'Devastating' diagnosis after Emily tripped over at 27

‘Devastating’ diagnosis after Emily tripped over at 27

Emily Petricola didn’t know it at the time, but there was a sinister reason why she was tripping over her feet while walking through a client’s office in Melbourne. Assuming a new pair of shoes was the cause, the then 27-year-old went shopping for another new pair, but slipped into those and continued to trip. She could also feel her feet going numb.

About two weeks later, she was still tripping and the numbness had crept from her feet to her neck.

She saw her GP.

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“I was really worried that I was becoming paralysed,” Petricola, now 44, tells Wide World of Sports.

“I didn’t know what was going on.”

Until the age of 27, the Australian’s life passed by without a major worry.

She went to school at Loreto Toorak in Melbourne’s east and was an eager rower. She gave up rowing at 21, but continued to thrash herself in the gym. She remembers herself as a “gym rat”.

She also completed two university degrees, taught for three years at a school in the UAE, and launched her own consultancy business.

She was fit, healthy, driven and successful.

Some 17 years on, she fights off tears in Spilimbergo in Italy’s north, recalling over Zoom the moment a neurologist gave her a “devastating” diagnosis.

“He sent me for an MRI, he did a spinal tap and he did some blood work, and all of those things came back pretty conclusively,” she says, speaking to WWOS for a story marking 100 days until the opening ceremony of the Paris Paralympics.

She was told she had multiple sclerosis, a neurological disorder commonly known as MS.

What she originally thought was new shoes causing her to trip was actually the early stages of an insidious, degenerative and incurable disease attacking the system that allows people to walk, talk, eat and think.

For now, Petricola can still do all of those things.

In fact, she’s an elite cyclist with a Paralympic gold medal.

At the Paris Games in August and September, she’ll be shooting for gold in the women’s 3000m individual pursuit C4, the women’s 500m individual time trial C4-5, and the women’s road race C4-5.

Casting her mind back to her first seven years post-diagnosis, she admits her life was “horrific”.

”One of the real kickers is as soon as your body temperature goes up it triggers all your symptoms,” she says.

“So I actually couldn’t do any exercise for a long period of time, and I went from being 60-odd kilos … to being really sick, not being able to exercise and being on massive doses of steroids for treatment, and I ended up going to over 115 kilos.”

Her self-image was in ruins.

“You don’t recognise yourself,” she says.

“You lose all sense of identity.”

She struggles with so many symptoms that she takes just shy of a minute to rattle all of them off.

“My left side’s more affected than my right,” she begins.

“I’ve got reduced strength in all four limbs, I’ve got incoordination across all four limbs, I’ve got very limited grip strength, I’ve got foot drop in my left side, I’ve got spasticity through my back, my adductors, my hamstrings, I have cognitive issues, so I get really tired really easily, sometimes I lose my words, I get tremors, I have nerve pain, I have lots of sensory issues, I can’t feel various parts of my body, which can be really challenging because it then means I don’t realise when something’s not quite right until it’s too late.

“It’s pretty hard to live with. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

She points out a jarring reality facing a lot of people with an invisible disability.

“Because I look normal everyone is like, ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you’, but there is actually so much going on with dysfunction within my body and my system.”

As Petricola fought a dark battle with depression during her first seven years post-diagnosis, a heavy question confronted her.

“I remember questioning probably for the first time ever, ‘What’s the point?’ … ‘If this is life, what’s the point?’,” she admits.

Struggling to cope, she gave up on her business. She started working for other people again, but couldn’t work full-time because she was exhausted and making so many trips to hospital.

“It was really awful,” she says.

“My life had changed literally in a day. Everything I thought my life was going to be was no longer. My expectations around what I could achieve had to be adjusted.”

She also admits to being burdened by guilt after receiving the diagnosis, stewing over the prospect of becoming a hassle to her friends and family.

“I think it’s a pretty normal response for anyone diagnosed with chronic illness,” she says.

Desperate to lose weight, rescue her mental health and get active again, she got in contact with a long-time friend called Matt Ryan.

Her struggles with body temperature made running, walking, swimming and weightlifting almost possible, but Ryan, a member of the Australian men’s rowing four that won silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, suggested cycling.

She was wary of riding a bike because of her lack of grip strength, a common struggle of people living with MS, but Ryan got her started on a watt bike in his office. He set up a fan in her face and flicked on the air conditioning. Petricola then began to pedal, starting with five-minute increments.

Within a few months, Ryan threw up a suggestion that Petricola thought was ludicrous.

“He said … ‘I think you should aim for the Paralympics’, and I started laughing,” she says, lighting up over Zoom.

Not only was she still in excess of 100 kilograms, she didn’t think she was “disabled enough”.

”In my mind the Paralympics were really for amputees or people in wheelchairs. I didn’t know there was neurological illness and impairment in there.”

She started on the watt bike in 2014 and hopped on a real bike in 2015.

She’s since become a Paralympic gold medallist, an 11-time world champion and a world record holder.

Whizzing around the velodrome in green and gold at Tokyo 2020, she leaned over her handlebars, put her head down, pumped her legs and powered to glory.

Cycling raises her body temperature and sets off her symptoms, but air flow ensures the symptoms are bearable.

That’s “the beautiful thing” about cycling, Petricola says.

Slurping on slushies and draping ice towels on her shoulders also help her cause.

”It’s enormous,” she says of the impact cycling has had on her life.

“It’s changed my life for the better … Cycling enables me to feel the most ‘normal’, in inverted commas, that I could ever feel, and it allows me to tap into a part of my life that I had before I got sick: the competitive athlete, the really driven person, the person who really likes to push herself and train really hard and get the most out of every day.”

She tries not to worry about what her future could hold.

“I’m really big on rather than focusing on all of the things you can’t do, focusing on the things you can do really well and maximising your strengths,” she says.

“I know my future will be what it will be. I know I’m on good medication that’s doing its best to control a disease that no one really understands properly. They can’t stop it. You just have to put your faith in the people that you’re working with that they know what they’re doing and that they’re on the forefront of research and are giving you the best chance of giving you a long-term, functional life.”

She’s hugely appreciative of her coach, five-time Olympic cyclist Shane Kelly, as well as strength-and-conditioning guru Harry Brennan and performance science manager Rod Siegel. Their dedication to her cycling career spurs her on.

“I also know there’s only a really small window in time where you can be the best athlete you can be, and for me that moment is now,” says Petricola, pondering what drives her.

“I also want to inspire other people to know they can still live a really great life despite what this disease does.”

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