Social Justice

'Sport saved me': Paralympic legend Lauren Rowles on queer joy, Paris 2024 and becoming a mum

2024 is a “big year” for Paralympian and expecting-parent Lauren Rowles. But she's never too busy to campaign for inclusion.

Lauren Rowles has become a patron of Just Like Us. Credit: Just Like Us.

2024 is a “big year” for Paralympian Lauren Rowles.

The Team GB rower is training full-time for the upcoming Paris games, where she hopes to clinch her third consecutive gold medal. And she’s about to become a mum, expecting her first child with partner Jude Hamer – a fellow Paralympian – next month.

“I guess there’s a lot of things added on to the plate,” she laughs. “But I work best under pressure. [I’m] excited, nervous, everything in between.”

But Rowles isn’t so busy that she can’t make time for one of her greatest passions – supporting queer young people. The 25 year-old has become a patron of Just Like Us, a charity that works to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ youth.

“I was bullied for being gay when I was a young girl, and for being disabled, for being in a chair. It did so much damage,” Rowles tells the Big Issue.

“I tried to live my life as this person I didn’t recognise, all because I was fearful. Nowadays, it’s so good to see young people living that queer joy earlier on in their lives… but there’s more work to be done.”

Lauren Rowles is one of the UK’s Paralympic legends. Along with crewmate Laurence Whitely, she won gold in the trunk-arms mixed double sculls at the Tokyo 2020 and Rio 2016 games. The pair have clinched a slew of world cup and championship victories, too.  

It’s the fulfilment of a childhood dream for Rowles, who dreamed of Olympic glory from a young age.

“I was nine or ten when I watched the Beijing games. From then I desperately wanted to go,” she recalls. “I was sports captain at school, I did all the sport I could, it was my life.”

But at the age of 13, the aspiring athlete lost the use of her legs. She had developed Transverse Myslitis, a neurological disorder that interrupts the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body.

Lauren Rowles has one gold medals at two Paralympic games. Credit: Just Like Us.

“I wasn’t bothered about the walking. It wasn’t being able to run, it wasn’t being able to escape,” she recalls. “That just killed me.”

But when her mum “dragged her” to watch Paralympic sport at the 2012 London games, Lauren Rowles discovered “a world [she] never knew existed.” She was hooked, quickly finding talent in wheelchair track racing.  She soon represented Great Britain on the international stage, including at the Commonwealth Games and Junior World Championships. The teenager transferred to rowing after a chance encounter with a team GB scout in 2015.

“Sport saved me,” she says. “It was my therapy at a time when I really needed it the most. I was in a really dark place in my life, going through some really dark times, and I think that for me getting on the water and being out the wheelchair was my lifeline at a time that I really needed it,” she says.

Rowles has been open about her mental health struggles. After coming home from winning gold at Rio 2016, she ended up severely depressed, anxious, struggling with suicidal ideation. The world champion realised that she had never properly processed the trauma of her sudden disability – nor had she come to terms with her sexuality.

“I never wanted to speak to her therapist about [my disability] because… I didn’t want to sit and talk to some able bodied person that didn’t get me or the experiences that I had been through. I was a very angry teenager,” she says.

Struggles with her sexuality made life even harder. Rowles had always been bullied for “looking and acting gay”, and subsequently spent years hiding her identity.

It’s a common problem for young queer people. According to Just Like Us research, LGBTQ+ school pupils are twice as likely to have been bullied (42% compared to 21% of non-LGBTQ+ students) and 91% have heard negative language about being LGBTQ+ in the past year. LGBTQ+ young people are twice as likely to contemplate suicide, and Black LGBTQ+ young people are three times more likely.

But “queer joy” is possible, says Rowles. We just have to help young people find it earlier.

“Six years ago, I felt so depressed about the future, and I thought I’d never live my life in a relationship with somebody that I love, that loved me, I’d never be able to embrace who I was,” she says. “Now, I’m engaged  to the most incredible woman that I’ve ever met, and I’m going to have a family… it’s amazing.”

Just Like Us work with schools and young people to make schools more welcoming places for all young people. They offer talks, provide free educational resources, and run the annual Schools Diversity Week celebration.

It makes a real difference; research conducted by Just Like Us shows that positive messaging from schools about being LGBTQ+ reduces the number of queer young people who contemplate suicide.

Lauren Rowles is “living proof” that a “happy, successful and positive future is possible” for young queer and disabled people, said Laura Mackay, chief executive of Just Like Us

“Lauren’s support will be invaluable to the young people we work with,” Mackay added.

For her part, Rowles couldn’t be more eager to get involved – despite her packed training schedule.

“There are disabled people, and young queer people being excluded from sport,” she says. I feel really emotional when I think about that because for a lot of those people sports should be their safe place. It should be the one place they’re coming to, to feel like they fit in.”

And now that she’s about to become a mum, Rowles’ passion for educating young people is all the more personal.

“The kid’s going to be brought up with two disabled mums and we’re just really looking forward to it,” Rowles says. “We want to bring a young person into the world who knows that diversity is cool, difference is cool.”

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