Support dog Mater has given Freya, who has muscular dystrophy, the confidence to realise her dreams as a top UK wheelchair athlete.

When Freya Levy started to develop symptoms of the hereditary muscle-wasting condition muscular dystrophy, she thought it was the end of her promising sporting career.

Instead, the plucky teenager switched to wheelchair events, playing first basketball then later rugby league, rugby 7’s and para-ice-hockey.

But it was only when she had her pet dog Mater trained as her disability assistance dog by Support Dogs that she had the confidence to aim even higher – and now Freya’s goal is to represent Great Britain in the 2024 Paralympics in wheelchair basketball.

Muscular dystrophy is a progressive condition that in Freya’s case affects the muscles in her shoulders particularly severely, leaving her unable to raise her arms above her head.  She can’t walk or stand and gets around in a wheelchair.

Despite her disability, Freya attended Worcester University (which just happened to be where the GB wheelchair basketball team was based) and did a degree in sports coaching and PE.

In 2018 Freya and partner Katie got 12-week-old fox-red Labrador Mater as a pet. Says Freya: “I was in the park trying to pick up his ball and couldn’t, and after that every time he brought the tennis ball back to me and put it on my lap. It was adorable- and very helpful! I’d looked into assistance dogs in the past but never thought it was something you train your pet for. But that changed my mind.”

When Mater was ten months old Freya applied to Support Dogs’ disability programme and the pair started their training just as lockdown started to ease when Mater was 18 months old.

“The experience was life-changing, a real game-changer,” says Freya. “I was shielding during the pandemic and Mater started training just as things were opening up again which was a bit daunting. It was the first time going into shops for both of us, so it was really lovely to do that together. He struggled with his confidence – like his owner – so we crossed that bridge together.”

Freya and Mater qualified as a disability assistance partnership in October, and their bond is already unbreakable.

She says: “When I was diagnosed, losing sport was really tough, and disabled sport filled that hole. I wanted to have children and be a mum and Mater filled that void for me. The bond between us is very, very close. He is my little boy!”

His practical skills are essential too.  “He picks things up when I dop them on the floor, and helps me take my jumper and socks off, brings my shoes, and his bowl. They sound like little things, but they make a big difference.

“His other tasks are to bring my wheelchair when it rolls too far away when I'm in my sports chair or on the sofa, and he can fetch help or go for my partner if I were to fall at home.

 She adds: “Mater walks alongside my wheelchair attached by a lead, which means I can control my chair. Now I can take him out on my own, which I had never done before, and it’s given me freedom to do things without stress or panic.”

Freya has played wheelchair basketball since the age of 14, but her sporting career is now taking off in a big way – she signed her first professional contract in wheelchair basketball in October.

She has represented her country in wheelchair rugby 7’s, basketball and ice-hockey and is hoping to add rugby league to that list next year.

“Sport is the main focus of my life,” she says. “I train five days a week and have games at the weekend. I’ve got lots of goals for the next 12 months – there are lots of World Cups and World Championships set for 2022 – plus the Commonwealth Games. It’s going to be a big year. But my dream goal is to get to Paralympic Games in 2024.

“I am fully aware that I can’t pause my MSD, and I’m doing as much as possible while I can. I don’t say no to an opportunity – my diary is horrendous. But of course I absolutely love it and wouldn’t change it for the world!”

Freya, who works for a charity that brings competitive sport into schools for children with disabilities and special educational needs, credits Mater with making her less reliant on her partner Katie “I’d have to wait for her to come home as I’d be struggling to get mu jumper on, for example, which doesn’t sound much but can be a big deal…”

But primarily, it’s all about confidence.

“We get confidence from being together, “she says. “I understand him in a completely different way to when he was a pet dog and that is entirely down to Support Dogs. It’s hard to put into words what I feel about Support Dogs – they have been a life-changer for me and Mater. I love sport and I play sport a lot but sometimes I hide behind it – I use it as a shield. Mater has helped me to come out of my shell.

“He has given me confidence and independence. He gives me a lot of hope for the future. Muscular dystrophy is a progressive condition, but it’s not daunting as long as I’ve got Mater.”

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