning coach said, ‘Why don’t you just sit on the bike? It’s not moving anywhere’.
Instantly, it just seemed to calm my body down. I did one session and said, ‘OK, let’s do this’. I haven’t looked back since. Technically, with MS, I have what is known as an extensor pattern. The result is that my body, in extension, does its own thing. But on the bike, you are in flexion, which my body likes. Everything just switches off and chills.”
It was upon receiving her cycling gold, in the C4/C5 500 metres time trial, that the emotions engulfed Cox. She was so disorientated and exhausted that she had to lean upon one of the British press officers to stand upright for her post-race interviews. “I flashed back through all the work it had taken to get to that point. I was bedridden for two months. To get from there to any form of physical fulfilment, let alone at an elite level …”
Her voice trails off. “Originally, I had only said I was going to be in Rio. Did I think I would be a medal contender? Probably not.”
It is a quality uniting the pre-eminent Paralympians that they perceive their disability less as a handicap than an opportunity, and Cox is no exception. “Without my condition, I would never have been in this position,” she argues. “I wanted to go to an Olympics, but could I have been a multiple champion in two sports? The chances were very slim. Now, though, I am able to stand as a role model for those who have been diagnosed with chronic illness. A lot of people see it as a death sentence. But it isn’t, really, if you set yourself goals.”
In 2014, when she was finally released from her bedridden state at home, Cox’s first outing was to teach a track and field session at her local primary school in Leeds. Beyond the Paralympics, she talks of using her academic discipline to set up her own clinic in neurophysiotherapy, concentrating on children with cerebral palsy and seeing how sport can help them in later life with their mobility.
She is preoccupied, intensely, by causes far beyond her own setbacks. If she follows them with even half the same passion she has shown here over this fortnight in Rio, her contribution will be considerable. It is to be hoped British sport realises how fortunate it is to have her.