Emily Petricola recalls the sign her life was about to change forever.
- Emily Petricola was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 27
- After losing her identity, friends suggested she take up para-cycling
- The 41-year-old made her national team debut in 2018, and has since won multiple world titles
It was late November 2007 and she was 27 years old.
Petricola was running her own consultancy business and fell over in an office that had polished concrete floors.
“I had on these cute little kitten heels and was walking and kept falling over my feet.
“I was like, ‘these shoes are so cute but they’re no good’.”
At lunchtime that day, she went and bought another pair of shoes with a thicker heel, but it kept happening.
Over the next two weeks, the numbness that had started in her foot travelled to her neck.
By mid-December, Petricola was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, which can cause problems with vision and movement.
“It was totally unexpected; I had no family history and no idea why I got it,” she said.
It was the start of a long, difficult journey.
Her weight ballooned to 115 kilograms because of her inability to exercise and the large doses of steroid medication used to control her MS.
She gave up her business, struggled with her mental health and lived in fear of becoming blind or paralysed.
“I was pretty depressed because I had gone from this person who had been pretty fit and healthy, to not being able to do anything,” she said.
A little help from her friends
Petricola desperately wanted to reconnect with a part of her old self.
In 2015 some friends suggested she take up para-cycling.
They were former Olympic rower and silver medallist Matt Ryan and five-time Olympic cyclist Shane Kelly.
A few months into cycling, Ryan was so impressed with Petricola, he suggested she set a goal, to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo.
“I initially laughed and said there’s no way,” Petricola said.
But Ryan insisted, and so the Paralympic dream began.
The Paralympic dream
Petricola made her national team debut at the 2018 Track World Championships and claimed silver after breaking the world record while qualifying in the women’s pursuit C4.
In 2019, she went on to win her first world championship title in the individual time trial and then claimed another four world titles in the women’s pursuit C4 (2019 and 2020), women’s omnium C4 (2020) and women’s scratch race C4 (2020).
Last month, the 41-year-old qualified for her first Paralympics.
She’s also thriving in her career as a high school teacher, specialising in English and humanities.
“I’m just so excited about the Games, it’s starting to feel real now,” she said.
“Hopefully I can give my best possible performance.”
She’s eyeing not one but two gold medals in Tokyo.
“I’m a teacher by trade and I always say to the kids you’ve got to set your expectations really high and one way to do that is verbalise your goal,” Petricola said.
A silver lining
While Petricola still deals with the challenges of MS on a regular basis, she describes para-cycling as her silver lining.
“It’s been such a beautiful thing on so many levels because a lot goes wrong with my body every single day,” she said.
“I can wake up and not be able to walk very far because I fall over a lot or drop some plates because my hands are so dysfunctional.”
It’s a vastly different outlook from the woman who tripped on the polished concrete floor 14 years ago.
“I was so broken for the first few years after I was diagnosed, but I believe everything happens for a reason,” she said.
An opportunity to become a multiple world champion, world record holder and, possibly, a Paralympic champion.
Petricola hopes her story can give others with the disease belief that a lot can still be achieved.
“Even when things get really bad and my body fails, when I get on that bike, that’s one thing I’m able to do really well,” he said.
“And for me that’s such a gift.”