It’s been five years since the stroke that changed the life-course for a young Nicole Christodoulou.
She’s a joyous human who beams as she talks about all the opportunities that have come her way as a result of the stroke. For a person so young, Nicole is extraordinarily optimistic and full of love for living.
She laughs while saying that if she didn’t have the stroke, she would have just finished her degree and become a miserable high school teacher.
“I’m working in a primary school now, and all the soccer that I’m doing, it’s amazing, it’s so good!” she says
Nicole is currently studying to become a teacher but, in the meantime, she’s working as a teacher’s aide in a primary school where she is supporting a lot of kids with disabilities.
Before the stroke, Nicole played soccer constantly and had even been asked to join a representative team.
After her stroke, doctors found she had a huge infection on her heart that could have killed her. In effect, the stroke saved her life.
While the whole incident terrified her family, Nicole happily declares that everything happens for a reason and that in the case of her stroke, that reason has been to play soccer with the Pararoos.
Finding the Pararoos
“I was at home one day and I thought to myself, ‘you know what, I’ve got a disability, I had a stroke, do I qualify for the Paralympics?” The effervescent young lady with long dark locks throws back her head laughing. Her enthusiasm for life is contagious.
On the surface, Nicole seems like she could be any other young woman with a goal and lust for life. But she’s far more extraordinary than that.
“I Googled it and I found the Pararoos and I thought whhhaaaat? This is amazing!” she says.
Nicole, not one to waste a moment, sent off a few emails making enquiries.
Then she got an email back from Kai Lammert, the Pararoos coach, asking her if she would be interested in coming to their next Pararoos Development Centre.
Naturally, she said: “of course.”
Last year was her first year back at soccer.
“In hospital, they ask you for your goals. I told them that I wanted to be able to play soccer again. I was the type that used to be able to do all the tricks. I couldn’t see a ball in front of me, even now, and not touch it,” she says energetically.
“It’s this thing inside of me, I love it so much. It lights my whole life up,” Nicole laughs.
“It makes me so happy.”
But how did she really get from having a stroke to that first game of soccer?
“It was a crazy experience.”
Nicole endured around four years of physiotherapy, and a great deal of speech therapy. She had problems with her reading, had heaps of occupational therapy, and went to the gym a lot.
The first step was learning to walk.
“That was hard. I used to try so hard to get my brain to think, to lift my arm, and to move my leg and I remember trying to move my toes and I couldn’t move them. I used to be able to do this. Last week I could do this. Why can’t I do this? Come on!”
“Then I was harnessed to a treadmill in the hospital gym where I had to practice walking. One day I said to my physio, ‘can I run?’”
So, with the help of her physiotherapist, she began to run.
Initially, her left leg would go limp very quickly, just a few seconds into her exercises. It was fatiguing.
“There was just a lot of practicing everything. It makes a big difference,” this time uttered with a quite reflection.
But she was determined and that’s when her research led her to the Pararoos.
“I was rapt! I was very excited that there was something out there for me still. It’s not all over. I have hope.
“I want to play for my country,” Nicole says lighting up again. “I’m not going to stop until I do.”
“Some kids say, ‘I can’t do it’ and I say ‘yes, you can, of course you can’. You just need to want it and to believe in yourself. You’ve got to love what you do because if you love what you do it makes a big difference.
“It’s crazy because at the beginning of last year when I played my first game was so different to now.”
The doctors told Nicole that she would have one or two years of improvement after her stoke and then she’d plateau.
But she’s proud of the fact that five years have passed and every single day she feels as though she’s improved in something.
It’s been a bit over a year since Nicole played that first game
Now she plays for three-hours every week and with three different teams of people of mixed abilities.
“I don’t want to go into a mainstream competition yet because my leg still fatigues when I run for too long. I don’t want to further injure myself because I can’t run as fast as everyone else does.
“I play with the little ones so I can buddy with them, then I play with the intermediate team because they haven’t got enough players, and then I play with the seniors.”
“You know what? When I’m on that soccer pitch, I feel like nothing else around me exists.”
– Nicole Christodoulou
What’s the plan for Nicole to get from here to representing her country?
“I’m just going to keep showing up to these Pararoos Development Centres and keep signing up to all the ‘female only’ try out days,” she says.
“I’ve been invited a few times to come and train with the NSW men’s Paralympic team, so I’ll keep going along to them. I’m the first female to be asked to go.
“It feels unreal. It feels so good. It’s amazing.”
Nicole’s advice for people with disabilities who feel like they can’t live their dreams:
She is definite and defiant when she says firmly that everyone can live their dreams.
“If you’d asked me this a couple of years ago before I heard they were trying to create a women’s soccer competition for people with disabilities, I would have been distraught. I would have been upset,” Nicole says.
“But because this is happening, it gives me hope, it gives all the other females hope.
“We mean something too. Just because we’ve got a brain injury doesn’t mean that we’re not worth anything.”
– Nicole Christodoulou
“There’s a lot of us. If I’m walking around the street, no-one can tell I’ve had a stroke. But I can tell. It’s different. I was born able-bodied, I know what it’s like to be like that, and it’s hard.”
There is something truly inspiring in the way Nicole talks about the fact that a world built for able-bodied people is changing all around us.
“It’s amazing,” she says.
“One of the little girls I play soccer with says to me ‘I can’t do it.’ And I tell her, ‘of course you can do it. You can do anything. You just have to set your mind to it. If you don’t want it, you’re obviously not going to do it.’”
Nicole’s parting comment is one for everyone to heed.
“If you want to do something, never let anyone tell you, you can’t do it because that’s just not true.”
Learn more about CP Football & Sports
International Federation of CP Football (IFCPF) – https://www.ifcpf.com/
Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) – https://cpisra.org/
Australian Pararoos – https://www.pararoos.com.au/
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