This year Catriona will complete a month-long cycle tour in France.
It happened just before Christmas on the 10th of November 2002.
“You never forget your date,” she tells me.
It was the day Catriona Williams, one of our most accomplished horsewomen and leading contender for the Olympics, fell from her mount and broke her neck.
“I knew it was a bit more serious than a collarbone because the pain was so severe.”
Her striking blue eyes narrow at the memory.
“My friends were beside me. I knew I was in trouble when I asked them to please put my legs on the ground.”
She explains: “When you break your spine, your memory takes on the last position your legs were in, which was the jockey pose. My legs were already lying on the ground.”
The fall left her a tetraplegic. Catriona is paralysed from the base of her neck down. She has limited use of her arms and hands.
She insists on picking me up from the airport in Palmerston North. She looks so much younger than her 47 years. Her long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, a simple white T-shirt highlighting toned arms.
She is beautiful, warm, enthusiastic and quick to laugh – the perfect person to front the charity she founded, The CatWalk Trust. The trust has raised more than $10million dollars for spinal cord research since it was founded in 2005.
Catriona has always been an energetic multitasker.
“I was the one who drove the truck, talked on the phone while licking an ice-cream,” she laughs.
Nothing much has changed. We chat as she manoeuvres effortlessly through the traffic, looking for a café and a park.
She drives herself to Palmerston North twice a week from her home in Wairarapa for “Gait Sessions” with physiologists at Massey University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition. The aim is to retrain her legs to walk again.
As she sips her hot water and lemon she tells me about the exciting advances that are being made in spinal cord research here in New Zealand.
Scientists at the University of Auckland are developing a gel that will reduce the inflammation and subsequent scar tissue at the injury site that blocks the messages being sent from the brain to the nerves in the spinal cord.
Scientists hope this will allow repair and regeneration to take place. They’re now working on the safest way to get the gel to the point of injury. Clinical trials are due to start this year.
“Lots of people [in wheelchairs] say they’re grateful for being in a chair, for the experiences it’s brought them and the positive changes that have come to their lives… not me though,” says Catriona. “I’d give anything – anything – to walk again.”
For someone who’s so driven and focused, it’s mentally tough being restricted by her chair.
“You become very pragmatic in a chair, and very patient. Things in our world just take time. I see friends achieving so much, I feel like I’m dragging the chain.”
Catriona grew up with her younger sister Kirsty on her mum and dad’s farm in Martinborough.
Her mother, Maureen McLeod, was, in her daughter’s words, “horse mad”. She would work the farm on horseback with four-year-old Cat perched in front of her.
It was an idyllic childhood, spent outdoors roaming the land. Like most country kids, she was expected to do her bit for the family business. She was put to work rounding up sheep and became a handy part of the docking team.
Cat was a natural on horseback and horses quickly became her passion, not one she took lightly.
“You’re privileged if you have a horse in your world, you should never take it for granted. Socially, growing up, my life was horses.”
Her most treasured childhood memory?
“Winning Pony of the Year,” she tells me with a sparkle in her eye. “I was 15.”
She lost her beloved mum just two years before her accident. Maureen was 54.
“When I lost Mum, I realised it wasn’t quite the same when I was having success [on the international circuit].
A lot of the joy went out of it. It became more of a business.”
There were compensations though.
“I was competing with the best in the world, I had a beautiful bunch of friends.”
At 30, she married her childhood friend Sam Williams.
“It’s funny, we both travelled the world then went back home and married the neighbour.”
A year later she was in a wheelchair.
“The accident happened in Kihikihi in the Waikato. Sam flew up to be with me. I told him, ‘Don’t stay, you don’t want to be with someone in a wheelchair.’ He said, ‘Don’t be so bloody ridiculous.'”
They’ve been married for 17 years and are beating the odds – 85 per cent of relationships break down after a spinal injury.
“Sam never sees the chair, he only sees me,” says Cat, and that’s how it should be for everyone in a chair. As Cat has so often said, “It’s only my body that’s a little broken, not my personality.”
“People would say to Sam, ‘You poor thing, how are you coping?’ He’d just say, ‘I’m not the one in the wheelchair.’
“In the spinal unit they told me if you want to keep your relationship strong you must keep the roles of carer and husband separate.”
Her carer, Wendy, has been with her for 10 years.
“Her ability to be my arms and legs and not just make me look good but also ‘able’ has made all of our goals possible. Sometimes I think Mum sent her to help.
“Wendy helps with other things, too, like making the bed (I did it once but it took me two and a half hours), emptying the dishwasher (I’ve been banned from that as I’ve broken so many glasses), and hot food preparation (our bodies don’t register heat so a third-degree burn is easy to get if we’re not really careful). You soon learn to pick your battles!”
Cat is a naturally positive person.
“No one wants to hang out with dreary people. There’s no point sitting under a rock thinking why me? Why anyone else and not you? When I was first in the chair I was pretty angry, mostly at myself. People would ask if they could help. I had 80-year-old ladies asking if they could help and I would think… really? But now I’m much better [at dealing with it].”
