To the school bullies and the doctors who wanted to 'fix' us because of our cerebral palsy: We’ve won 20 gold medals… and now we've got a baby who'll never have to struggle like us
21:18 GMT, 14 July 2012
Kindred spirits: Nyree, Sacha and their 14-month-old daughter Ella
Sascha and Nyree Kindred are the golden couple of British disability swimming. If you Google that phrase, their names pop up. And considering between them they have amassed more than 20 gold medals in international competitions, and Sascha holds two world records, it’s not all that overblown.
Today, though, talking at their home in Hereford and with the toys of their 14-month-old daughter Ella scattered over the living-room floor, the golden couple are as remarkable for their ordinariness as they are for the sporting successes achieved against the odds.
Sascha, 34, and Nyree, 31 – who have an OBE and MBE respectively for their services to disability sport – have cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological condition that normally occurs before or during birth. For a number of reasons, usually lack of blood supply and therefore oxygen, parts of the brain die or do not develop.
Occasionally, as in Nyree’s case, it can be inherited. The damage leads to, among other things, problems with muscle development, control and movement.
Their success in sport and fulfilment in their personal lives should serve as inspiration to the thousands of Britons with similar disabilities, and to the families of the one in 400 people born with CP.
Both Sascha and Nyree have faced great obstacles. Not least among these is prejudice – whether from cruel bullies who taunted them or well-meaning surgeons who offered to help ‘fix’ them.
Sascha’s twin brother, Timo, is a minute older (‘It’s the only thing he’s beat me at,’ laughs Sascha) and has no disability. He is dark-haired, broad-shouldered and, at 6ft 4in, a good few inches taller than Sascha, who is blond, blue-eyed and fine-featured. Timo, who works in legal services, helps manage his brother’s publicity.
A twin birth increases the risk of CP tenfold. The charity Scope says about 1,800 children are diagnosed every year.
‘When two or more babies share the womb and a placenta, the risk of one foetus not getting enough oxygen is greater than with a single pregnancy,’ says Dr Chaniyil Ramesh, a consultant paediatrician at Watford General Hospital who specialises in CP.
Cases of CP are on the rise, which is thought to be linked to the increase in multiple pregnancies as a result of fertility treatment. Symptoms vary: some people have problems walking while others are profoundly disabled and require lifelong care.
Speech is affected in a third of cases, but this has no bearing on intellectual development. In some cases, those with the condition suffer epileptic seizures and, rarely, learning disabilities.
‘That’s the most common misconception. People think our brains are affected,’ says Sascha, who has no speech problem. He walks with a slight limp and cannot open his right hand. He was badly bullied as a child. ‘Mum didn’t want me to be treated any differently from my brother, so I went to a mainstream school. But they called me “Hop-along” or “Spaz”, and they would spit at me.’
Honoured: The Kindred family meet the Queen and Prince Phillip at a Motability event last year
At the Paralympics in September, Sascha will be competing in the 100m breaststroke, 200m individual medley, 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly.
At the Beijing Games in 2008, he set world records in the medley and breaststroke, where his time of one minute 22 seconds is just 24 seconds slower than the record held for the same race by an able-bodied swimmer. His wife is going for gold in the 100m backstroke.
Despite his success, the bullying has left emotional scars. ‘It does upset me. After the Beijing Games and all the attention I got, some of the kids who picked on me at school started trying to be my friend on Facebook. I can’t bring myself to accept their requests.’
Sascha and Nyree met in 1996 at a sport training weekend in Nottingham, and within a few years they had moved in together. They married in 2010.
Both were intrigued by a recent
Channel 4 documentary series called The Undateables, which looked at the
difficulties faced by people with disabilities in finding romantic
partners. ‘No one is undateable,’ says Nyree.
they ever had an able-bodied partner ‘We were childhood sweethearts,’
says Sascha. ‘But I didn’t go out with Nyree because she is disabled – I
went out with her because of who she is.’
‘Some coaches said I’d only swim in circles’
What do they think of websites, such as disabilitydating.com, which aim to put disabled people together ‘I know people who are disabled with non-disabled partners,’ says Nyree. ‘We should feel able to go on to the same sites as anyone else.’
Sascha has a form of CP known as hemiplegia – as well as walking with a limp, his right arm is thinner and weaker than normal and his hand is permanently clenched and turned inwards.
Nyree, who grew up in South Wales,
has diplegia, meaning both her legs are affected so she cannot walk
without support. ‘If I were standing in the middle of a room without my
stick, I would fall over,’ she explains. She uses a wheelchair much of the time.
‘I get spasms in my legs, which make
my whole body shake,’ she adds. ‘When it’s cold, my muscles get stiff
and I can’t walk at all. I have lots of hot baths in winter.’
