Emily Petricola living with an invisible disability

Emily Petricola was at work when she first noticed a strange numbness in her feet. 

It was 2007 and over the next few weeks, the numbness progressed and she experienced other symptoms, including a loss of balance that caused her to trip over her feet. 

She booked an appointment with her GP, who immediately referred her to a neurologist. 

At just 27 years old, Emily was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) – one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). 

"It was initially a big shock. I didn't really know what it would mean, and I spent a good period of time pretending that nothing had changed," Emily says. 

"I was pretty sick for the first couple of years and had relapses every few months." 

The relapses, also known as 'episodes' or 'flare ups', can mean a sudden onset of new neurological symptoms, or a significant worsening of symptoms. 

To treat the relapses, Emily underwent regular steroid infusions. 

"There was lots of steroid treatment, and I put on a huge amount of weight for the first time in my life," she says. 

"All of a sudden, to not be able to be fit and healthy – I didn't even recognise myself. It was hard to lose that part of who you are." 

As one of five children growing up in Melbourne, sport had always played a huge role in her family life. As a teenager, Emily played netball and competed in elite rowing.

"Rowing is an all or nothing sport, and I was all into it straight away. I retired when I was 20 with a back injury and realised it wasn't worth it anymore." 

Seven years after her MS diagnosis, Emily reached out to her friend, Matt Ryan – a now retired Australian rower, dual Olympian, Olympic medal winner and former VIS scholarship holder. 

"I asked Matt if he could help me to get fit again. He said, 'Tell me what you can do, not what you can't.' And I said, 'I can still get on a bike and turn my feet on the pedals'," Emily says.

"After a few months of training he said, 'Your numbers look pretty good, I think you should aim for the Paralympics.' It seemed like a crazy idea." 

To help prepare for her first competition, Emily spoke to another friend and five-time Australian Olympian, Shane Kelly – now a cycling coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS). 

"Shane was more than willing to get involved," says Emily. "My first race ever was in Ballarat in 2015 and I came third – I thought 'Oh wow'." 

Over the next few years, Emily went on to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympics, and became a Paralympic Champion. 

She says it is her team, including the staff and coaches at the VIS, who inspire her. 

"I feel like I am trying to honour the fact that people believe in me, and the work of the people around me. I do everything that I can do because they work so hard," she says.

"I wouldn’t still be involved in the sport without the staff from the VIS. They do more than train my body. They’ve had to work around a lot of limitations – they give so much emotional support, and they are good sounding boards." 

Ahead of World MS Day this year, Emily says there is still a stigma attached to the chronic disease and she hopes by sharing her story, it might help other people who have MS. 

"It is not obvious what is wrong with me. That is the biggest misconception and mistake people can make. So much goes on behind closed doors and under the surface that impacts every part of your life…it is a really challenging disease to live with." 

Emily says it's difficult to put into words what para-cycling means to her. 

"It is really hard to articulate, as it has changed my whole life. It has made sense of stuff that didn't make sense. It gives your life a purpose, beyond just a job or trying to just get through. It gave me something I could aim for that was positive." 

"It is one area where I can show the world what I can do, even though my body has changed in so many ways. 

"My biggest achievement is continuing to be involved and striving for excellence. It is about continuing to try to be a bit better all the time." 

World MS Day takes place on 30 May each year. It brings the global MS community together to share stories, raise awareness and campaign with everyone affected by multiple sclerosis (MS).

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