Balancing her studies with her career as Paralympic cyclist has been a greater challenge for Stellenbosch Sport Ambassador Roxy Burns, 27, than coping with her disability.
Roxy, who is busy with her Honours degree in education at Stellenbosch University (SU), has Ataxia Telangiectasia (AT) – a rare, genetic, progressive disorder that manifests as a combination of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and immune disorders.
Both her parents happen to have the recessive gene that causes this condition, and Roxy’s younger brother James, who is busy with his Master’s degree in Geo-informatics, also suffers from AT.
Although the original diagnosis sounded bleak – most AT sufferers are in a wheelchair by the time they are 10, and many of them don’t reach the age of 20 – it has since been discovered that the Burns siblings have an atypical, mild version of this disorder.
Roxy mainly has to deal with symptoms of cerebral palsy – problems with balance, coordination and fatigue – but this hasn’t stopped her from obtaining her undergraduate degree or performing on the international cycling stage.
“I don’t need much help to be independent,” Roxy says.
“I’m blessed to have AT so mildly. In fact, I’m grateful that I’m disabled. People find it strange when I say that, but I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities or have met so many people from all over the world otherwise.”
She matriculated from Rhenish Girl’s High in 2006 and went straight to SU, where she studied and completed a BA degree in Sport Science.
Her cycling career started at the beginning of her high school career and her first international competition was the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association World Championships held in the USA in 2005.
She hasn’t looked back since. “I specialise in track cycling (para-cycling) and am currently ranked fifth in the world.
There are five bicycle classes, C1 to C5, with C1 being the most severely disabled and C5 the least affected,” she explains. She was recently reclassed from C4 to C3.
Roxy represented South Africa at the Beijing and London Paralympic Games, and describes both as an amazing experience.
“The atmosphere in especially London was electric and the stadium was packed. The crowd cheered for every single rider.”
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Her eyes are now firmly set on the upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio. She competes in the 500m time trial and 3 000m individual pursuit events on the track, but is focusing on the 500m time trail as that is where she believes she has the greatest chance of winning a medal.
“My preparation for Rio is going well since I found someone to help implement my track programme. That was my biggest concern – that I wasn’t getting enough track time.
“I had a disappointing World Championships in March and didn’t do as well as I should’ve done. So I came back with lots of work to do.”
Roxy spent some time this week visiting local schools as part of a series of send-off functions for the Stellenbosch Sport Ambassadors leaving for the Paralympic Games next week. The Stellenbosch Sport Ambassadors (SSA) initiative not only wants to ensure the local athletes receive the best possible support and exposure, but also gives the athletes the opportunity to share their stories and connect with residents.
“I think the SSA initiative is great for raising awareness. The Paralympic Games are big at the time, but all the hype is around the Olympic Games. Since the SSA initiative includes all athletes (Olympic and Paralympic) it helps the town to regard us as ONE team, working towards the same goal.
“I don’t know how much I have to give back, but I’d like to try and inspire youngsters by showing them anything is possible.”
Her message is: “Give your all and work as hard as you are able to get what you want.”
* This article was adapted from a previous article written for Stellenbosch University.
* Pia Nänny is the Maties Sport media coordinator, and a freelance journalist and translator.