Paralympic fencer fights back after serious illness left her unable to eat

Wheelchair fencer Gemma Collis from Aston Clinton
Wheelchair fencer Gemma Collis from Aston Clinton

Wheelchair fencer Gemma Collis’ astonishing comeback from serious illness was completed at the weekend when she was crowned British épée champion.

Gemma, 21, beat GB team-mate Gabi Down, in what she described as a ‘nerve-wracking’ final at the British Disabled Fencing Association National Championships.

The victory marks an amazing turnaround for the Aston Clinton law student as she battles back to fitness after months of health problems.

She spent six weeks in hospital over August and September due to a serious stomach condition that means she now has difficulty in eating.

She has had to have a feeding tube inserted directly into her stomach to allow her to receive adequate nutrition and also suffered shoulder and back injuries this year.

But she defied medical logic with an intensive three-week training regime so she could enter the National Championships in Sheffield over the weekend.

And Gemma admitted she did not expect to do so well.

She said: “I feel so relieved and happy because I really didn’t expect to win, I just wanted to go there and compete if I’m honest.”

But Gemma, who made her Paralympic debut at London 2012 less than one year after taking up the sport, said her insatiable competitive spirit took over.

“I always want to win and I am so competitive so to actually do it after such a long, dreary six weeks in hospital, made it all worthwhile,” she said.

“I was confident (in the final) because I’d gone into what I call my ‘X Factor zone’ and fortunately I pulled it off.

“The fencing has helped me focus on other things and taken my mind off the fact that my stomach doesn’t work,” she said.

“I still can’t eat, that’s very much a work in progress but I just get on with it and don’t focus on the negative things.”

Gemma’s comeback caught the eye of Ian Barham, manager of Bucks Legacy, who hailed her commitment.

“She is a sporting ambassador for Buckinghamshire and we hope this will set her on the road to Rio.”

The former Aylesbury High School girl was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy when she was 15. RSD is a progressive nervous system disease that affects the functioning of the nerves in her right leg. Initially, she managed to get around on crutches, but is increasingly reliant on her wheelchair whenever she goes anywhere.

Her recent illness and subsequent hospital stay has seen the fencer drop two and a half stone in weight.

That has meant she needs all new fencing equipment as she quipped ‘you could fit another person in my kit with me’. Those equipment costs together with travelling and training expenses are proving another tough battle for Gemma and she said any help through sponsorship would be invaluable.

She said: “It sounds a bit cringey but every little really does help.

“I need to train three weekends in four really and everytime it costs me about £120 so it is very hard. I suppose I just need someone that believes in me and can help me out with certain things, it would be much appreciated.”

Can you help? Email or contact her on Twitter @gemmacollis