Gemma Rose Foo is a regular 16 year-old. She reads Vampire Diaries, has watched every episode of its TV equivalent, listens to Adam Lambert and had to skip Lady Gaga’s latest concert because her mum thought it was unsuitable.
Yet she isn’t quite an average teenager.
Not because she was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia – the most severe form of cerebral palsy, which affects the ability to move all four limbs – when she was born. But because she is a world-class athlete heading for the Paralympic Games in London.
At the Mannheim Para-Equestrian Championships held in Germany two months ago, the Secondary 4 student at Singapore’s St Theresa’s Convent beat competition from some of the best riding nations in the world.
Despite starting to compete internationally only last year, she took gold in two out of the three dressage events there.
“That was very unexpected,” says Gemma, who started riding as a form of hippotherapy – horse-assisted physical therapy – when she was eight.
It’s hard to imagine that this champion – who now stands confidently on her own for a photo shoot, and who struts confidently across the competition grounds on a horse – used to struggle even sit upright without support.
“I started riding to help my balance and coordination. I never thought I would end up doing it competitively. It’s really surreal,” she says.
Despite her soft-spoken nature, Gemma has no qualms speaking in front of a crowd and is not awkward when it comes to making friends – but it was not always like that.
“I didn’t really hang out much with people before, but now I do,” says the younger of two siblings.
Going to school with a helper when she was younger played a part in her solitude. “I needed help getting around, and I think that affected how I behaved socially. People are more wary,” she says.
It’s a wariness that sometimes morphs into bullying.
Classmates would trip her on purpose as she laboured on her crutches and hide her belongings in lockers.
Still, the teen says she does not think of herself as disabled and while she remembers the incidents, she prefers to write them off as ‘bad days’.
Bad days, she says, because there are also plenty of good ones.
Good days are when 21-year-old Avalon, the horse she has trained with for the past year, sticks his head out of the stable to acknowledge her.
“Be a good boy, don’t throw me off,” she whispers to him.
Good days are when Avalon responds by “taking care of her” and good days will come when the two partner to compete in the dressage event at the Paralympics.
Born 10 weeks premature, Gemma weighed just 580 grams at birth and was discharged almost four months later, weighing only 1.5kg.
For months after her birth, she did not have a name. She was eventually named after the Saint Gemma room in Mount Alvernia Hospital where her mother Jacqueline Lim was then warded. Says Lim, a freelance yoga instructor, “She was on the ventilator, had tubes to her mouth, the works.
“Names were really the last thing on our minds because we saw her struggling every day. The doctor said she might not make it.”
Next month, Gemma will become one of the youngest Paralympians to represent Singapore at the 52-year-old event.
May not make it? How about more than made it?
The Paralympics explained
From a small gathering of British World War II veterans back in 1948, the Paralympics have grown into the largest international global sporting event. While Paralympians continue to strive for equal treatment with non-disabled Olympic athletes, large funding gaps remain between the two groups of athletes.
The International Paralympics has six disability categories. Athletes with one of these physical disabilities are able to compete in the Paralympics though not every sport can allow for every disability category.
Amputee: Athletes with a partial or total loss of at least one limb.
Cerebral Palsy: Athletes with non-progressive brain damage, for example cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke or similar disabilities affecting muscle control, balance or coordination.
Intellectual Disability: Athletes with a significant impairment in intellectual functioning and associated limitations in adaptive behaviour.
Wheelchair: Athletes with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities that require them to compete in a wheelchair.
Visually Impaired: Athletes with visual impairment ranging from partial vision, sufficient to be judged legally blind, to total blindness. The sighted guides for athletes with a visual impairment are such a close and essential part of the competition that the athlete with visual impairment and the guide are considered a team, and both athletes are medal candidates
Les Autres: Athletes with a physical disability that does not fall strictly under one of the other five categories, such as dwarfism, multiple sclerosis or congenital deformities of the limbs such as that caused by thalidomide (the name for this category is the French for “the others”) – IPC