Danielle Bailey was just four years old when she was struck down with meningitis. but now she’s hoping to compete for Britain in the next paralympics. Chris Bond reports.
IN her last swimming competition in Sheffield six weeks ago, Danielle Bailey won her 50 metres freestyle race and in doing so broke a 22 year-old record.
Her mother, Lindsay, beams proudly as she talks about her daughter’s sporting prowess. And why shouldn’t she? The Otley teenager is a talented young swimmer who dreams of going to Rio in 2016 to represent her country.
The bond between a mother and daughter is often a strong one, but what makes these two particularly close is that Danielle almost died after contracting meningitis back in 2002.
It was a glorious summer morning when Lindsay woke up to find a tiny pin-prick rash all over Danielle’s little body. By the time the family’s GP arrived and gave her a life-saving injection the rash had turned into purple blotches.
She was rushed to Leeds General Infirmary, where doctors battled to control the septicaemia that was gripping her body.
Danielle had been struck down with the lethal meningitis B strain and surgeons were left with no option but to perform a series of harrowing operations to remove her hands and legs, just below the knee, to prevent the spread of infection.
She survived, despite being hours away from dying, and began the long, slow process of learning how to do the everyday things most of us take for granted.
Today, her stumps are a reminder of what she went through, but rather than hide away from the world she has embraced it.
Just nine months after taking up swimming she won gold at the Disability Sports Events National Junior Championships.
In 2011, she was crowned Teenager of Courage at the Pride of Britain Awards, where she talked on stage with Carol Vorderman and pop stars Peter Andrew and The Saturdays, and the following year she was one of the Olympic torchbearers when the relay came to West Yorkshire.
She remembers it well. “We went on a bus and had to get off at a certain stop and when I got off people started shouting and cheering and I thought ‘oh my God.’
“It was amazing - all the people and the atmosphere was great. I had butterflies the whole time but I felt important.”
Danielle finished her GCSEs this summer and is about start a diploma in health and social studies at Leeds City College.
Her bravery and determination to overcome such a traumatic childhood experience is remarkable and is due, in no small part, to the fact she comes from a stable, loving family - which includes her mother Lindsay, father Trevor, sisters Tia, 13, Jamie-Lee, 11, Mya, 10 and six-year old Summer, as well as two stepsons, Michael, 15, and Charlie, 11.
There have, of course, been some tough days along the way. Being a teenager can be an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times, but when you’ve been through what Danielle has it must be doubly difficult.
“Because she was so well looked after when she was younger there were no logistical struggles really,” her mother says.
“The school did loads to help, they put lifts in, they made sure she could make all of her classes and get to her physio. It allowed her to deal with what happened later on and when the hormones hit so did the reality of what she’d been through.”
To begin with Danielle wore prosthetic limbs but found them more of a hindrance than a help and now uses her arms or a wheelchair to move around.
“I didn’t see the point in wearing something that wasn’t part of me. At lunch times I couldn’t do certain things because I had to wear them and I felt like I was putting pressure on my friends because they had to help me, so I just said ‘I’m not wearing them.’”
Although she has coped incredibly well there was a short period, about a year ago, where she struggled a bit.
“It was Danielle processing in her own mind what she’d been through,” says Lindsay. “There’s certain things that teenage girls do, they paint their nails and wear high-heeled shoes, all those kind of things, and I think that and coping with the frustration of her situation just came along at the same time. But she navigated it really well.
“We’ve always brought her up to believe that you can do anything you put your mind to, you just might need to do it a different way. So it’s about the abilities you have rather than the things you can’t do.”
Even so life can still be frustrating for her at times. “My friends all have Saturday jobs and that’s hard sometimes because I can’t just walk into a cafe and ask for a job.”
It was while at school that she got into swimming after taking part in the Playground to Podium initiative, aimed at getting more young people with disabilities into sport.
By this time she had already been taught how to swim. “Otley has a river so I wanted to make sure that if anything ever happened she could get herself out of the water as much as possible,” her mum explains.
But what they didn’t realise was that Danielle had a real talent in the pool.
“At first I was a bit scared to put my face in the water in case I lost my balance and couldn’t breathe. The only stroke I could do was breaststroke but there was a guy there called Chris Armstrong who spotted me and when he told me how good I was, I said ‘really?’”
She was 12 at the time and hasn’t looked back since. She now trains five days a week at her swimming club in Bradford and is part of the British para-swimming squad having been to training camps and taken part in competitions across the country. She’s also competed in Berlin alongside Claire Cashmore and Ellie Simmonds, both poster girls of the 2012 Paralympics.
Although she admits she was a bit overawed by them to begin with. “I was quite nervous, I’d be like ‘oh my God it’s them’ but now they’re Claire and Ellie and I talk to them like I do with my friends,” she says.
“They were my age or younger when they first went to camps and they would come over and say that if I ever got homesick I could always talk to them, and that was really nice because it made me feel at home.”
When she’s competing, Danielle does breaststroke in the SB3 category and everything else, except butterfly, in the S4 category.
She almost feels like a veteran herself now and having gone through the process of being away from home she’s able to support the younger swimmers who are now coming through the ranks.
“I was only 14 when I did my first big competition in Sheffield and now there are new people coming through who are in the same position as I was, so it’s nice to be able to help them.”
Her aim now is to become part of Team GB and take part in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “That would be a dream come true because since I’ve started swimming I’ve seen the opportunities out there and I know I just need to go for it.”
Looking back, she can’t remember what her life was like before she became ill, which is perhaps a blessing.
“Sometimes I’ll say to my mum ‘I want to be normal.’ But then what is normal? because we’re all different really,” she says.
“It’s funny watching people’s reactions. Sometimes me and Tia will take Summer down to the river and you can see people thinking ‘is she all right?’ Then they see me get out of my wheelchair and go and feed the ducks.
“But that’s good because it shows that just because you’re in a wheelchair it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.”
About 1,870 people contract meningitis B each year and one in 10 dies.
Meningitis is an infection of the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Bacterial meningitis is more serious than viral meningitis. The symptoms usually begin suddenly and get worse rapidly.
Anyone can get meningitis but babies and young children are most vulnerable.
Symptoms include a high fever with cold hands and feet, agitation, confusion, vomiting and headaches.
Also pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it.
If you suspect bacterial meningitis, dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.