Joanna Robertson is Aberdeen Amateur Athletic Club’s only wheelchair racer – and is loving every minute of her progress in the sport.
Growing up in Ellon, her childhood went ‘hand-in-hand’ with sport, and Robertson followed in her mum’s footsteps and started swimming competitively.
But, in 2019, Robertson’s life took a different path as she was involved in a car accident where she suffered a T12 complete spinal cord injury which left her paralysed.
However, having experienced the thrill of sport her whole life, Robertson was determined to feel it again and was not willing to let her disability get in the way.
“I always enjoyed the euphoria you get from sport – whether that was running or swimming – and the mindset that comes from it,” Robertson said.
“Sport was always a huge part of my life, so after my accident it was much harder for me to get that same level and get that feeling back.
“Having a disability, there are more barriers and steps you have to take, but I’m a very stubborn person.”
Hospital stay sparked passion for wheelchair racing
It was during her five-month stay in hospital Robertson’s journey back to sport began.
While in the Spinal Unit at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, she was introduced to various sports such as wheelchair rugby and basketball.
And, although she was keen to try out as many sports as she could, it was wheelchair racing Robertson took a keen interest in.
It was a long process to be able to participate as she had to secure funding for a racing wheelchair which cost upwards of £3,000, and then had travel to England to get fitted for and collect the chair.
But it was there in Grangemouth where Robertson truly fell in love with the sport as she was in awe of the athletes racing around the track in their wheelchairs.
She joined Aberdeen AAC last year and the feeling of euphoria has become pretty familiar again.
“It’s opened up a whole new world of sport for me,” Robertson added.
“I’ve found that when you get into the zone it’s almost like running, but racing is in a whole league of its own.
“It’s an amazing feeling.”
Wheelchair racing ambitions
As part of the athletics club, Robertson trains three times a week with her coach Ruth Watson and twice in the gym.
And with her being the club’s first-ever wheelchair racer, it’s been an opportunity for coach and athlete to learn the ropes together.
Robertson explained: “All the coaches were really eager to get me going and they hadn’t had a wheelchair racer before, so they were so keen to learn and to adapt with me.
“We were all learning with each other, which was a nice experience, because most of the time coaches know everything about their sport – but we were learning and excited together to find out new things.
“From just trying to figure out how to get the racing wheelchair to turn round the track – it’s all added to the experience.”
But the biggest thing for Robertson is that since day one she has been made to feel like she is no different than any other athlete at Aberdeen AAC.
She explained: “As soon as I joined, everything was accessible and the people were so accommodating.
“It was a lovely change, because when you have a disability so many barriers are put in front of you.
“I didn’t have to ask for help – and that was the biggest thing for me.
“I was quite nervous at first, because, going to a running track with my disability, it’s hard to find someone else who is in the same position – but nobody gave me a second glance.
“They all welcomed me with a smile and treated me as an equal.”
And although her wheelchair racing journey has not long begun, Robertson is already aiming for more.
“I’ve already done my first 3k along the Beach Boulevard,” she added.
“My coach came with me and ran beside me – it was just a great time.
“It felt like another big achievement and I’m just eager for the next one.
“There are quite a few races coming up, so I better get training!”
“I grasp every opportunity because you have no idea what’s around the corner.”
At Aberdeen AAC, Robertson has become known for her positive and upbeat attitude, but she admits that side of her wasn’t always there.
After her life-changing accident, she admits it was difficult for her to imagine what her future might be like.
“I had to relearn everything, when you become paralysed you lose so much more than what people see on the surface.” Robertson explained.
But now, she feels she is in a positive place where she can appreciate the opportunities that she has had in recent years.
Robertson has had the chance to try sports she reckons she never would have before, having recently been sit-skiing in Colorado and scuba diving – and now aims to gain a diving qualification in the future.
Her career path also changed course, as she swapped a career in design to support people with injuries similar to her own as a peer support coordinator at Spinal Injuries Scotland.
Robertson said: “It’s not how I expected how things would turn out, but it is what it is and we take it from there.
“Before I took it for granted that I could do everything and do whatever I wanted to – I didn’t grasp that it was a privilege to think like that.
“And actually, I didn’t really do much, because I thought: ‘I’ll do that tomorrow or later’ but now I grasp every opportunity, because you have no idea what’s around the corner.
“I’ve got to meet some of the most fantastic people and have a whole new perspective on life.
“I have more determination than I did before to do things and to keep going.”
Aberdeen AAC’s community efforts
Aberdeen AAC’s efforts to expand opportunities for the people of the Granite City were recently recognised at Aberdeen’s Sports Awards 2022.
The athletics club’s structure for bringing athletes through their pathway, and recruiting and developing coaches, is comprehensive and recognised nationally.
However, Aberdeen AAC’s work includes not just their competitive athletes, but is now heavily focused on bringing athletics and coaching opportunities to parts of Aberdeen and people who may otherwise not have those opportunities.
While expanding into disciplines like wheelchair racing and frame running, the Scottish Incorporated Charitable Organisation (SCIO) are also intent on developing a growing list of satellite sessions in parts of Aberdeen ranked highly on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivations (SIMDs), with 200 kids already attending sessions – many for free.
Aberdeen AAC rely heavily on volunteers. For more information on volunteering opportunities, contact firstname.lastname@example.org