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Paralympian canoe gold medallist Emma Wiggs: ‘I didn’t know I was gay until the age of 30’

Paralympian canoe gold medallist Emma Wiggs: ‘I didn’t know I was gay until the age of 30’

  • She was ‘distraught’ when the Paralympics were delayed but her wife was pleased with the chance to clean out their garage.
Emma Wiggs MBE.

World canoe champion Emma Wiggs MBE says she did not know she was gay until she was 30.

At the same age Wiggs, now 40, tried canoeing for the first time. And she thought that coaching staff were ‘absolutely bonkers’ for suggesting she could compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

Wiggs caught an unidentified virus during a gap year in Australia aged 18, which caused paralysis in her arms and legs. But she told the BBC LGBT Sport Podcast she was initially in denial about being disabled.

She said: ‘I had contracted this virus. Overnight I was paralysed in my arms and legs. Life suddenly looked very different.

‘I was quite poorly so I don’t think it really hit home to me. I think it was far scarier for the poor people who were trying to look after me and for my poor mum.

‘When you’re 18 you think you’re invincible. I thought for a good number of years that the doctors were wrong and that I’d overcome this and be absolutely fine. I think that attitude got me through really.’

‘Lucky’ she has never had to hide being gay

The athlete also talked about her sexuality and hopes speaking about it publicly will help other LGBT+ people.

She said: ‘I didn’t know I was gay until I was 30 so it’s been a bit of a journey for me.’

However she added: ‘I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve never had to hide who I am or the fact I’ve got a wife.

‘It just doesn’t seem like it’s a thing. I’d much rather be authentic and honest than try and hide something that for me that is something incredible.

‘I’m so lucky and fortunate to have found a relationship and to have found someone to share my life with who will support me no matter what – and that’s what’s important. At the end of the day love is love.

“I don’t go and bang the drum all the time. But I do feel like it’s important that I am open and honest and don’t hide that I am who I am.

‘If someone hearing my experience or hearing my openness to talk about it helps them then I’m really proud to have done that.’

Gold at Rio

Before taking up canoeing, Wiggs was a sitting volleyball player who was part of the Great Britain team that competed at the 2012 London Paralympics.

Indeed, she only tried canoeing at the age of 30.

She recalled: ‘The coaching staff said “we think we could make you world champion and you could go to Rio”. I thought they were crazy, I thought they were absolutely bonkers.’

Since then she has gone on to be a seven-times world champion paracanoeist and to win gold in Rio.

Talking about the 2016 Paralympics, she said:

‘I was going in unbeaten with the world’s fastest time but I didn’t expect to win.

‘All I was focussing on was not capsizing because there was this crosswind making life pretty tricky. I thought holy moly if I capsize in front of 8,000 people it’s going to be pretty horrendous.

‘There was pressure because I wanted to do my coach proud and my family proud.

‘I knew that I was fitter and stronger at that start line in Rio than I ever was when I was able bodied – and that I’m really proud of.

The party in the evening was spectacular.’

‘My wife couldn’t have been more supportive’

Meanwhile Wiggs also talked about the Tokyo Paralympics postponing until next year.

She said: ‘I was absolutely distraught thinking about how on earth I could cope training at home on my own, preparing for one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and do it on my own in my garage with a paddling machine in the garden.

‘[My wife] was initially delighted because tidying the garage has been on the to-do list for about the last three years.

‘She couldn’t have been more supportive. While she’s working from home she puts up with hearing me on the paddling machine going non-stop and being sick on the side of the patio – she takes it in her stride.’