How a trip to Disney World gave woman the confidence to become a paralympic gold medallist
Natasha Baker stood tall on the paralympic podium in Rio. As the crowd roared, she beamed down at the gold medal hanging round her neck, the fifth she’d won in as many years. Glancing back at her horse, Cabral, Natasha couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride at just how far she’d come.
The paralympic star was born a healthy little girl, but sadly at 14 months old she contracted a rare infection with led to transverse myelitis – muscle weakness and no feeling in her legs caused by an inflammation of the spine. She was six before she learnt to walk short distances, but needs to use a wheelchair or scooter most of the time.
Growing up on a farm, Natasha had always had a talent with horses. For as long as she can remember she’s been more comfortable on the back of a horse than in her wheelchair, and some of her earliest, fondest memories were from childhood days at the stables.
But, despite her natural skills as a rider, things were nearly very different for Natasha: as a child she was held back by an overwhelming lack of confidence.
“I was very, very shy and super dependent on my mum,” she says. “At the age of nine, I’d never spent a night away from my parents, and would always miss out on sleepovers at friends’ houses. Plus I was full of doubt about what I could do.”
But, out of the blue, Natasha received a letter from a charity called Dreamflight offering to take her on the trip of a lifetime: a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World, Florida, along with almost 200 other disabled or seriously ill kids. Unbeknown to Natasha, her neurologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital had put her name forward to the charity.
“I was obsessed with Disney back then, so the idea of meeting all the characters was really exciting,” remembers Natasha. “But when it sunk in that I’d be going without Mum and Dad, I was a bit unsure.”
Luckily, Dreamflight hosted a party before the holiday so all the children could get to know each other.
“The kids were a mixed bunch, and we hit it off straight away: there were a few children with cancer, some with cystic fibrosis or cerebral palsy, and a few that were wheelchair-bound like me. I never felt like the odd one out,” she says.
By the time the trip came around, Natasha was full of excitement, as well as a touch of apprehension at being separated from her parents.
“As soon as the plane took off, the nerves melted away,” says Natasha. “Dreamflight charters a whole jet for the kids, and having it all to ourselves was amazing. It was so busy and exciting from the word go that we barely had time to feel homesick.”
The trip flew by, and with everything from boogies on the dance floor to photo ops with Mickey and Minnie, Natasha had the time of her life.
Bit by bit, she felt her shyness disappear, and her confidence soared. For the first few days of the trip, she was far too scared to go on any of the big rides, but with the gentle encouragement of the Dreamflight volunteers and her new mates, she eventually swapped her wheelchair for roller coaster carriages.
Spurred on to success
By the end of the 10 days, Natasha was a new person.
“Nobody said the words, ‘You can’t do that,’ on the trip, and something clicked for me,” says Natasha. “The holiday had given me a new lease of life and a new-found independence. Before that I’d been full of self-doubt, but within a year of coming home I told my parents I was going to win a paralympic medal, and from that moment on, nothing would get in my way.”
Spurred on with a flurry of confidence, Natasha began to ride more and more. Her physiotherapist encouraged her to get in touch with Riding For The Disabled, a charity that specialises in therapeutic riding and found
she had a natural skill for dressage. But for Natasha, riding was about much more than building muscle strength.
“Being on a horse gives me a sense of freedom. I’m confined to a wheelchair or scooter most of the time, but when I get on a horse it makes me feel like I can do what a lot of other people can’t do,” she explains. “My horse becomes my legs and they carry me in a way that I’ll never be able to experience normally. I can’t run but I can gallop.”
It wasn’t long before Natasha was competing in national dressage competitions, winning medal after medal. By the time the London 2012 Olympics came around, Natasha was 22 years old and at the top of her game.
“I set myself the target of winning a medal, be it bronze, silver or gold,” she says. “When I won two golds, I was astonished it had happened so soon. I was always 100% sure I would get there one day – if I set my mind to something, I’ll do it because I’m stubborn.”
Four years later, she toppled her own record by winning three more golds, but for Natasha, there was no feeling like winning on her home turf.
“Even now I can shut my eyes and imagine I’m back on the podium – doing it in front of so many friends and family was really special. Rio was incredible, but nothing will be as special as London was.”
Nowadays, Natasha is busy training for Tokyo 2020 where she’s keen to beat her own record. She also hangs out with her long-term boyfriend Mark – but admits it can be a struggle to squeeze him in.
“He might feel like he comes second fiddle as I spend a lot of time with my horses,” she laughs. “They’re my number one priority. He can go out to the shops and feed himself but my horses can’t. But he loves my horses too, and comes to most of the competitions with me.”
With an MBE and five gold medals to her name, Natasha is brimming with confidence and ambition. But even now, she hasn’t forgotten the trip that brought her out of her shell.
“It sounds extreme, but I 100% wouldn’t be the person I am now if it wasn’t for Dreamflight – and that includes being a medallist,” she says. “The moment I got that letter was the moment it all began for me. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to believe I was good enough. I was full of doubt about my abilities before – it completely changed my attitude to life.”
Natasha Baker MBE is an ambassador for Dreamflight, a UK charity that changes young lives through taking children with a serious illness or disability, without their parents, on the holiday of a lifetime to Orlando, Florida. For more information, visit Dreamflight.org