On a roll with Lily Rice
14th Ionawr 2020
When Lily Rice rolls her wheelchair to the edge of a steep ramp at a skate park in the Welsh town of Haverfordwest, the teenagers riding scooters and skateboards stop to watch.
The 15-year-old flicks the wheels of her purpose-built aluminium chair and drops over the edge. Speeding down the vertiginous slope and steering the chair by placing a gloved hand on the rim of a wheel, she performs a graceful circuit before coming to a halt. A young boy who recognises her from the video she posts on YouTube shyly asks for a selfie.
Lily, the first female in Europe and only the second girl in the world to perform a back flip in a wheelchair, is a certified star of wheelchair moto cross or WCMX. Diagnosed with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia – a rare genetic condition causing a progressive tightness and rigidity in the legs – she has never let her condition hold her back. Just three years after trying out some rudimentary tricks in her back garden using “an old NHS chair”, she has competed in competitions in America and Europe and filmed a commercial for Toyota.
The skate park in Haverfordwest, a 40-minute drive from her home in Tenby, has played a major part in her success story. “I come here to practice tricks and hang out with friends,” she says. “I love the amazing variety [of the surfaces] and the fact everyone is welcome to come whatever you’re riding.”
The park, which was built in 2013 using a £427,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund (formerly the Big Lottery fund, is also particularly well-suited for wheelchair users. Its ramps can be easily accessed once Lily arrives at the park in the company of her father, Mark.
Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the area of arts, sport, heritage and community.
Lily’s lightweight chair is a bespoke item: its tyres are similar to those used on BMX bikes and it has a set of resin skateboard wheels at the front. Even so, it requires real courage to propel yourself over the edge of a ramp or perform a backflip.
“Obviously it’s a bit scary, but you practice [backflips] by landing in a bed of foam,” says Lily who performed her epic backflip at an event in Cardiff in September 2017. “You try it on the ramp once you know you can land it.”
Lily isn’t the only young person from Pembrokeshire who has benefitted from the park. According to John Edwards, Chairman of the Haverfordwest Skate Park Association, the all concrete facility has given the region’s young skaters a much needed outlet for their passion.
“There was very little to do here for young people. Pembrokeshire is proud of its national park and marine life, but unless you drink beer, play golf or work there’s not much to do,” says 56-year-old John who skates at the park on weekends. “This has changed Haverfordwest for the better. It draws people from around the whole country. People come on holiday and their children come and skate here.”
The origins of the park can be traced back to 2007 when several parents received a letter from police informing them their children had been “loitering” in the town on their BMX bikes. Two parents, Geraint Williams and Alison Turner, started a campaign to build a skate park. A petition was started and at one point skaters and their parents even marched through the centre of Haverfordwest in support of the project.
“Four years ago the Lottery funding came through and we ended up with what is arguably one of the best skate parks in the country,” says John.
“Four years ago the Lottery funding came through and we ended up with what is arguably one of the best skate parks in the country,”
John Edwards, Chairman of the Haverfordwest Skate Park Association
Not everyone was in favour of building a skate park on a water-logged field next to the river Cleddau. “There was some negativity because some people associate skateboarding with antisocial behaviour, riding on ledges and damaging things,” says John. “But in the right place – and Haverfordwest is the right place – it’s important. We’ve got six and seven year olds here on scooters, old farts like myself at 56 and everything in between. We all come to the park, we enjoy it and we look out for each other. There’s a proper community here.
“The police and the town council are behind us now. The county council are involved. This was a water-logged field that couldn’t be used for football. It was derelict ground basically. The park has regenerated this area and regenerated the lives of many people – not all of them young people.”
The oldest skater using the park is a 62-year-old who has had a triple heart bypass, says John. He is one of the ‘rad dads’ who congregate at the park on Sunday mornings with their children.
Keeping the park safe is a priority. Graffiti, a common sight at many skate parks, is banned and CCTV cameras help prevent vandalism. The park is floodlit until 10pm and parents feel safe letting their children ride its smooth contours without supervision.
“Many people in extreme sports are outsiders – they don’t like team sports,” says John. “And this gives them an outlet. Skating teaches you a lot. It teaches you about getting back up when you’ve hurt yourself and going for it. This has brought so much fun and energy to the area.”
Each year the park hosts competitions – jams as they’re known – that attract a host of professional skaters, scooter riders and BMX riders. The biggest event, held in the summer, will see upwards of 800 people lining the edge of the park to get a glimpse of the action.
For Lily, riding her chair at the park is a chance to change perceptions as well as have some fun. “I’m aiming to change the way people see wheelchairs,” she says. “I’m trying to show that you can do all sorts of things in a wheelchair - you just have to work a bit harder or do it differently.”