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Amy Conroy eats, sleeps and breathes basketball but the ongoing pandemic-enforced hiatus has offered the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic hopeful a welcomed new perspective, writes Ross Lawson.
For the first time in more than 12 months, Conroy and Great Britain’s wheelchair basketball squad will return to court for their first major get-together later this month, with training until now limited in size and style.
For an amputee athlete who, at 17, got into the sport when she was “embarrassed, tried to hide and not accepting of having one leg”, a lack of playing understandably left a basketball-sized hole in her life.
But Conroy refused to go into her shell.
Instead, a new side of her came out, a lifestyle featuring modelling, an appearance on Come Dine With Me and a desire to learn Japanese.
"I would always put too much pressure on myself, ball was life, don't mess up. My self-worth was tied into how matches and performances would go. I'm an athlete, that was my identity,” said 28-year-old Conroy who, in Tokyo, will look to add to the 864 inspirational Olympic and Paralympic medals won since National Lottery funding began in 1997.
"My life was basketball, because of how it affected me, it became everything and now I've been able to change the focus from my illness to the sport.
"With a year off, I'm now trying to do more things to become a well-rounded person.
"There are other things that I can start to be proud of myself about, instead of my whole identity just being about basketball. A rubbish tournament, I felt, reflected on me as a person.
"But that perspective, and having new strings to your bow, has been important for me.
"You regret the things you don't do more than the things you do.”
As much as Norwich-born Conroy has enjoyed new-found hobbies and experiences, she hasn’t half missed being on court with her best friends.
While the first national lockdown provided a novelty of Zoom sessions and quizzes, the subsequent months offered the shoots of returning to action.
First came group press-ups, via video call, then passing against a wall, followed by training in groups of two, with five-v-five matches to hopefully follow.
So too will a bubble camp. As the country starts to open up, Great Britain’s wheelchair basketball squad are locking back down altogether.
"We were on outdoor courts for a bit, which are sometimes a bit wonky, and you're flying off, and there's dog poo on your wheels – you never take things for granted again after that,” she added.
"Even the thought of being back with a big group of people again is so bizarre.
"I'm a little bit anxious about camps and getting back to playing – what if I've forgotten everything? It’s like being a debutant again.”
Just four months remain until ParalympicsGB go for gold in Tokyo, with a medal firmly on Conroy’s mind.
Her first Paralympic appearance at London 2012 saw the British team finish seventh, their best position in 18 years, while coming within one win of a medal at Rio 2016.
That missed opportunity still hurts – so it’s time to right the wrongs.
"Being in the final would be incredible, that's what I imagine, that's what boosts me in the early-morning sessions,” she added.
"The experience is going to be such a celebration, I can't wait.
"My dad and sister have been there from day one but, they won't get to be a part of the crowd. I always look for them, even if it's just them on a stupid dance cam in the middle of a serious time-out.
"That gold medal always remain the goal. It's something you dream of, when you're in the shower or driving somewhere, but I don't think I could imagine the feeling it would provide.
"Seeing your teammates' reactions, tears in their eyes, dirt on their face and hair everywhere, the highs and lows of sport with these people, I'd be feeding off their reaction.
"But trying to high five and getting blanked, that's the big fear.”
The fact that Conroy remains a light-hearted and joyful person, despite all the hardships life has thrown at her, is great testament to her personality.
On her seventh birthday, she lost her mum to breast cancer. Five years later she herself was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a common bone cancer which required her left leg to be amputated.
In this year, the toughest of all years, she felt she was going to lose her dad.
Through it all, she finds the time to thank The National Lottery players who make her wheelchair basketball career and the subsequent Paralympic ambitions possible.
"I'm just so grateful, on behalf of myself and my team, we have a World-Class Programme set up,” she added, talking of the National Lottery funding that allows her, and over 1,100 other elite athletes to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support. "We talk about finding that extra inch in training but it's so much more than that, it's giving us such an advantage.
"We know that we can give it everything, leave no box unticked and have no regrets, and that's all thanks to National Lottery players.”
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £30 million each week for good causes. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has on sport at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #TracktoTokyo