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Gymnast paralyzed in vaulting accident learning to walk again using bionic suit

"It was a complete freak accident, I tried to stand up and I just couldn't move or feel anything."

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By Amy Reast via SWNS

A former national gymnast who was paralysed after a freak vaulting accident is determined to learn to walk again.

Jennifer Smyth, 25, trained 20 hours a week and competed in national gymnastics competitions before a freak accident put a stop to it.

Jennifer, from Eglinton, County Londonderry, was practicing a new vaulting move in September of 2013 when she landed flat on her back.

She realised she couldn't move any part of her body - and was rushed to hospital for surgeries.

It was soon revealed she had fractured two vertebrae as she landed - rendering her quadriplegic and curtailing her gymnastics career.

She started off able to do little more than blink but she was determined to she would one day walk again - having physio and sessions in a bionic suit three times per week ever since the accident.

She managed to stand on her own for the first time in eight years in May this year - evidencing that her hard work is paying off.

But she dreams of one day walking unaided - remaining positive that one day it'll be possible.

Jennifer, who has a degree in product design, said: "Before my injury I was 16 and everything in my life revolved around gymnastics.

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"It was a complete freak accident, I tried to stand up and I just couldn't move or feel anything.

"It took me a while to understand how severe my injury was - I kept asking my mum when I could go back to the gym and practice the vault again.

"I just saw it as another injury to overcome - but that's kind of how I still see it now. Whenever I want to do something I just have to adapt.

"Technically I am already walking again now, but it's mainly thanks to the bionic suit. My goal is to one day do that all by myself.

"But I can do more now than at the start, so I know my hard work is paying off.

"People ask how I'm never sad about my injury but I don't see it that way. I'm just determined to improve myself as much as I can."

Jennifer began gymnastics aged just four and it consumed her life - competing in top level International Gymnastics Federation competitions across Northern and Republic of Ireland.

She would train 20 hours per week on top of school and never planned to stop - until the accident which forced her to re-evaluate her plans.

While trying out a new vaulting move on September 24 ahead of the upcoming competition season, she ended up landing flat on her back.

But heads began to turn at the gym when she couldn't move herself off the mat she landed on.

She said: "I was trying a handspring front somersault and I landed on my back on the mat.

"I just couldn't move after - I couldn't feel anything in my legs."

She ended up at Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, after her local hospital said her injuries were too severe for them to treat.

Over the following days she learned she had fractured her C5 and C6 vertebrae in her neck and had to have plates and screws in her spine.

But she added: "It took me a while to understand how severe my injury was.

"I kept asking my mum when I could go back to the gym and practice the vault again - I just saw it as another injury to overcome.

"She had to tell me it might be a bit of a longer-term injury than I realised."

Following a four week stint in hospital and then a six-month stint in a rehab centre, Jennifer had to repeat a year of school before starting sixth form.

Once leaving rehab she started in a wheelchair and tried to move back into normal life while she continued private daily physio sessions.

She started to feel hope when she felt flickers of movement coming back in her thumb and left leg.

She said: "I just kept working and hoping - any movement, however small, is very exciting.

"In hospital I could only blink, but over time I could bend and straighten my arms a little and I built on that."

Jennifer continued intensive training along with her normal life - such as studying a degree in Product Design at Birmingham City University, which she completed in 2019.

In 2015, she began using an exoskeleton in her physiotherapy sessions to help her movement - meaning she was able to get back on her feet again for the first time.

Jennifer tragically lost her father, David Smyth, in 2016 and a fundraiser was set up in his memory which paid for Jennifer to get her own bionic exoskeleton the following year.

She said: "Being able to stand and walk again felt like it was in my Daddy's memory. He always said I'd get up and walk again one day."

Jennifer began being completely controlled by the bionic device but over time was able to adjust the settings to take on a small percentage of the movement herself.

While the suit is only used for practice, and outside of physio she still uses a wheelchair, she hopes one day that might change.

Since her accident, she has done a skydive and even a charity hand cycle to to prove the situation won't hold her back.

In May this year she already hit one goal of standing unassisted for the first time since before her accident.

She said: "This shows my hard work is paying off.

"The dream is to walk again unaided, it's hard because you want to get your hopes up, but not too much."

She posts regular content on her Facebook page to document her journey - showing how far she has come already.

Jennifer added: "I do try to be positive. I've never once had a down day.

"Maybe I've had wee moments where I find my situation annoying, but now I do whatever I want to do.

"I just adapt."

She added: "I want to show my journey and create content that shows your life isn't over after a spinal injury."

You can follow Jennifer's progress on her Facebook page.

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