My Friends Were Learning To Pirouette, I Was Learning To Walk
Five years after being told she'd never walk again, Esmee Gummer is a personal trainer, a fitness coach, and has just released a cheerleading workout DVD. What a hero
Feeling in need of some fitness inspiration to get you back to the gym? Esmee Gummer's story will not only get you through the door, it might just push you to sign up for that spinning class you've been meaning to try for weeks. Or at the very least guilt you into buying her DVD...
"I remember so clearly being told I might not walk again. It was a week after I'd gone into hospital for a hernia operation. Something had gone wrong as I came round from the operation and I suffered seizures for eight hours.
"I can barely remember the next three days, but I'm told my speech was slurred, my coordination had gone and I'd lost all feeling from the waist down.
I was due to start dance college but I had no reflexes or feelings in my legs, which was petrifying
"As the drugs slowly started wearing off, my speech and coordination improved and I became more lucid, but I became more and more wound up. I was due to start dance college but I still had no reflexes or feelings in my legs, which was petrifying.
"Eventually I confronted the doctor as he stood at the end of my bed. 'What’s going on? I need to go to dance college,' I demanded.
“'Dance again? You might not even walk again,' he said.
"My first thought was, 'No, that can't happen to me.' But they’d done endless tests, they’d stuck needles in my feet, they'd done brain scans and there was that niggling voice telling me, 'He might be right.'
"At first the doctors wouldn’t let me move at all because they didn’t know if I'd had a stroke or I had a spinal injury.
"I'd just turned 18 so I was considered an adult, even though really I was just a kid straight out of sixth-form. So my friends and family would have to leave my bedside at 9pm and couldn't come back until 9am, and for 12 hours I was stuck in the bed, unable to go anywhere. That’s when the horrible sick feelings would churn me up.
I’d lie there trying to wiggle my toes. I'd spend hours trying to move them, just to pass the time
"I called the nurse over once and when she came I had nothing to say to her; I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t hurt, I was just scared. So from then on, when I went into a panic I’d just try to convince myself that I was going to get out of there. I could have sat and cried all night but it wasn’t going to help me walk. So, instead, I’d lie there trying to wiggle my toes. I'd spend hours trying to move them, just to pass the time.
"That period in my life is when I became friends with myself. That strength I gained from those long horrible nights is what got me walking and what got me to where I am now.
"Eventually the doctors let me start physiotherapy. At first my legs and feet were still completely numb and I remember the sheer effort it took just to put one foot in front of the other and use my upper body strength to cling on to the parallel bars. I spent most of my time horizontal in bed, so when I tried to stand I'd often get lightheaded and faint. But I'd grit my teeth and keep trying and, bit by bit, I started to see results.
"Eventually, three weeks after my operation, I could walk a few steps with aids and I could start lifting my legs to attempt stairs. So I was able to leave hospital in a wheelchair.
I couldn't go to the toilet by myself, I couldn't run upstairs to get my jacket, or go into the kitchen to get myself a drink
"And that's when it really hit me. I was back to reality and I was so angry and upset.
"I still couldn't walk, I couldn't go to the toilet by myself, my bed was set up on the living room sofa. I couldn't run upstairs to get my jacket, or go into the kitchen to get myself a drink - all these things I'd always taken for granted.
"I’d get tired all the time and my legs would often give way, so I still had to go out in a wheelchair. I lost my coordination and balance, and I lost so much muscle in my legs they were like pins. I would often get pins and needles in my feet because my circulation was so bad and it scared the life out of me.
"But I'd keep trying to push myself to do more and, sure enough, slowly I'd improve.
While my friends were learning to pirouette at dance college, I was learning how to walk
"Every Sunday I had dance physio with my old dance teachers. In hindsight, it was a ridiculous idea, because I was constantly comparing myself with how I was before the operation. I used to be a student teacher in baby ballet classes, now I couldn’t even do what the five-year-olds in that class were doing. While all my friends were learning to pirouette at dance college, I was learning how to walk.
"I remember learning to jump again. It sounds ridiculous, but taking both feet off the floor at the same time was one of the scariest things, and it took me ages to pluck up the courage to do it.
"People ask how long it took to get back to full physical fitness and I honestly don’t know. It took a good six months to be able to just do everyday things and I was out of fitness for about a year. It was a long road, but I was so determined to get better and that willpower paid off.
Now, five years on, I teach 22 classes over six days at Gymbox in London every week
"I probably could have gone back to dancing eventually but I'd lost all my confidence so, instead, I got an office job doing production for a local newspaper. As my legs started to get stronger, I decided to study online to become a personal trainer and, as soon as I had all the qualifications I needed, I left that job and here I am!
"Now, five years on, I teach 22 classes over six days at Gymbox in London every week. I demonstrate most of them, but I go flat out in the six spin classes and I also teach and take part in three 'Drop the Pom' cheerleading classes a week. We do arm drills, leg drills, ab drills and a high-intensity section – cheerleading is so physically demanding, it tones your whole body. I also do my own training, which mainly consists of HIIT sessions at the gym. I'm so happy working in fitness and, after everything that's happened, I think I have a lot to give.
"I've learnt that about 80% of exercise is mental, so when I see people in my classes giving up I want to inspire them to keep going.
I don't want people going to the gym with a physical goal, like getting a six-pack, I want them to go with a mental goal, like doing 10 press ups this week instead of eight
"I don't want people going to the gym with a physical goal, like getting a six-pack or losing weight, I want them to go with a mental goal, like doing 10 press ups this week instead of eight. Then, when you hit that goal, you set another and another. Eventually you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll look great anyway. I want that theory to change how people enter fitness and the goals they reach.
"People tend to think of world champion athletes as super human, but we’re all born with the same blood and bones, we all breathe the same oxygen. The only difference is that they achieve what they do because they know how capable they are and they believe in themselves.
"The biggest thing I’ve learnt about myself through all of this is how strong and capable I am. Don't get me wrong, I still shudder when I see parallel bars, like the ones I learnt to walk on - even seeing the barre in a ballet studio gives me a chill. A cold feeling shoots through me when I get pins and needles, and I still haven't gone back to dancing - I can't tell you how many times I've walked up to the door of class and bottled it.
"But I know I'll dance again one day and I can honestly sit here and call myself strong. Things upset me, but things don’t get me down. I enjoy a challenge and I hope I help other people embrace challenges – both mental and physical – too.
"In those first few dark weeks after the operation, when I wanted to give up or I was lying in bed feeling miserable and doubt crept in, I’d distract myself from the negative thoughts by slapping my legs. It was a really strange feeling because I could only feel it on my hands. I still do it now when I’m working out and I think I can't keep going. I connect that action with telling myself, 'I can.' I can do anything."