Generally speaking, she says, if you need help you ask for it.
They’re a formidable partnership, Cat and Sam – they work together running the stud farm that’s been in the Williams family since the 1940s. Little Avondale is a highly successful boutique operation that breeds racehorses.
Cat runs the marketing and communications side of the business.
“I used to be a horse person, now I’m a people person,” she grins, obviously at peace with the shift.
The pair share their lives with their Labradoodle Ted E Bear; “E for Einstein because he’s so intelligent.”
They’re also close to their seven nephews and nieces and nine godchildren.
It’s Cat’s big, warm, engaging personality that has been such a drawcard for the CatWalk Trust. With it she has managed to attract a raft of sponsors, many through her contacts in the horse-racing industry. The Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Tindall, is CatWalk’s patron.
“I asked Mark Todd to talk to her,” Cat tells me simply.
Apparently, it was Zara’s first patronage and her adviser was caught on the hop. He wanted to know, who are these people? What exactly are they doing? Can they be trusted? He wanted to attend the first fundraising dinner, 13 years ago, with Zara to see if the trust was authentic.
The dinner featured an interview with Cat in which she talked about her experience and the trust’s mission to find a cure for spinal injuries.
As Cat tells it, “Halfway through the dinner, as the funds from an auction were rolling in, he said to me, ‘This is amazing; I want to auction Zara for a day!'” And that’s how Zara Tindall came to visit a bakery in Huntly for a day. The baker, who also happened to own a racehorse, paid $60,000 for the privilege and reckoned
it was the best investment in marketing he’d ever made.
That is the magic of Cat. She is someone who could raise funds from Scrooge himself. She has charisma, intelligence and drive, and will not rest until a cure is found.
Which brings us to the Gait Session.
“I would be gutted if a cure was found and my legs were so wasted away they were useless.”
So she is focusing on getting as fit as she possibly can. She boxes.
“I love it,” she grins wickedly, punching the air. “I can take out all my frustrations!”
She also bikes four times a week on her hand-cycle, swims twice a week and works out on her exercycle.
“I’ve made it my job to get fit and stay healthy. I eat well, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a glass or three,” she adds with a wink.
We arrive at the university to meet the team of three who will run the session. Leading it is physiologist Lynette Hodge.
She attaches a sheepskin padded harness to Cat’s tiny torso then, with a hydraulic hoist, positions her on the treadmill. The hoist is connected to a computer, which reads out the amount of weight Cat is able to bear and the speed and distance walked.
Lynette and her team set to work. They begin with squats to work on her thigh muscles. Cat focuses intently on the job of bending her legs with the team’s help and then hauling herself up with the aid of rubber straps. Then they physically lift Cat’s feet and move them on the treadmill, driving the muscles to re-stimulate the nerves in her legs.
The weight bearing has helped enormously with muscle growth. When Cat began the training 18 months ago her muscles were wasted and her legs flaccid, but already the muscle is back. Lynette calls me to feel the activity in Cat’s thighs; they’re firing, twitching with energy.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to stand,” Cat tells me. “At first my legs were like jelly. This is so good for my core, for my joints and bones and for my heart.”
Lynette says that ideally Cat should be exercising like this every day. I look at the progress she’s making and I wonder why this is the only machine like it in the country. The answer is resources. There are simply not enough people to operate them.
Cat is realistic about her chances of walking any time soon, but she’s not letting that hold her back.
“Let’s not halt life because I can’t walk.”
With that in mind she’s conquered a dizzying number of physical challenges, not least of which was an ascent to Everest Base Camp on a hand-cycle with two other “wheelies”, fellow tetraplegics Rob Creagh and Neil Cudby. They were the first people to do so.
“The doctors told me I shouldn’t go. Of course that made me want to go even more. They said I’d endanger myself and others. So I thought, well, let’s see how dangerous it might be. All the wheelies handled it fine – it was the fit, healthy, young men who struggled.”
She also hand-cycled the New York marathon.
“I began by cycling the length of our driveway at home, 180 metres. It was exhausting. It took me 45 minutes.”
The New York marathon is 42 kilometres. She did it of course, in good time.
There is a common theme to any activity in which Cat is involved… it has to be fun.
She has two trips planned for this year – a month-long cycle tour of the glorious Loire Valley in France, which promises to be a major fundraiser for CatWalk, and a private visit to the gorillas of Uganda’s famous Impenetrable Forest.
How will she manage to get into the forest? Turns out she’ll helicopter in – not your conventional helicopter, but a helicopter jungle-style, suspended between two bamboo poles. Typical of this extraordinary woman.
But it’s the simple pleasure of being able to dance with her husband that keeps Catriona Williams pushing her body and mind as hard as she does: “Dancing again with Sam, I believe it’s possible.”
For more information on La Loire et CatWalk 2019, visit catwalk.org.nz
By Judy Bailey