‘I’m a rarity’ says Exeter wheelchair rugby star

Tilly is now part of the GB Wheelchair Rugby Squad, while also playing for the Exeter Hawks communit

Tilly is now part of the GB Wheelchair Rugby Squad, while also playing for the Exeter Hawks community club. Photo: Steve Haywood - Credit: Archant

Tilly Robinson, 18, is determined not to let her disability get in the way of her sporting career

Tilly Robinson discovered a new purpose through playing wheelchair rugby. Photo: Steve Haywood

Tilly Robinson discovered a new purpose through playing wheelchair rugby. Photo: Steve Haywood - Credit: Archant

It was her first ever wheelchair rugby season and the competition was fierce. Tilly Robinson seized her moment to grab the ball when an opposition player saw his chance and headed straight towards her.

“Players don’t go easy on me – they’ve learnt that,” says Tilly, 18, describing the moment she ended up balancing on one wheel, while hanging onto the ball. “I’m quite known in the wheelchair rugby world. I’ve always been a kind of ‘go hard or go home’ type of person.”

This is fighting talk from a teenager who’s toughed it out to become one of the most promising wheelchair rugby players in the country.

Since the age of 14, Tilly has played for Exeter Hawks Rugby Club, as well as the adult team, West Country Hawks. In 2019, talent scouts from the GB Wheelchair Rugby Squad asked her to join their training pathway, putting her on course to represent her country in this fast-growing sport.

“I love it,” says Tilly. “I love the fact that you’re accepted by one another – you’re all the same on that court. You’re there to do a job and if you don’t do it, you get shouted at! It’s just like any other sport.”

When she was six, Tilly was diagnosed with myoclonus dystonia. She says: “The best way I can describe it is that cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease had a baby and it’s called dystonia. I have the rarest form of dystonia – so I’m a rarity!”

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She really is - but not because of her disability. I’ve spent 20 minutes with Tilly but already feel as though I’ve known her ages. We laugh about her first wheelchair with big smiley wheels, which she absolutely hated. Then she cracks up about the time she and her teammate tried to order food after a rugby match. They both have stutters, “so we both ended up just pointing at the pictures on the menu!” she says. We chat about her friends, life at Exeter College where she studies media, how coronavirus stopped her rugby training sessions, why she loves climbing, kayaking and canoeing and her plans for next year. Her confidence is incredible. I sure wasn’t like that at 18.

“I don’t say it enough but I’m proud to be different and very grateful for the life I lead,” says Tilly, admitting that she’s not always been like this. She tells me about the tough time she had at primary school and then high school, struggling to fit in and being picked on because of her wheelchair. Then a teacher changed her life.

“My school games organiser, Rebecca Skinner, invited me to this taster session at the Devon School Games where wheelchair rugby was being played,” says Tilly. “Everyone was telling me to try basketball but there wasn’t enough contact for me. Wheelchair rugby was great – I loved it right away and it just changed everything. I learnt to love being in a wheelchair because I saw other people like me. I was quite an angry kid but rugby was a great place to release that.”

Tilly is now part of the GB Wheelchair Rugby Squad, while also playing for the Exeter Hawks community club. Last year, the teenager was recognised at the Devon Sports Awards for her performances in community sport. Tilly has also appeared on television and been introduced to sporting stars like England Rugby Union coach Eddie Jones and footballer Phil Neville.

Just recently, Tilly had to do a speech in front of 700 people at a sporting event in Coventry.

“People call me an inspiration but to me, I’m just being the best possible version of myself,” says Tilly, adding that none of this would have happened without the support of her family, her rugby teammates and of course, her ‘incredible’ teacher Rebecca Skinner.

“I’m forever thankful to her,” says Tilly, before sharing her words of advice for any other youngsters struggling to fit in and find their way in the world. “I would say to other kids, never, ever give up. It may take you many steps to find your passion but trust me, you will.”

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It’s one of the only full-contact disability sports.

The sport is open to men and women, often on the same team. There is also a junior programme.

Rules include bouncing the (round) ball every ten seconds and selected time-outs. There are no scrums.

Tilly first played it at the Devon School Games, part of a nationwide programme funded by the National Lottery and supported by community-based Active Devon.

Want to get more involved? Visit Active Devon to find out more

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