A vital aim of the NHS reform act is to reduce the amount of time patients spend in hospital beds. Paralympian Bethany Woodward is the perfect example of what can be achieved by getting treatment at home, avoiding unnecessary surgery and reaching personal goals. With three major athletic medals – you can’t argue with the results.
We meet in an upmarket hotel in London, where she is about to attend an awards ceremony. In previous Paralympic years this situation would probably not have happened. In a few short months the world has changed its attitude to disability forever.
It’s been pretty hectic since those halcyon summer days, but Bethy – who is wearing that iconic Stella McCartney tracksuit – has loved every moment. “It feels like a dream now,” she reflects.
Her charm, confidence and winning smile makes her a natural under the spotlight. It all seems so effortless, and yet, getting to this point has been the result of incredible determination.
While still a baby Bethany was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP). From the beginning, however, her parents – who are both senior NHS nurses – insisted on positivity. “I wasn’t diagnosed until eighteen months, when I started to crawl round in a circle,” says Bethy. “There were chances to have surgery to stretch my Achilles, but my parents were anti-operations. They didn’t want me to spend years in and out of hospital. Instead I relied on massages and walking.”
Bethy has always refused to hide behind her condition. “I’ve always tried to look at what is possible rather than what isn’t,” she says. “I was abseiling down the side of a mountain at three. I’ve never looked at my disability as something that will hold me back.”
During a blissful childhood she started to take up running after seeing the Paralympians at Athens 2004. It quickly became obvious that she had something special and, by the age of 17, she left home and headed for London to start a career in professional athletics.
“For me the hardest part was showing people my disability,” she remembers. “I didn’t expose it that much outside my safe circuit of people, but I can’t hide it on the track, where it is laid bare to everyone. Showing people that I’m proud to have CP and love my disability is really important. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Before the Paralympics Bethy had rapidly climbed the rankings and at the World Championships in 2011 had claimed gold in the 400m. As the New Year unfolded, however, it became clear that while her speed was improving, her endurance was suffering.
She made a difficult decision. Rather than continue with 400m, she opted for 200m. Ironically, it is actually because of CP that Bethy has become such a versatile athlete, medalling at three different distances.
“I couldn’t carry on doing 400m,” explains Bethy. “I changed to the shorter distance and within a week I went from not being in the Paralympics to qualifying as a European record holder. I had a goal and I wasn’t going to lose sight of the dream I had for seven years.”
Passing the baton
One of the most gripping moments during the Games came in the aftermath of the women’s 4×100m relay final (T35–38). After receiving the baton smoothly from Olivia Breen, Bethy ran a magnificent second leg, before delivering a masterful changeover to Katrina Hart. The girls were in a glorious position to claim some precious metal, when suddenly Hart and Jenny McLoughlin got in a pickle with their exchange. The nation held its breath while officials checked whether the baton had changed over legally.
“We weren’t aware what was going on, because they were quite far away,” Bethy recalls. “When I passed the baton I thought ‘we’re on to a winner now’. We had no idea that there was a problem and were lapping up the glory. Can you imagine if we were running round and suddenly it came over the public address system that we had been disqualified?”
Fortunately they were inside the zone and Bethy was able to pick up her first Paralympic medal which, she confirms, is “bigger than a Wagon Wheel.” The time had come for the 200m.
“I was not coming out of the arena without a medal,” she said. “I was ranked number one and I wanted gold.”
On the morning of the race, however, Bethy’s condition meant that she wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders.
“There was a huge gap between the heat and final so I went for a sleep, but the thing about CP is that it is completely unpredictable. When I woke up my legs just weren’t there,” she explains. “You train really hard, but you can’t work out whether it’s going to be a good or bad day. Three races in under 24 hours is hard for anyone, but especially people with CP.”
At this point Bethy transports me back to the Olympic stadium with a dazzling description of her race.
“You couldn’t get complacent. The level of competition was fierce. I went on to that track and everyone was looking at me. This was my race, my stage, my town. I was nervously waiting in the call-up room, but as soon as I was out on the track calmness came over me. My family were there and my two brothers were watching me run for the first time. I ran on pure adrenaline and once I started to kick, pushed on by a mask of noise, I knew I would have a good finish. I loved every second, and took as much as I could, because I’m never going to see anything like that again.”
Since being inspired by the Paralympians in Greece, eight years before, Bethy has witnessed the astonishing development of the Games, while also taking a great interest in Paralympic history.
“In Atlanta  they were actually taking the Olympic village down when the Paralympics started!” she tells me. “In Athens there was only 15 minutes of coverage. Beijing had a full crowd, but it was free. In London two million tickets were sold, coverage was constant and there was global interest.
“This has resulted in a society-wide shift in perception. It was a real shock to be recognised as elite athletes. I’ve had children coming up to me and saying that they were inspired by me and now want to take up sport. People have changed their opinions and that will be the legacy.”
Bethy then quotes David Cameron: “The disability drifted from view and the sports person appeared.”
I conclude that this is possibly the first time that I have wholeheartedly agreed with the Prime Minister!
In preparation for the World Championships next year Bethy recently relocated to Loughborough with her partner Lee Doran – the javelin thrower who was controversially left out of the GB Olympic team for London 2012.
The pair will now train together at the same facilities, as they start the long journey to Rio 2016. Lee’s disappointment at not qualifying for the Olympics has served as an inspiration to Bethy who was able to rely on his support throughout the Paralympics.
“He’s incredible,” says Bethy. “He had a week when he was upset, but picked himself up and has been the most positive guy in the world. He’s my hero.”
Bethy’s burning ambition now is to break records and take home two golds from Brazil. After that she would like to become a speech therapist for the NHS. “I could go and earn a fortune, but I’d rather use my experience to change people’s lives,” she says.
I think it’s safe to say, she’s already done that.
After taking a couple of photos, we exchange farewells. Reflecting on our meeting I realise that Bethy is actually the epitome of progress: of what can be achieved by people regardless of their circumstances. NHS reform wants to change our attitudes but, as a society, the process of reforming has already begun.