Sascha says: ‘It’s like an
uncontrollable twitch. Hemiplegia is just one side, and even the right
side of my face feels different from my left. It’s hard to explain, but
it’s like you could cut me in half.’
Both of them started swimming at local clubs as children. What was the attraction ‘The freedom,’ they say simultaneously.
who was born in Munster, Germany, moving to London aged two and to
Manchester as a teenager, says: ‘A few coaches wouldn’t take me, saying
I’d only swim in circles. But Timo was doing it and I wanted to be the
same, so Mum found me a club eventually.
'Some coaches said I'd only swim in circles': Sascha got better than everyone else – able-bodied or otherwise
got better than everyone else – able-bodied or otherwise. Water is
weight-bearing – it supports you. When I swim, I don’t feel like my
disability is holding me back.’
Nyree agrees: ‘I have rubbish balance but I can stand up in the shallow end and not fall over. I can move in a way I can’t on land.’
Both were offered surgery as children, but neither has ever felt the need for medical intervention, arguing that exercise help them to manage their symptoms.
‘Mum was told I could have an operation to stretch the tendons in my leg but she said no. She wanted me to do it naturally with physio and exercise,’ says Sascha.
Nyree’s father, John Lewis, and her aunt also had CP, and they didn’t want her to have surgery. ‘I was offered an operation where they cut the tendons in the back of the ankles, knees and groin,’ she says.
‘My father didn’t want me to have it – his sister had it and he said she still had difficulty walking. A friend with a similar disability has had so many operations – little tweaks to fuse bones and make her legs more stable, things like that. To me, it’s not worth it.’
About a third of children with CP undergo surgery. There are operations to release tendons in the legs and arms, freeing movement, and procedures to realign hips and straighten the spine. More recently, there has been some success in operations on nerves in the spine. ‘Surgery will improve quality of life in about half of patients,’ says Dr Ramesh. ‘The condition can get worse again over time.
‘Botox injections, which relax the muscles, have to be repeated every three months. The one treatment we know works incredibly well is regular exercise. This does improve symptoms in all cases.’ Alongside physiotherapy, both swimming and yoga are recommended.
In it together: Sascha and Nyree arriving back at Gatwick airport from Greece with the British Paralympic team in 2004
The Kindreds have a six-day-a-week training regime, starting each day with a two-hour swim. ‘We go up and down, up and down,’ laughs Sascha. ‘We swim about 160 lengths during each session.’
They then pick up Ella from her creche and have lunch before resuming training. They also work out with a personal trainer, lifting weights.
Many elite athletes suffer long-term health problems, such as arthritis, due to their extreme regimes, but the Kindreds are sure their training has only a positive effect. ‘I know it’s good for me. I can feel the difference when I take a break,’ says Sascha.
Nyree feels the same. ‘If I don’t swim for a long period, my muscles become stiffer. As a boy, my father, who died a few years ago aged 68, could run about and kick a ball, but as he got older he did less exercise and got stiffer and stiffer. Eventually he couldn’t put on his shoes.’
While she was pregnant with Ella, Nyree trained right up until her due date and after the birth took just six weeks off from training. ‘I had a lot of pain during pregnancy. I couldn’t walk anywhere and just used my chair all the time,’ she recalls.
Nyree suffered from symphysis pubis dysfunction – pelvic girdle pain, a common complication during pregnancy in which the pelvis moves excessively, causing discomfort.
'Nothing beats being handed my daughter'
Did the couple have reservations about starting a family ‘We’ve both always wanted children,’ says Sascha, ‘and we had been told by a consultant that there wouldn’t be any real problems.’
‘I knew I’d have more problems with movement,’ adds Nyree. ‘But I wasn’t worried.’
There was also a 50 per cent chance that Nyree could pass on her form of CP, although there was no way of knowing for sure. Did this not concern her
‘I’d rather Ella be fit and healthy because there are things we get frustrated about,’ she explains. ‘I can’t just get up and go to the shops, it has to be planned. But if she had cerebral palsy, we would know how to handle it.’
In the event, the labour was uncomplicated and Nyree had a natural birth. Ella weighed a healthy 7lb 6oz and, as far as the couple know, has no disability.
‘Every parent wants a perfect baby so we did watch her closely,’ says Sascha. ‘Nyree’s disability wasn’t picked up until she was two.’
Aside from the trials and joys of parenthood, the Kindreds are focused on adding to their glittering haul this September, as they have both won places on the Paralympic swimming team. It will be Sascha’s fifth Games and Nyree’s fourth.
‘After that we’ll have a break,’ says Sascha. ‘And then, who knows
‘I’m not sure when I’ll retire, but when I do, I’ll go into coaching or mentoring. Standing on the podium collecting gold is an amazing feeling, but being handed my daughter was better. Whatever I do, I will feel like a winner now.’