teens

"We were told he may never walk." A mum's incredible story of raising a teen Paralympian.

Melissa is the proud mother of the world’s youngest Winter Paralympian, Ben Tudhope; an achievement she never thought possible when her only son was born.

“My daughters were four and two at the time, and I’d had textbook pregnancies with them,” Melissa tells Mamamia.

“So when Ben didn’t breastfeed well and was dribbling constantly, I knew something was wrong.

We chat to Ben in Mamamia’s newest interactive podcast, That’s Incredible, to discuss the amazing things his body can do. Post continues below.

“I had alarm bells going from almost day one. But, we were reassured many times that everything was fine; ‘wait and see’ is what we were told.

“Finally, at nine months of age, I noticed Ben had developed an unusual arm movement, and I insisted we needed further investigations.”

Ben was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) – a congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture – when he was one years old. Melissa explains that CP is basically “the brain not telling the muscles to work.”

The potential cause of CP in Ben gutted Melissa.

“I was told Ben might have had a stroke in utero. We were devastated. They were really dark days.”

To help understand what had happened, and was happening, to Ben, Melissa was tested, and made a discovery that deeply affected her as a mother.

“I was told that on my side of the family, we have a blood condition where we form blood clots more easily…that was good for me to find out so I can monitor my own health.

“But it was also perhaps the reason why Ben had a stroke before he was born, leading to the CP.

“I took it so personally – I felt sad as a mum that I didn’t know I had this condition.

“There was definitely a grieving process.”

But the Tudhopes were fighters, and they took Ben’s diagnosis and gave him everything he needed to bring out the best in him.

Ben's family gave him everything he needed to bring out the best in him. Image: Supplied
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Melissa recalls that fortunately, Ben’s cognitive functions were good from a young age.

“He knew colours, and could follow instructions,” Melissa says.

“He even toilet trained earlier than my daughters at three!”

For the family, from Manly in Sydney, the early and ongoing support from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) was invaluable.

“We walked in, and they welcomed us, and have given us so much since Ben was born,” Melissa says.

“CP is common; one in 700 kids are born with it. So the CPA needs the community’s support, too, which is why Ben has now become one of their ambassadors.”

The irony of Ben becoming the world’s youngest Winter Paralympian after being told that he may never walk or talk, is not lost on Melissa.

“Every physio who’s felt his muscles says they don’t know how he does what he does with a snowboard,” Melissa says, amazement still in her voice.

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Being from an avid “snow family”, Melissa isn’t surprised that Ben naturally took to winter sports.

“We all love the snow. When Ben was little, he was an okay skier, but the minute he could snowboard through the ski school, he never looked back.”

Ben naturally took to Winter sports. Image: Supplied

The story of how Ben came to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is one which Melissa describes as “extraordinary.”

“We were sitting in a café in Perisher [ski field] and two Olympic coaches noticed Ben and his board. Ben was only 10 at the time, but they knew he’d grow to be a perfect Paralympian.

“He was 14 when he competed at Sochi, but was only allowed in because the Olympic committee told him he was ‘the future of the sport’. So Australia was given a wild card.”

Ben now travels extensively to compete in the northern hemisphere. When he’s in Australia, he studies Sports Management and speaks on behalf of the CPA whenever he can.

“I always feel like ‘proud’ is not enough,” Melissa says about Ben’s journey.

“We’ve come such a long way. I’m proud not just because he’s an athlete, I’ve been proud of him from day one when he began therapy started at 12 months. He always did it with a smile on his face.

“Anything he’s achieved since then is ‘the icing on the cake' in terms of proudness."

ben tudhope
Ben is now 19 and travels extensively to compete. Image: Supplied
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“Ben is a good person. He’s my friend, he’s my son. There are just so many layers of awesome to him...and just an hour ago, he still even thanked me for making his lunch!”

Melissa knows Ben has changed her for the better in many ways.

“When I had Ben, it changed my perspective on everything. I thought life was so magnificent – I had two healthy daughters, a beautiful home, a great husband. Then I realised all the fluffy stuff doesn’t matter.

“I learn things from him all the time. Looking at the world through his eyes, it makes the world a better place.”

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