Para-ice hockey: Dani Czernuszka-Watts finds 'normality' through sport after being paralysed in rugby tackle

Dani Czernuszka-Watts' partner was trying to take her mind off the situation at hand when he showed her a video on YouTube.

Grainy footage of a game of ice sledge hockey at the Paralympics filled the screen. She was drawn to it, a spark was lit - but reality bit.

It was 2017, and Czernuszka-Watts was in hospital. She had recently become paraplegic after a "revenge" tackle during a rugby match left her with a permanent spinal injury, for which she won a compensation case at the High Court earlier this year.

Nearly six years on from that day, she is an international athlete and a history-maker. Sport, she says, has brought her "normality".

"I think my first pair of trainers was a pair of Mitre football boots," she tells BBC Sport, looking back at her "football-obsessed, Dennis Wise-obsessed" Chelsea-supporting younger self.

An injury at the age of 18 put paid to her footballing dreams but, after spells working for the Metropolitan Police, prison service and living in Germany, a later career as a personal trainer brought rugby into the picture.

"It was everything that I felt like I was built for, although I was 5ft 3in. I was fast, nippy and not frightened to get stuck in," she says.

Czernuszka-Watts joined the newly formed Reading Sirens, Rams RFC's women's side, in 2016, and was quickly absorbed into the rugby family. They "held her hand" when, as a then single mum, she struggled to pay her subs, made sure there was someone to watch her kids while she trained and obliged when she needed a reminder of rugby's rules "for the umpteenth time". That support would soon reach new levels.

The team's first competitive game was set for 8 October 2017, but the Sirens were nervous - more so than normal pre-match jitters.

They had played the same opponents, Bracknell, five months earlier, in a developmental friendly that was far from it. Bracknell captain Natasha King allegedly punched a Sirens player and broke another's arm, at the same time being verbally intimidating and encouraging her team-mates to play aggressively.

When the teams met again in October, Czernuszka-Watts, then 28 years old and playing as a flanker, wore the number seven shirt. She found herself at the centre of the attention of King, who urged her team-mates to "smash the number seven".

Towards the end of the game, King was "humiliated" after being left winded by her own tackle attempt on Czernuszka-Watts. "That [expletive] number seven, I'm going to break her," she was heard to say.

In the final minutes, during a ruck and acting as scrum-half, Czernuszka-Watts bent down to pick up the ball. King executed a "belly flop", throwing her full 16-17 stone weight on to Czernuszka-Watts' back while holding on to her legs.

"I heard my back snap," Czernuszka-Watts tells BBC Sport. "It was the loudest break I think I've ever heard and I immediately shouted, 'She's broke my back'.

"I remember shouting, 'Put my legs on the floor, put my legs on the floor'. A friend of mine, who was a physio, she just looked at me dead in the eyes and then I remember looking at her saying, 'I'm hurt, aren't I?'

"It was then, looking at everyone else, when I knew that something quite serious had happened."

Her legs were already on the floor.

Two months at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital followed, then four months at Stoke Mandeville - the birthplace of the Paralympic movement.

Czernuszka-Watts knew "life was never going to be the same again" before doctors had told her the extent of her injuries. It was a stark realisation "when you're looking at your legs and you're giving everything to move them and they don't move."

Nearly six years on, she is a full-time wheelchair user and lives with chronic pain, acknowledging that prior to her injury she had "no idea" how difficult life can be for those with disabilities. She holds no resentment towards rugby, although her son has stopped playing because he doesn't want to get hurt.

"It has its dark days. There are times where I'm really angry at myself for playing [rugby] and there are times where I can say I had a good life, this wasn't my fault, this was an action that could have been prevented," she says.

"Now, you set new challenges, life is what you make it and I'm trying to make it the best that I can."

Czernuszka-Watts has conquered the challenges she has set herself so far. Twice she has completed the London Marathon, and sailed around Antigua with other wheelchair users.

It was after the first marathon that she decided to fill the hole in her life that sport had previously occupied. That video of sledge hockey - now known as Para-ice hockey - lurked in her memory and so she went to her first session with the Cardiff Huskies.

"I went out the next day and bought my kit. It was like freedom," she says.

In 2021, she answered a call for women with lower-limb disabilities to be a part of the Great Britain women's Para-ice hockey programme. She pulled on the red, white and blue - the number seven on her back once again - for the first time at the inaugural Women's World Challenge in Green Bay, Wisconsin, last year, an achievement made all the more remarkable given she had given birth to her third child eight weeks earlier.

In December, she was selected for GB's mixed team at the World Championships C-Pool, and it was there she made history, becoming the first female player - of any nation - to score at a Para-ice hockey World Championships.

"You're sitting there with the best, these guys have been playing like 20 years and you're still literally falling over and thinking, 'I am a very, very little fish in a big pond'. I had so much self-doubt, every day I was telling myself, 'OK, I'm good enough to be here'.

"And then scoring the goal, I didn't know how good that would feel until it happened, because I think my goal was just to survive each game.

"I've scored a lot of nice goals [in football] and converted a lot of nice kicks [in rugby], but I would say that was the sweetest one."

From 31 August, Great Britain return to Green Bay for the second edition of the Women's World Challenge, a tournament that hopes to act as a stepping stone to a first Women's World Championship in 2025 and, further down the line, a women's tournament at the Paralympics.

Czernuszka-Watts says she and her team-mates - who are all self-funded - have "grown a lot" since their last tournament and will go in with confidence, yet regardless of the result, it's clear to see what returning to sport has brought back to her life.

"It's very easy to feel sorry for yourself at times, sometimes I do feel sorry for myself and I allow those days because some days do suck," she says.

"Since 8 October 2017 there's not been a day where I've not been in pain and if you don't have a positive outlook in life that could take you into many, many dark places.

"Who knows what the future holds? I think I'll always give everything 101%. And I'll always try and bring my A-game in anything. From hoovering to playing in a match, it's going to be done to the best of my ability. I can only give life my best."

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