Just last month, she was pinning on a mortarboard and posing for photos during Exeter’s graduation week – a BA Hons degree in English now to her name. But for Issy Bailey, there’s no long summer of rest, relaxation and reunions ahead. Oh, she’ll be doing some travelling, of course… to Rio, that is. To represent Great Britain in the 2016 Paralympic Games.
So how do you go from shooting novice to national champion in just over two years? And how about doing it alongside a degree? Bailey’s kindly agreed to give me a glance into the life of an undergraduate Paralympic athlete. Spoiler alert: it’s included a lot of hard work.
When talented fresher and determined sportswoman Issy Bailey arrived in Exeter in 2012, she made hockey her focus – soon being chosen for the women’s 1st XI Squad. But after suffering life-changing injuries in a car crash which left her paralysed from the waist down, shooting took priority.
Incredibly, two years later she’s representing Team GB. After missing out on initial qualification, Bailey is one of GB’s 2016 Wild Card entries. “I was at home when I was told I’d been awarded a Wild Card,” she remembers. “Our team manager called me and told me that I’d been selected… and I was just struck by the thought that I was actually going to be a Paralympian – even if just by the skin of my teeth – like all the other athletes I’d looked up to for the last two years.”
Paralympic training alongside the final year of a BA degree. It can’t have been easy. But which was trickiest? “Thinking about it now, I would say it’s been harder to complete my degree,” she muses. “I expected a lot of myself because I knew I was capable of a really good grade. The success I’ve had in shooting was far less expected,” she adds. “So it’s quite a blessing.”
A blessing, maybe – but finding that balance between studying and training was “really difficult,” Bailey admits. “In the winter term, my university work suffered because I was doing a lot of training for competitions in the USA and Australia,” she remembers. “In the second term, it was the reverse, and I focused on my final modules and dissertation,” she explains, “so my shooting scores dropped a little.”
Thinking about it now , i would say it’s been harder to complete my degree
The University was a massive support, though. “My lecturers and supervisors were flexible with catching up outside of contact time,” Bailey tells me, “and I was granted extensions when I went overseas to compete.” She also has high praise for the accommodation team at Lafrowda, who “went above and beyond to make sure I could access my flat early or late, jet lagged and grumpy!”
“Alan Pope in the High Performance gym helped me to improve my muscular and cardio fitness whilst I was at Exeter,” she says, adding that Pope played a “massive part” in her success.
Bailey’s clearly great at praising others (even giving me a sympathy laugh for my awful pun about “shooting to the top so quickly”) but it’s also obvious that this is a young woman full of genuine gratitude and admiration for those who’ve helped her on her way. “I’ve been supported no end by the Disability Shooting GB programme,” she says, “and my coach has pushed me to achieve more and more. He saw that I could compete at this level as soon as I came to try shooting and, though I didn’t believe him for a long time, I guess it’s finally starting to sink in!”
She might finally be recognising her talents – but if there’s one word Bailey’s reluctant to hear herself called, it’s “inspirational.” Having heard her mention this to Harrison Jones back in 2014, I’m curious to know whether qualifying for the Paralympics has changed her views.
“No not really…” she says. “It’s just such a cliché word. I’d like for people to think ‘wow, good for her’, but I think being ‘inspirational’ is something reserved for athletes who have prompted others to get into sport, chase their dreams and achieve greatness. I’d love to inspire even just one other person to try and achieve the extraordinary but I don’t think I’m there yet!”
I’ve got a suspicion she has this in her, though – and when she flies out to Rio on 31st August, I’d be surprised if there isn’t at least one young hopeful Paralympian moved by Bailey’s dedication, determination and winning attitude.
But what’s next after the Games? “Wait, life continues after Rio?” she jokes. “it’s hard not to get a bit blinkered by the Games, but my next steps will be to pass my driving test and to move out.”
It’s just “normal life steps” from Rio onwards, she says. “Back to reality!”
Issy Bailey competes in the 10m Air Pistol at the Olympic Shooting Centre on 9 September.