Sophie Hughes at 14 was the youngest member of the Special Olympics GB team to represent her country in Rhythmic Gymnastics at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles.
Sophie rose to great heights in her performances. Her precision was flawless and her confidence soared. She was one very happy gymnast at the end of this once in a lifetime event.
The whole Special Olympics GB Rhythmic Gymnastics team picked up 29 medals, including 13 gold, and many more plaudits for their graceful performances in LA.
Sophie enjoyed silver medals in both the hoop and clubs section and a Gold with the ball. The young lady from Cheshire had not finished there with an all-round bronze medal and group ball Gold.
Despite these landmark moments in Sophie’s life, it has not always been as positive as it is today and there are still big challenges ahead for Sophie and her family.
Sophie’s mum Liz, who travelled to LA to watch her daughter, said:
“Sophie was thrilled about the Games and so was I to see Sophie grow as a person in front of my eyes. The whole experience has changed Sophie’s life and has also changed my life. It has been a long and eventful journey.
“Sophie was born as the first twin, two weeks early and weighing in at a respectable 5lb 11oz. She was followed by her brother Dan at 6lb 12oz. They were born by elective caesarean due to Sophie laying in a breach position and Dan laying in a transverse position.
“Dan was always in and out of hospital as a baby and Sophie always seemed to be OK. Dan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a right sided hemiplegia and learning difficulties at the age of three. With a battle we got him the support that he needed for his learning.
“Sophie's early years progressed quite normally until she kept getting repeated bouts of ear infections which caused perforated ear drums. This has had a huge impact on Sophie's learning and understanding.
“It became more apparent as she went into school. By Year Two, she had deteriorated in her learning. Up until this point, Sophie had managed to hide her difficulty well but the more that she was being asked to learn and understand the more she fell behind. School always insisted that she was fine and that we shouldn't compare Sophie with Dan.
“By Year Four and with no progress made, we found it impossible to read and decipher her writing. Sophie's self-esteem, her behaviour and emotional state had deteriorated so drastically that it caused a major negative impact not only on Sophie's life but the family too.”
“It was then that we sought help through our GP, the speech and language therapist and children and adult health service. After many tests, it was found that Sophie had difficulties with interpreting phonics of letters and words, her comprehension, spelling and she has auditory processing difficulties. She was way behind her peers in her learning.
“Her brother had a 'label' of cerebral palsy and a recognised learning disability. Sophie, meanwhile, looks and behaves as a 'normal' child as her disability is hidden for those that do not understand.
“This makes it more difficult and frustrating for her as her needs are not met and she has been labelled as being 'stupid and thick'. It is still a battle today for her to get the help she needs in her education and to have the right support for her to be able to learn. She is 14 and is 6 years behind her peers.
“Growing up in the ‘Hughes house’ has been extremely challenging for Sophie. Not only has she had a twin with his own disabilities, she also has an older sister, Katie 15, who was diagnosed with a congenital cholesteatoma at the age of 4. This required major surgery and has resulted in Katie having left sided deafness.”
To add a further challenging dimension for Sophie, her parents divorced when she was five, meaning mum Liz has brought up three children - with their own personal obstacles - as a single parent.
Opportunity to go to LA
“Special Olympics GB and The Cheshire Academy where Sophie trains has always been a positive and stable part of our lives. Jane and Iain who head up the academy have always been a solid foundation in Sophie and Dan's lives and have provided not only fantastic opportunities like Special Olympics, but given support, advice and encouragement in everything that they have done.
“Sophie really enjoys both Rhythmic and Artistic Gymnastics but Jane saw some true potential in Sophie and entered her into the Special Olympics competitions – which where her greatest achievements up until the National Games in Bath 2013 where she won All Round Gold at Level 2.
“For Sophie to be put forward at the age of 13 at the time to represent Special Olympics GB and her country in LA was quite overwhelming for her. Especially in a sport that she enjoys and loves.
“We all thoroughly enjoyed fundraising for the World Games in LA, which wasn't just about the money. It helped to raise the profile and work of the Special Olympics and it taught our young athletes that if we all work together we can get the message out there of their amazing abilities.
“We fundraised together with two other families, which has resulted in really good friendships. At times it was extremely stressful, wondering how on earth were we going to raise this sort of money - but with a lot of hard work and some fantastic companies - we managed to pull it off over and above anything we ever imagined! We have made some good friends and contacts along the way.
“Sophie conducted herself in a very mature manner and has grown from this experience.
“It's been a fantastic opportunity to be able to get the message across that she is a 'normal' everyday teenager who wants to do everyday 'normal' things but just struggles with certain things.
LA & Sophie
“LA has been an amazing experience for Sophie. She presents herself as a very shy, unsure, unconfident child who has never been away from home for any longer than five days.
“She was concerned about being away from her family because of her age and feeling that the majority of the Special Olympics GB team were adults. However, with the regular training sessions with her team and the get together sessions at Runcorn, Sophie has blossomed into a confident and mature young woman.
“It has helped her to see and believe that ‘she is good at something’.
“She is thrilled about the experience and feels now that she ‘fits in’ more. She feels that she belongs and is accepted somewhere. The whole LA journey has had a very positive effect on how she views herself and what she is capable of.
“She has seen that hard work pays off and how supportive her family and friends have been. One quote from Sophie at the Games, whilst being interviewed for CBBC Newsround, was that she felt ‘on top of the World, like a celebrity, with people taking photos of her!'
“Sophie isn't sure what the future holds in terms of her employment but with this fantastic experience and opportunity she hopes she can use it as a springboard towards any future work.
“She is going into Year 10 at school and is taking PE, so she hopes her achievements in LA will count towards a qualification.
“Sophie is now very pleased to be able to move up to the new routines in Level 3 in her Rhythmic Gymnastics and with it comes more challenges with learning all the new routines in every discipline.
“She is looking forward to it and with all her new skills and the confidence gained from the LA Games, she can use this opportunity now to excel to great heights at Level 3.
Sophie herself added: “Special Olympics has given me lots of confidence. I think one of the biggest events in my life was winning ‘All Round’ champion title at Bath National Games before the success in LA at the World Games.
“Special Olympics and practicing rhythmic gymnastics at my club have allowed me to make and meet new friends. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. Some people were very mean and nasty to me at school but at Special Olympics everyone is nice to each other. I love coming to training because all the coaches and other gymnasts are so friendly. My sporting hero is Beth Tweddle.”
“Being picked to represent GB at the World Special Olympics was one of the proudest moments of my life. My twin brother, who also has learning difficulties and cerebral palsy, was very proud and happy for me and he made me cry because he was so proud!
“I love One Direction and would love to meet them! I enjoy baking cakes and pies with my mum and grandma. I enjoy all sports but particularly athletics. I love my toy elephant called Elsie and most important I love spending time with my family...mum, sister Katie (15) and twin brother Dan (14). I am still at High School as I am only 14 at the moment but I enjoy any sport, especially rhythmic and artistic gym, athletics and netball.
“I hadn’t been to America before which was incredibly exciting. I wanted be the best I can and hoped to win a medal! To come back with five makes me so happy for myself, my family, friends, coaches and everyone who has helped me.“
Sophie’s Special Olympics journey:
• Joined Special Olympics in 2009
• Competed in the following Special Olympics events:
- National Games Cardiff 2012
- National Summer Games Bath 2013
- North West Regional Games 2012
- North West Regional Games 2013
- LA World Games – Five medals including two Gold