She had to wait eight years to be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, so waiting a few weeks for the GC2018 team selection announcement is no big deal for para powerlifter Jessica Gray.
Gray was 16 when she noticed something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until she was 24 and studying to be a nurse that Gray received an official diagnosis.
“I couldn’t walk very far, I was very tired and all my friends would stay out really late and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work out why they could do it and I couldn’t,” Gray told GC2018.com.
“I got to a stage where I couldn’t walk to school anymore, I had to get the bus and I had to get people to help take me.
“I went blind in one eye for about four and a half months and I went to the optometrist and they said, there’s nothing wrong with your eye.”
At the time, Gray was living out of home and the only way to investigate further was to visit a specialist, an option she couldn’t afford.
She had no feeling in her legs, from her feet to her shin. The numbness was making its way further up her leg, towards her knee, and Gray knew it was just going to get worse.
After eight years, the diagnosis didn’t come as a shock.
“I knew something was definitely wrong,” she said.
“The doctor said, we’re going to do some neurological tests to see what your feeling is like. I said to her, just let me know when you’re doing the test. She said ‘I’ve actually already finished.
“She’d done all these pin prick tests on my leg and I couldn’t feel one. I looked up and my legs had blood spots everywhere.
“I had the MRI and I had 32 lesions on my brain and spinal cord. It had been there for a long time.”
Things got a lot worse before they got better. At its most aggressive, Gray was experiencing symptoms all the way up to her diaphragm.
It was five excruciating months until Gray started to recover from the episode.
“I’ve got remitting, relaxing MS. The good part about that is it does get a bit better, I get about 85 to 95 per cent better each time,” she said.
“You have a residual disability you get left with after each episode. The problem is if you have a really bad episode, that episode can cause you to be permanently disabled. The more episodes you have, the more risk or chance that you have of being permanently disabled.”
After her diagnosis, Gray knew exercise would be a big part of managing her MS. What she didn’t know was that it would lead her becoming a champion.
Gray took up powerlifting just one month after giving birth to her son, Jimmy. She was still breastfeeding when she participated in her first competition.
Six years on, she is Australia’s leading female para powerlifter and is on the cusp of selection for her second Commonwealth Games.
Gray is the top-ranked Commonwealth athlete in her weight class and at the Australian Para Powerlifting championships in May, she broke the Australian 73kg class record three times.
She broke her own national record again last weekend, at the 2017 Australian National Para Powerlifting Competition at Carrara Sports and Leisure Centre, lifting 86kg to claim gold.
While the heavy, repetitive nature of powerlifting isn’t typically recommended as exercise for people with MS, Gray has seen the effects the sport has had on her life.
“Powerlifting is probably not the best sport for someone in MS but I like it,” she said.
“You get a lot of neural deficit from benching because it’s so heavy, your nervous system gets a bit fried after each heavy bench session, so I have a nap after each session.
“I reckon the reason why I can still walk is because I train.”
It’s an athletic art to repeatedly push the body far enough to improve, without damaging it.
For Gray, it’s a high price to pay if she gets it wrong.
“Unfortunately for me, because I have MS it affects my whole body, not just my legs, so I need to be really careful not to get too tired or to not over train, otherwise I’m sort of sick for a week and I put myself back a week in training,” she said.
“I try and do everything I can to limit myself to not having any episodes. I sleep a lot, I look after myself, I eat well and I train a lot, I train my whole body not just my bench.
“It’s been better the last few years because I know how to manage it better. You do get used to it, I think you just learn to adapt your life around it and pick the good things and kind of work on that I guess.”
While MS requires constant management, and its unpredictability can take its toll on her performance on the bench, Gray refuses to let her condition define her.
“I think you can go two ways, you can be positive and optimistic, or you can really take it negatively and not do anything with your life,” she said.
“I’ve seen a lot of people with MS that only want to focus on their treatment, their disease and MS is their life, whereas MS is only part of my life. It doesn’t rule what I do, so I think that makes it a lot better and I’m more positive because of that I think.”
By Fiona Self, Gold Coast 2018 Media