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Rio beckons for boccia star Yushae

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Ready for a challenge: Yushae DeSilva-Andrade, who was born with cerebral palsy, will compete in the Paralympic Games on September 4 (Photograph by Nadia Hall)

When Yushae DeSilva-Andrade isn’t playing boccia, she is knitting. The 22-year-old, who will compete at the Paralympics next month, trains “five to six days a week, three hours a day”, and uses the hobby to wind down.

“It keeps me calm after doing all the boccia stuff,” she said.

She’s no stranger to a challenge. Ms DeSilva-Andrade was born with cerebral palsy and has taught herself to knit and purl with her functional left hand.

She leaves for the Paralympic Games in Brazil on September 4 with fellow WindReach buddy Jessica Lewis after playing boccia competitively for four years.

In the past two years she has jumped half her ranking — from 64th in the world to 33rd — with a lot of hard work, and a bit of help.

Botox injections in her left knee and right arm released the muscles there, allowing easier movement. Her hip abductors were released for the same reason. Surgery improved the scoliosis doctors determined when she was 11 but, thanks to the extreme curve, she now has a dislocated hip. The pain stops her from sleeping for more than five hours a night.

She’s now due for a total hip replacement early next year.

“It bothers me every single day,” she confessed. “I just smile through the pain. It’s just something I’ve learnt to do probably since the day I was born.

“Pain’s become second nature to me.”

She got into boccia through WindReach’s Adaptive Sports Programme. It was immediately after her back surgery and she was trying to stay active and stave off blood clots.

Her coach, Troy Farnsworth, suggested she try competition.

“I’ve been stuck in it for the last four years and I love it,” she said. “I’ve always been competitive, but never with someone else. I’ve always been competitive with myself. I’m not playing my opponent, I’m playing myself. In competition, my biggest problem is me because I am so hard on myself.”

Her rankings jump happened after two international competitions: the Boccia World Championships in Beijing, China, in 2015 and the Pan Am Games in Toronto, Canada, last year. This will be her first attempt at the Paralympics.

“Yes, it’s Rio and yes it’s a big deal, the biggest thing you can do in your life, but for me it’s another game,” she said. “I’ve been playing the game all this time, the rules haven’t changed. The audience is bigger and that’s about it.

“When people tell me I can’t do something, that annoys me. I’ve learnt not to let people put limitations on me because if I do, I’ll never know what I’m capable of doing. I always set goals for myself. Once I reach that goal, I make another goal.”

She sometimes had a difficult time expressing how determined she was at school. As a teenager, she felt her teachers just weren’t interested.

“People always said that when you go to school with a disability that the children are mean to you. For me it was never the children it was always the adults. I’ve had paraprofessionals who are now like second mothers to me; I can call them for anything [but] I felt like I was being treated unfairly when it came to teachers.

“The perception that people have of people in wheelchairs is that they can’t communicate, they don’t know any better and they’re dumb — and we’re not.

“To this day, people on the street will ask the person I’m with what’s my name and everything. And I’m sitting right there. That’s what you get in schools. I hated school.”

As a result, she stopped talking in her first year.

“I stopped talking for three to four months — completely. It got so bad, my mom literally grounded me. She took everything away just to see if I would make a fuss. I did nothing. One day [when I was at Sandys Secondary Middle School] I’d had enough and I told her what was going on.

“After that, my mom and dad showed up for the next two years. It wasn’t like for the next two weeks, it was the next two years. My dad actually worked in Somerset, so I would see him in the morning, at lunchtime, after school, and I’m like, ‘Do you not have a job?!’ I would even see him during recess.”

She hopes her story will speak to others with disabilities.

“I feel like they’ll be able to read it and be like, hey not all this is bad. There are more good things than bad things that come out of it.

“I know some people that, after they get into an accident, they wonder what’s left in life to do. There’s more to life even though you have a disability or you can’t walk; there is so much more you can do.

“When I was a kid, I never thought I could tie a shoe because I only have one hand. Now I can. You realise those little things are worth it.”

Showcasing her skills: Yushae DeSilva-Andrade is competing in her first Paralympics next month (Photograph by Nadia Hall)