Once thought to be too disabled to compete, Lucy Shuker has defied the odds to become one of the top wheelchair tennis players in the world.
In an exclusive interview with GiveMeSport Women, Shuker recollects memories of her Paralympic medals, reflects on her esteemed career to date, and looks ahead to her fourth successive Games in Tokyo this summer.
Hailing from an enthusiastic badminton family, it was a chance encounter with fellow British wheelchair tennis legend, Peter Norfolk, that first enticed Shuker towards the game.
Ranked quad number one at the time, Norfolk owned a mobility company, selling mobility products, and provided Shuker with one of her first wheelchairs.
It was while chatting to Norfolk about what hobbies she had before her accident, that a then-21-year-old Shuker first considered taking up the sport.
“I said that I was a badminton player and he [Norfolk] suggested I try tennis. He actually lent me one of his old tennis chairs to try, which I then went on and bought.”
18 years later, Shuker hasn’t looked back, although she was told at one stage that she may not be able to compete on the international tour with other top girls. Her disability is far more profound than the majority of other competitors, being categorised as a T4 paraplegic, meaning she has no core and no balance.
While Shuker herself never considered giving up the sport, it was a combination of will power, perseverance and innate hand-eye coordination that led the Paralympic bronze medallist right to the very top.
“I think maybe the history of playing badminton just gave me a boost or gave me some natural talent in it [tennis]. I’ve worked extremely hard, the results speak for themselves and I’ve managed to stay inside the top 10 for most of my career and prove people wrong.”
With two Paralympic medals and over 100 tournament titles to date, Shuker has done more than simply prove people wrong. Indeed, she modestly admits that her career so far “hasn’t been bad” which is perhaps the understatement of the century.
Thinking back to the moment she realised her tennis talent, Shuker identifies the Paralympics in Beijing 2008 as where she first acknowledged her own ability.
“I think that Beijing, where I lost in three sets to the bronze medallist in the quarter-finals, was the point at which I thought: ‘you know what, I could become quite good at this’.”
Competing for Great Britain means being part of a much wider team, and Shuker fondly remembers the buzz around the Paralympic village whenever a fellow athlete was competing. This was heightened ever further at the London 2012 Games when the whole country was gleeful and everyone was talking about the competitors.
London absolutely transcended the Paralympics. It was put on an absolute pedestal and totally raised the level of what a Paralympics should be and the interest from the public.
And what a tournament it proved to be for Shuker. Together with doubles partner Jordanne Whiley, she claimed a first Paralympic medal despite facing a match point. It was a tie break situation, and Shuker had to hold her serve to stay in contention.
Hold her serve she did, and together the pair became the first British women ever to win a medal in wheelchair tennis. While she doesn’t remember the conversation before that match point, Shuker can still recall what was said afterwards.
“I remember the conversation to this day. Jord says: ‘I’m glad that you were serving because I probably would’ve double-faulted’,” she laughs.
Shuker also served to win the match with an ace out wide, and describes the ensuing feeling of being overcome with emotion –– at first with relief, but then with immense honour and pride. Having had such a distinguished career, with so many personal successes, it was this experience that she pinpoints as her favourite.
“To me, that’s the best memory and the best medal that I won because it was unexpected, but just so, so memorable.”
Four years later at Rio 2016, it was a similar feeling of ecstasy as Shuker and Whiley again won Bronze, only this time that feeling of accomplishment was fused with a hint of disappointment, as the prospect of silver, or even gold, proved so close yet so far.
“I would’ve been devastated if we’d come home and won nothing, but you know as an athlete, I think we could’ve pushed for more and won a gold medal.”
Shuker confesses that the dream of any Paralympic athlete is that of gold, but believes her disappointment at the last games has only helped fuel her hunger to go further in Tokyo this time around. “It just helps me work harder,” she says, as preparation for this year’s rescheduled competition has been markedly different to normal.
With fewer opportunities to practise, attention has turned instead towards fitness, with sessions on the hand bikes and frequent weight training the main focus when access to tennis courts hasn’t been available. Even at 40 years of age, Shuker is achieving personal bests and still striving to be better.
Speaking of how best to deal with such unprecedented circumstances, Shuker stressed the need to try and stay strong mentally: “You just have to go with the flow and be able to adapt and to stay focused,” she emphasises.
The impact of COVID-19 has not only put more mental strain on athletes, but a financial one as well. Travelling across the world like Shuker does so often, requires significant travel costs, and she has welcomed the support from charity Path to Success. The organisation aims to help female athletes with disabilities, and Shuker is just one of many to have benefited from their assistance.
“Nowadays, everything in sports costs money and tennis is quite expensive, so I’m extremely grateful for the support financially,” she told GiveMeSport Women.
But Shuker was quick to emphasise more than just the financial benefits of the organisation. “I think that the real core from Path to Success is supporting and empowering women with a disability, so we’re all very grateful that there is this charity designed specifically for us to help us be the best we can be.”
Shuker’s story serves as an example to all that a disability does not have to stand in the way of your ambitions. That no matter the scale of adversity, having the determination, the ambition, and ultimately the belief, is enough to put anyone on the path to success.
Lucy Shuker is supported and partially funded by Path to Success, a charity that champions ParalympicsGB’s female athletes in disability sport by providing vital financial aid. Support Lucy and other Path to Success athletes here