The double world para athletics sprint champion and aspiring coach’s 2021 goals do not resolve exclusively around her own performances on the track – and that is just how she likes it

While racing at the postponed Tokyo Paralympic Games is understandably a big target for Maria Lyle this year, it is not just her own performances on the track that the para athletics star will be focused on in 2021.

The 21-year-old, who won double sprint gold at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, is studying sports coaching at Edinburgh Napier University and has also been guiding the next generation in athletics.

It’s a combination Lyle relishes as she believes that having more variety in her life has really helped her mindset.

“Coming off the back of 2018 I had been diagnosed with anxiety so a big part of me was trying to deal with that and what I discovered was I needed a bit more of a balance in my life,” explains the Scottish sprinter, who has cerebral palsy and competes in the T35 classification

“I pushed myself to meet with other people my age as that was something I was really anxious about, because before I would think that people would judge me because of my disability, and I also started to enjoy running again.

“Previously, I think because of my anxiety, it came into my running which was the only thing I focused on and it made it negative.”

“It is weird being on the other side of the track, not being the athlete, and it’s really rewarding”

In these coronavirus-affected times, Lyle’s training and coaching has also provided reason to get out and about, with her studies having been remote because of the pandemic.

The role of coach is one she finds incredibly rewarding and she says it has helped her to develop a new appreciation for her own coach, former 400m international Jamie Bowie, who she says has also supported her with her anxiety.

“It definitely makes you realise what your coach does for you and how Jamie plans and adapts my sessions so I can join in with my able-bodied training partners and feel included,” Lyle says.

“It does make you realise that time and effort he puts in to make sure I am included because that is important, that we try and have that inclusion so people can feel a part of the sport and not isolated.”

On juggling her own coaching responsibilities with training, competing and studies, she adds: “I quite like keeping busy, I’m not somebody that likes sitting down. I help out with a new race running club we have in East Lothian and it has been really nice.

“It is weird being on the other side of the track, not being the athlete, and it’s really rewarding. The kids are a bit more affected than me with their CP (cerebral palsy) and other disabilities, so it is nice to see those breakthroughs and how sport affects them positively.

“We have had one boy whose physio said that he can start to see muscle definition in his legs, which is great, and they can now balance on one leg for a couple of seconds.

“I can also now appreciate from my coach’s point of view how you have to work a bit harder and figure out new ways of trying to coach things. It is figuring out how I can improve someone’s technique while keeping their disability in mind.”

Having made her own senior British team debut at the age of 14, Lyle appreciates the opportunity she has to pass her knowledge and experience on to the next generation and she now knows that enjoyment is key. It was that realisation, she says, which helped her to achieve such success at the world championships in 2019.

“The main achievement for me was actually enjoying the process of being there and not getting too anxious or worked up about it, and obviously it was quite nice to win the double gold!” says the T35 100m and 200m champion.

Recognising body changes has also been important, she adds.

“I had all this success at the age of 14, breaking world records, doing this and that, and obviously new people come along and my world records were completely obliterated,” Lyle explains.

“I’ve not really run around my old world record times in a couple of years. One reason being, I think people don’t realise that as you are growing, along with puberty and stuff, it does affect your CP a lot more, so I am definitely a bit more affected with my CP now than I was at 15 and it is kind of learning how I work with this new body of mine. I don’t have the same movement as I had when I was younger.

“For me, the best way to deal with it is kind of not really counting that [past times]. This is me now, and thinking about my times in a different way.

“Now I’m like, running is not everything. Obviously, it is a big part of me, but just because I don’t run a certain time it doesn’t make me a bad person or any less of an athlete.”

Therefore, come Tokyo, while adding to a Paralympic medal collection which currently features a silver and two bronze from Rio might be an aim, the main goal is to enjoy the journey.

“I know when it is a Paralympic year it is very common for new athletes to come on to the scene,” she says. “So, for me, it is really just kind of enjoying what I do, not taking it too seriously but obviously working hard and doing what I need to do to hopefully get selected and then go and have a good performance at Tokyo.”

» This interview was first published as part of our ‘ones to watch in 2021’ series in the January edition of AW magazine, which is available to order online in print here and read digitally here

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