MARIA LYLE is used to winning things.
The Paralympic, World, European and Commonwealth medal-winning sprinter has many accolades to her name – but she says being crowned Evening Times Young Scotswoman of the Year is one of the best yet.
“I was amazed when I won, I had no idea,” says the 19-year-old from Dunbar.
“I was just incredibly proud to be invited along to the event, and because I didn’t think I would win, I was completely relaxed. Some awards nights can be a bit awkward, or a bit dull – but not SWOTY. It was so friendly.
“The other three finalists had such strong stories, I was just planning to enjoy myself. To be named the very first Young SWOTY is such an honour. I’ve won awards through my running, but this is the one which means the most.”
Maria, who has cerebral palsy, discovered her talent for running when she was eight years old, almost by accident.
“I couldn’t run at all when I was young – I found it hard to even walk,” she says. “I was in and out of hospital a lot and I had to wear splints on my legs, which were really awkward. They were supposed to help stretch the muscles but I just kept tripping over them.”
“My mum was the PE teacher at our primary school, and one day, we were doing a time trial where you have to keep running over a certain distance. I told her I couldn’t do it, and she just said – give it a go, do your best, and that’s all you can do.”
Maria smiles: “And I did it. Me, who couldn’t run at all, managed to do it and that’s what got me into running. The more I ran, the more my muscles were strengthened and suddenly I felt like I was good at something. Running gave me a sense of belonging.
“After that, my mum threw the splints away, telling me – you don’t need them any more…”
Maria’s achievements on the track are impressive – she broke the world 100m and 200m T35 records when she was 14 and she is a multiple medal winner.
The teenager came out top in an online vote after Evening Times readers were impressed by her achievements on and off the track.
“I think that’s why it’s so special – it recognises the work I do volunteering for mental health charities, and that’s very important to me,” she explains. “I’m not just Maria the athlete – the other things I do to help people with mental health issues are just as important, if not more, than my running.”
Maria supports a number of causes, including East Lothian Special Needs Play Scheme, Oaklands School and Support in Mind Scotland, and she has spoken widely about her own experience of disability and mental health.
“I was at a stage in my life when I felt quite isolated, because I had a disability,” she says. “My confidence was really low and even when I was running well, I couldn’t find any joy in it.
“I won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, and I should have been over the moon, but I was unhappy. I knew something wasn’t right, so I got support and that made all the difference.”
Maria adds: “I’m really pleased I can help charities like Support in Mind Scotland, because I know that if I had heard someone speak out and explain what they were going through, I would have understood there were other people like me.
“That would have made all the difference to me – so if I can be that someone to even just one person who is struggling, then I will have done a good job.”
Maria’s proud family and friends, and the local community, are still celebrating her achievement.
“I don’t think any of us have recovered yet,” she laughs. “Everyone made a fuss at the Scottish Parliament, where I’m a committee assistant, and the Dunbar Online Facebook page have been really supportive. I’m so grateful to everyone who voted for me and to everyone who has come up and congratulated me. It means a lot.”
Maria is now back in training, looking ahead to the World Championships in Dubai in November and the Paralympics in Japan next year.
She is also hoping to use her role as Young SWOTY to further raise awareness of the good causes she supports.
High on her agenda is raising awareness of Support in Mind Scotland’s forthcoming 100 Streets Challenge.
Now in its third year, the innovative initiative encourages people to walk, run or cycle their way around 100 streets in their local community, between April 1 and October 10, which is World Mental Health Day.
“It’s a great event – you can do it on your own, with a friend, or as part of a group, and you plan your own route and dates,” says Maria.
“The money raised will support vital mental health services across Scotland.”
To find out more about the 100 Streets Challenge, visit www.supportinmindscotland.org.uk