“It wasn’t good enough just to make my arm function,” Claire Danson says. “I wanted to get back to sport.”
Danson is describing the days after she awoke from a coma following a major collision with a tractor that severed her spine and left her unable to walk. She had been a competitive triathlete, winning the 30-34 age group European Championships in 2019 and preparing to attain her professional long-distance racing licence the day after her accident.
She was initially unable to talk, but communicated with family and doctors via an alphabet board.
After spelling out ‘sorry’ for the concern her loved ones felt, the second thing she shared was ‘para-athlete’, although at the time Claire and her family had been told there was a chance she might not survive.
“It was also my way of communicating with my family that everything would be okay and that nothing had changed: I still wanted to do sport and was still the same person,” she says.
“I think it was quite a surprise for most people around that that’s what I was talking about at the time. Nobody knew I was going to survive at that point… I’m quite lucky in that I have this mindset of carrying on.
“That’s what I was thinking: ‘Just carry on’. It’s not going to stop us from doing anything. Yes, things will be different, but I do genuinely believe you can do anything you want to.”
Last month (April) Claire reached a major milestone in that effort: three-and-a-half years after her accident, she completed her first international cycling races with Great Britain. As such, elite British athletes voted for her as their Athlete of the Month for April 2023.
Her dedication to sport and her faith in her own recovery are evident in even a brief conversation. Just weeks after the collision Claire completed a 10km push around Dorney Lake, and two years later completed the 255 Triathlon. Her involvement with GB Cycling confirms her as an elite para-athlete.
“I knew if I carried on things would get better, and they have done, and I think that’s a way to keep going through difficult times: just don’t give up. It will get better. And if you do give up it won’t.”
Setting a sporting target helped Claire to push through her broader recovery, too. She explains: “Having been an athlete before I was able to treat rehab like a training programme. It was a case of: these are the goals, this is how we’re going to get there, and you just do it every day like you would train every day.
“I was able to apply that training philosophy to my recovery, but it also meant there was always another step… The thing with sport is there’s always another goal. Your goal doesn’t have to be to want to go to an Olympic Games or World Cup, your goal can be: ‘I want to do a Parkrun.’ Then you do a Parkrun and think: ‘What do I want to do next?’ There’s always another thing, so you’re always moving forward, which I think was very, very helpful for me.”
Claire made her way onto the World Class Programme after succeeding at a Talent Identification day. She joined Great Britain for events in Italy and Belgium most recently, racing against “incredible” competition.
Now she wants to go further, and progress higher up the field while recognising the journey she’s been on.
“I was talking with our team manager, and I said to him I felt I should be better… He said: ‘Do you know what, Claire, you are so new to this and actually you’re so new to your disability. If you think about the time after your accident that you spent in hospital and then came out and it was Covid, you can take away most of the years since your accident.’
“That did make me have a little think about how sometimes – and I think we’re all really prone to it – we have to be a little bit kinder to ourselves.
“I have come such a long way, which is really nice. Sport has just been such a factor in getting my life back together after my accident. I now am in such a privileged position to be on a World Class Programme, so it’s been a journey to get here. I guess I’m just excited about what’s to come.”Access our support >