“I knew I was disabled, but I never wanted to live what I thought was a disabled life.”
On 13 June 2009, a young Lauren Jones was climbing a tree with a friend when she slipped, fell 20 feet to the ground hitting a branch on the way and breaking her spine.
Aged 13 and a promising footballer, Jones was on the books of Brighton & Hove Albion when she was told she would never walk again.
A decade since the accident, Jones is now a professional GB wheelchair tennis player on the road to the Paralympics.
The Worthing-born teenager was initially airlifted to St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester where doctors quickly learned her injuries were too severe. She needed to be transferred to Southampton General Hospital.
“I was in a room of about 20 other people, a couple of my surgeons who had flown in from America to operate on me and the rest were nurses and my parents,” Jones recalls to BBC Sport.
“I was laying there in a neck cast and everyone was crying. They told me I would never walk again.
“I laughed. It was a shock reaction, I thought it wasn’t real.
“It wasn’t until I looked at all these professionals completely heartbroken and the look on my parents’ faces, that for me is when it hit home.”
Today, Jones is former junior world number one in her sport and has been ranked as high as 24 in her senior singles career.
But her career has not been easy. She has faced multiple injury setbacks, including missing out on the Paralympics in Rio 2016 and has recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Despite setbacks, Jones continues to work towards her goal of competing in the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, and talks to BBC Sport about:
- Life before the accident
- Finding tennis through her accident
- Success as a junior
- Missing out on Rio 2016
- Recent setbacks including being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease
- Road to the Paralympics
‘I was a young girl whose dreams had been shattered’
Before her accident at Chichester Boat Marina in 2009, Jones was a promising footballer. She played for her local team in Worthing and had just started playing for Brighton & Hove Albion Girls Centre of Excellence.
She had previously played for the Seagulls as a nine-year-old, but was told to return once she had a growth spurt in her teenage years.
But that return would unfortunately coincide with her accident and Jones found it hard to adjust to the news she would never walk again.
“I used to lay in my hospital bed trying to move my legs,” she said. “It was a completely life-changing experience and really tough to take.”
But when she finally began to understand the severity of her accident, she started asking questions.
“I wanted to know what I couldn’t do anymore,” she said. “One of the first things I asked is ‘could I travel?’ which is ironic considering now I travel the world every month competing.”
The football lover was a season ticket holder at Reading. Just several hours after finding out about her future, she was asking whether her new disability meant she would be able to get better seats at the Madejski Stadium.
“It was the end of my footballing career, but I knew I wanted to be involved in sport.”
‘The best decision my parents ever made’
As Jones regained the strength to move her arms, she started to become a bit of a character on her ward at Southampton General Hospital.
“I was known for being a bit of a joker, making skid marks as I raced around in a wheelchair and creating a basketball hoop out of a sick bucket,” she recalls.
“I told doctors I wanted to be involved in sport.”
But they were concerned the initial surgery would not cater for the sporting lifestyle Jones wanted.
“There was a chance the rods and screws that realigned my spine from the first surgery would bend and potentially break,” she said.
“My parents had the choice of putting me into major surgery so I could have a better quality of life, but with the risk I may not survive.
“I always say it’s the best decision they’ve ever made. They had to collapse both my lungs and put me on life support.
“They removed one of my ribs, blended it and put the mashed up bone inside my vertebra, surrounded by a metal cage.”
The surgery was a success and enabled Jones to go on and immerse herself in sport.
‘Sport really did change my life after my accident’
Due to her strong desire to play sport and just over two years since her major surgery, Jones was selected for a Paralympic training day at the age of 16.
“I think I was the only one there that wasn’t over 25 with massive muscles,” she said.
After trying a variety, Jones was selected to progress in four sports, eventually deciding to pursue tennis.
“I liked the technical side of tennis and how the professional level of the game ran alongside the able-bodied game such as Grand Slams and Wimbledon,” she added.
“Before my accident, I didn’t know disabled people could play sport, so I didn’t go into tennis with any expectations of becoming professional.
“But, within two years of starting to play, I was junior world number one.”
Jones went on to win doubles with the boys’ junior number one at the time, Alfie Hewett, who has since won three Wimbledon titles and two silver medals at Rio 2016, and is now ranked world number four.
Soon realising she had natural ability in the sport, Jones decided to move away from education to focus on her new goal of becoming a professional tennis player.
Pushing on through setback after setback
Jones has competed all over the world as a professional athlete since taking up wheelchair tennis.
Sadly, following automatic qualification, she was ruled out of the 2016 Rio Paralympics because of injury.
“That was four years of work where I wanted to compete in Rio that was taken away from me,” she said.
The blow has spurred Jones on to work towards Tokyo 2020, but that too has had its setbacks, including being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease last year.
Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease, its symptoms including fatigue, malnourishment and stomach pain.
“It can have serious effects on your body, I was falling asleep by seven o’clock every night,” she added.
“I just assumed that’s what it was like to be a professional athlete with Crohn’s.”
Jones’ pain and exhaustion worried doctors and after multiple tests, they found the then 23-year-old had two abscesses the size of tennis balls attached to her ovaries and bowel.
She was rushed to hospital in March this year needing surgery, and has had to spend three months out of training in the run up to Tokyo.
“It was a very upsetting and tough time for me, they told me I might not be able to have children. It was just the wrong timing following not being able to qualify for Rio,” she said.
“I didn’t want it to get the better of me so I focused on my career off court.
“I created a really great network of businesses and people around me and turned it into a positive.”
Jones’ profile has grown rapidly this year, noticed by Worthing’s local anonymous street artist Horace, who creates portraits of the town’s icons, including rock singer Billy Idol.
‘I’ve been fully focused on Tokyo’
Coming back from injury in May, Jones has to now climb the ranks to earn automatic qualification for Tokyo.
Once 24th in the world, recent injuries have seen her drop to 61st. To be in with the chance of competing in the Paralympics, she needs to reach the top 25.
Since her return, Jones has had five tournaments, winning two doubles, two singles and a career highlight beating world number 21 Macarena Cabrillana from Chile in February.
Her progress has been promising and she beams by the tennis court she trains at in Southampton as she looks ahead to the Paralympics.
“I’m playing the best I’ve ever played, I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my career.”
Those recent performances have seen Jones climb back into the world’s top 50 and she will surely leave no stone unturned in her bid to reach the top 25 in time for Tokyo.