Hannah Stodel was born without a lower right arm but she hasn’t let that prevent her from becoming one of the UK’s most ambitious and renowned Paralympian Sailers. We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Hannah in an emotional interview about her experiences of prejudice and bullying, about her career and the coping mechanisms that she employed when trying to overcome bullying throughout childhood.
Ditch the Label: Hi Hannah, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us! We love your story and are really excited to have you on board.
Hannah Stodel: No worries, thank you for asking me. The more I read, the more impressed I have been by Ditch the Label. I love the concept and I just wish that there was something like this when I was younger. Ditch the Label really highlights how ridiculous prejudice is and shows that it is time to just move on.
Ditch the Label: Thank you Hannah. We love your story and know that it will inspire so many of our supporters, especially those with a disability. You have come a very long way and it just shows that with enough energy anything can happen. Has everything always been so easy though? Were you ever bullied in school or treated unfairly?
Hannah Stodel: Yes, I was bullied quite a bit, not just for my disability but also for my sailing too. It seems very strange but people were always offended by my sailing and they could never really understand why I was taking time away from school. People felt that I was getting preferential treatment and I was labelled as the kid that was “special” and “weird”. People would tell me that I was a teachers pet, having “special lessons”.
I was born without a lower right arm and so I was an easy target at school. One guy in particular took great offence and I remember a time when he made posters of me labelling me as the “evil person with 1 arm” and had drawn a picture of me and put them up all around the school. I remember feeling so embarrassed and thinking that it represented how everybody else perceived me, it was awful.
Ditch the Label: How about within the sailing community, did you ever experience any prejudice or bullying there?
Hannah Stodel: Well I always saw disabled sailing as being a weaker option. I believed that if I could sail then it was important for me to compete with everybody else, regardless of my disability. When I was younger, I qualified for the predominantly able-bodied National Youth Squad and I remember having a meeting with my Performance Manager and he told me that I wasn’t cut out for it and should play table tennis because of my arm.
Ditch the Label: What about in public? Do you ever experience any sort of prejudice?
Hannah Stodel: Yes I do but it is much less frequent now. People have become more accepting and aware and I think the Paralympic games really heightened public awareness. In the past I have had a few incidents. Quite a few have happened when I have been out clubbing, people always ask me what I’m doing out like having a disability should stop me from leaving the house. One girl once approached me in a nightclub to tell me that I was disgusting and shouldn’t be there.
Ditch the Label: It must have been really difficult to not only overcome the pressures that surround most other teens but also the bullying and prejudice that you experienced as a result of something that you didn’t ask for in the first place. During school, what kind of support networks did you utilise?
Hannah Stodel: Well it became very clear who my true friends were, I had 2 friends who always stuck by me throughout my entire school life. In fact, they are still with me now. I told them everything and they helped me overcome the bullying so much. I focused all of my energy on sailing, I became addicted to it and saw it as escapism from the bullying.
Ditch the Label: What inspired you to become a Paralympian?
Hannah Stodel: I got a phone call from Andy Cassell who had previously won a gold Paralympic medal in 1996 for his sailing and he invited me to go and sail with him for the weekend to show me what it is like. Over the weekend I understood that the disabled side is just the same. Andy never cared what people thought of him and was a huge inspiration, changing the course of my sailing career. He taught me that it wasn’t the weaker option and I think that going down the disabled sailing path gave me far more opportunities than I would have had if I hadn’t.
Ditch the Label: Were there ever any forces pushing against you succeeding as a Paralympian? How did you overcome them?
Hannah Stodel: Yes, a lot of people said things behind my back but my family and I are all very close and so we never let outside influences affect us. My mum even put the family home on the line to keep me sailing, we just kept going and believed that it was the right thing to do and it was.
Ditch the Label: Do you think that you had the same sort of mental and emotional challenges as Olympians?
Hannah Stodel: The Paralympics are different to the Olympics. Yes we do the same sport but the Paralympics is also about seeing people who have overcome adversity competing. I think that the attitudes are different. We all just get on with it, enjoy ourselves and live our lives. I think that we are more competitive and stubborn than the Olympians though!
Ditch the Label: How has being a Paralympian changed your life?
Hannah Stodel: It has really opened my eyes to other disabilities. Previously I had never looked at others and it amazes me to see so many incredible people and I wonder how they manage. I find it hard to open a tin of Tuna but then I see triple amputees do the most amazing things; it just puts it all into perspective.
Ditch the Label: Knowing what you know now and could go back in time, would you do anything differently?
Hannah Stodel: That’s a very interesting question! I would have certainly stood up to people a lot more. Growing up I was happy to just let people say stuff as long as it avoided confrontation. I would just leave people to say things behind my back; knowing what I do now, it has made my life better.
Ditch the Label: Do you have any advice for anybody with a disability who is currently experiencing prejudice or is being bullied?
Hannah Stodel: Do not waste time thinking about how it will affect you in later life and do not worry about the future. It is easy to say it but ignore what others think and be happy with who you are. Some people are always going to say things and judge others for being different. If you are happy with you that is all that matters, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, no matter how close they are to you. Once you get into that frame of mind, the rest comes easily.
Ditch the Label: What kind of advice would you give to a young person currently trying to deal with bullying?
Hannah Stodel: Find somebody you trust and tell them everything. Trying to deal with it on your own is way too tough and it is important that you find somebody that you can tell everything to. My personal ethos is to never give up, I even have it tattooed on me. It’s the one message that I live by. Even when you feel screwed, never give up and it will come good in the end.