Nicola Streeten passed me on to Sophie Kamlish. Kamlish is Streeten’s niece: “I like to think that I’m her favourite niece…” she says. The two of them have shared interests – even though she’s about to compete in the Rio paralympics Kamlish tells me that her main life goal is to be an illustrator. Later this year, after Rio, she will go to Kingston University to study illustration and animation.
There is a lovely description on her mother’s website Rosie Flo which describes how Kamlish played her part in her mother’s business: “The Rosie Flo colouring books evolved through hours of sitting and drawing with our daughters when they were small. They gave me instructions as to what I must draw and each time I promptly obeyed. Dresses were the most popular items demanded of me and Sophie would then do the faces, arms and legs.”
Sophie Kamlish is the youngest of the Pass Me On alumni to date, being 19 years old. She’s a sprinter that will be competing in her second Paralympic games in Rio in September this year (they follow the Olympics) and, because of the funding she receives, she is expected to bring home a medal. She’ll be competing in the T44 100m event – that classification is “Single below knee amputation or an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs.” A couple of silver medals have come her way already, one in the IPC Grand Prix in Dubai this year.
Kamlish had her right leg amputated when she was nine years old. She had been born with a deformed right leg and spent a year in a wheelchair before the operation. To some degree she thinks that if that had never happened to her, she wouldn’t have gone on to compete: “If had been born with conventional feet I would have been that kid that only ran on sports day when forced to and would never have realised that I’m a sprinter. I’m more grateful for the fact that I’ve been born differently.”
She thinks she ended up being a runner because, “I don’t work well in a team. There’s too much pressure. If you mess up your whole team is going to be upset with you.” Kamlish had tried other sports but swimming was ruled out because “you have to train two or three times a day and really early and I’m not that kind of person.” Other sports were eliminated because of more basic practicalities. Wheelchair basketball, which she initially enjoyed, was “too boys-y, too rough and competitive. Also I wear glasses and I’d always keep getting hit in the face.”
The running is hard on her. She trains six days a week for two hours at a time and also has physio and massage sessions on top of that, which seem vital given the state her body is in.
Since she started competing she has had MRI scans that have revealed that she has missing bones in her back and her pelvis. On top of that she has congenital deformities in her left foot and also suffers from arthritis. Part of the problem is the blade that she wears to run. “The blade tips all of your pelvis around. When I’m walking in it I feel really wonky but when Im sprinting I should be fairly even because of the compression that it goes through.”
Despite this she says that the blade is fun to run on.”You go from running on a day leg which is like a brick to running with something that is more natural feeling.” A lot of her funding goes on the blade – they can cost between £4000 and £8000. “Every amputee has a different kind of stump and it takes a while to get the fit right. They’re not like shoes.” Athletes are funded through the National Lottery.
Kamlish seems an unlikely candidate for an athlete, not because of her disability, but because of her bookishness. There’s a video interview with her on Youtube after she’d won silver in the International Paralympic Committee Grand Prix in 2015 where she says “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a nerd than an athlete.”
She confirms this both in her Twitter bio (she describes herself as a bookworm) and when we speak. Given that she is 19 years old I had asked her if, because of her strict training regime, she ever feels like just going out and getting drunk with her mates. She tells me she couldn’t anyway because they are scattered around the country at universities, “but I’m not particularly bothered about that sort of thing because I prefer to just read or something. I’m like a typical nerd.” Author Dave Eggers is apparently a favourite at the moment, as is Emily St John Mandel.
Also on her Twitter bio is the word feminist. She says she thought it was important to distinguish herself from those who say they just want equality but also because: “If you start being sexist towards me on Twitter, I won’t stand for it.” I’d noticed that someone had trolled her for a different reason on Twitter. Earlier this year she had been told by Bath council that she couldn’t have a bus pass, despite turning up to the council offices to prove she only had one leg.
Someone on Twitter responded “if you can run you don’t need a bus pass do you (sic)”, which Kamlish retweeted. Although there is a media officer from British Athletics she can lean on should she need to, she seems pretty relaxed about such challenges: “I’ll either ignore it or I’ll retweet to show the stupidity and the ignorance that we come up against all the time.” For those wondering if there is anything in that Twitter jibe, “I run 100m – that’s what I do. But standing on a bus, or just standing up for a long time is painful or uncomfortable and I will fall over on a moving bus.”
In fact, Kamlish seems pretty relaxed about most aspects of her life. When I ask her when she will find out if she is definitely going to Rio, she says she thinks, “it might be June or July…” When I remark upon her laid-back attitude she tells me that she’s always been like that, whether it’s taking exams or competing. She’s quick to confirm that she really wants to go to Rio but is pragmatic where other athletes offer hyperbole or clichés: “I can only decide my fate by how fast I run.” A beautifully simple way with which to end an interview with a Paralympian.