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On an average week Stef McLeod Reid, a track and field Paralympian, will spend 20-24 hours training, only resting on Sundays. For years, the 33-year-old trained day in and day out, until 2012, the year she calls the “Paralympic revelation”. It was the first time she had sponsors and media interest and while the accolade was encouraging, she really started to feel the pressure. “It wasn’t going well for me,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I hit breaking point.”
She called her mum, who asked her whether it was worth considering quitting the sport altogether. This gave Stef a sense of empowerment. “I realised I chose this because I love it and I had lost perspective,” she says. “I had that space to step out and step back and realised I needed more of that.”
It was at this time Stef thought it was important to have a creative, relaxing outlet in her life, away from her career. “I realised I didn’t have any hobbies that weren’t competitive,” she says. “For me, baking and cooking fulfilled both those things. So I learned to bake and it taught me a lot, like letting go of perfectionism – which is so unlike me. I normally plan for everything but you can’t always do that with cooking. I didn’t have much creativity in my life so I thought ‘Okay, let’s see where this goes and if I make a mistake, it’s fine – I’ll fix it.’”
Baking was an outlet Stef needed to get away from the competitive side of her job. She had grown up playing sport throughout school and at 12 years old, decided she wanted to pursue rugby seriously. But life took an unexpected turn when she was involved in a boating accident aged just 15 and lost part of her right leg. “That was really tough,” she says. “The thing I loved most in life didn’t look possible anymore.”
After her rugby career failed, she trained to be a doctor, but came back into sport again in 2006. She made her debut at the World Para Athletic Championships in the Netherlands and decided to carry on, rather than pursue medical school. Despite rediscovering a love of competing, life was not plain sailing, but during low points Stef learned: “As humans, we aren’t machines and we have limits, even if we pretend we don’t - we can’t keep pouring from an empty cup.”
Stef had to start from scratch in the kitchen when she decided to invest time in her new hobby, but she wanted to take a relaxed approach to it. “Everyone makes [food] so complicated,” she says. “We know what tastes good and it was just about finding that line between doing something a bit crazy and doing something tried and tested.”
To get her going with the resources she had, she turned to YouTube and would watch videos instructing her how to bake, cook and season different dishes. “It’s so great and it’s accessible to everybody,” she says.
She soon realised having this creative outlet meant she could switch off from training and completely focus her attention on the food in front of her. “It’s not that it relaxes me to the point I don’t care,” she explains. “I’m doing something where things could go wrong and I like that challenge of fixing it - the best meals I’ve made have been results of accidents or trying new things, it’s good practise for life in general. It’s about not panicking and going with it and seeing how things turn out.”
The first thing Stef perfected was an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. She realised she enjoyed baking more than cooking as she loved the scientific aspect of it. “It took a few goes but I went at it with academic rigour, researching recipes online, trying different ingredients and finding the perfect chocolate chip (not too sweet),” she says. “Two months later, I had it nailed.”
Stef likes the social aspect of cooking and baking, too. “Food has the ability to bring people around a table to sit and talk, it brings people together,” she says. When she has leftovers from things she has baked in the week, she’ll end up taking them to work or to her neighbours to share it out.
For savoury dishes, she loves cooking with fish. “It took me a really long time to master cooking the perfect salmon and nailing the crispy skin,” she adds. “As an athlete a big part of cooking is also thinking about recovery and building muscle, so my challenge is to make it taste delicious as well as being healthy.”
It’s a struggle to cook a two-hour meal on weekdays after training. “I come home starving and need to eat that second,” Step explains. “I have to be realistic, my daily life is busy.”
Instead, she and her husband meal prep on Sunday for the week so they can still enjoy delicious meals, which are ready for them when they come home from a busy day. “When I cook and bake on the weekend, I like to break out and do something fancier,” she adds
Stef’s hobby saw her being invited onto Celebrity Masterchef this year, which will be on our TVs in autumn. “It was scary for me,” she says. “But to me that’s a good sign that you should say yes.”