After a year like no other, Kiera Byland certainly found her festive spirit.
Sporting a seasonal jumper, Kiera showed off her winter-themed diamond-dot artwork on a video call with Spautism having also assisted with the virtual switch-on of the Bolton Christmas lights at the start of December.
Her involvement in the event was a fitting end to a year that has seen Kiera brighten many people’s lives – as not being able to compete on the track meant she threw her efforts into supporting initiatives as an Athlete Leader, coach, and volunteer.
From getting people active through Fitness Friday videos to championing the Special Olympics’ Strong Minds campaign, and delivering a workshop for staff at Warner Bros. Studios to promote positive living, Kiera’s inclusion in the Shaw Trust Power 100 list in November showed her efforts have not gone unnoticed.
That’s not to say Kiera has found 2020 easy – her 11 gold medals as a cyclist across the Special Olympics and INAS World Championships were not achieved without regular training and a strong work ethic, so COVID-19 presented her with a significant change in routine and lifestyle.
For starters, Kiera has been forced to spend much more time in her living room where her trophies and medals have found pride of place. But they have not served as a daily reminder of her life before the pandemic – rather the potential lives of many others when sport returns to normal.
“As soon as I came into athlete leadership, that was the main reason,” said Kiera. “How can I better the opportunities I’ve had and help other people?
“Everybody’s journey is different. Try different sports to see what you might like; not liking a sport is fine, and not knowing what sport you want to do is okay as well. You don’t always have to compete; you can do it recreationally, volunteer, or do coaching, so it depends on your personality and the targets you want to achieve.
“Sport can also help break barriers. If I didn’t do cycling or swimming, I wouldn’t have been able to find out about the Special Olympics, which means I wouldn’t have learnt the skills that bring me to where I am today.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but with hard work and the support of family, mentors and friends. Someone might be able to get to the Power 100, and it would be fantastic if they did. They’ve just got to keep ticking off little goals.”
Kiera was lucky enough to always have the support from those close to her, which is why she has used 2020 as an opportunity to start her own business, Root 2 Change, to provide the same amount of love and assistance to others through coaching and inspirational talks.
This is a remarkable evolution of someone who struggled to read and write in school. Cyberbullying also made it difficult for her to feel accepted; that is until watching Fast Girls on a family film night would shape the rest of her life.
“It was about these girls [in a relay team] who were training for the Olympics and they kept bickering. You could see the frustration. But over the course of the film, they found those bonds, and won.
“After that film, I wanted to get a medal and see how everybody reacted to it, because a lot of negativity was shown to me because of my autism traits, but for the girls, it was happy. They seemed like heroes and I wanted to see that interaction towards me – for people to accept me, not try to change me to fit in.
“It has lived up to its expectations as I’ve managed to do so many different things, and that’s the power of sport. That’s where I learnt how to have friends.
“I didn’t do any team sports so I didn’t know what it meant to be in a team, but through the Special Olympics and my Athlete Leader role, I am part of a team now and I can now see all those skills.
“Teams can spend hours and hours together and they are there for each other, and we can do that as well, even if it’s from a distance. We can inspire each other to keep going, even through times that aren’t easy.”
This is a message Kiera has emphasised on various calls throughout the year, and as a result she has gathered some top tips for people to consider during the holiday period and into 2021.
“Try and stay positive during these hard times, look at Friday Fitness videos, and take some deep breaths during the day because using online platforms can be very stressful – sometimes you need to take five minutes to just chill.
“Show kindness to others; try talking to your family members and see what they’re doing, or phone somebody that you haven’t seen for a while. The inner strength and techniques you learn from your family members and people around you will help you get through.
“I posted 100 inspirational quotes during that first lockdown to spread positivity. There are so many inspirational people out there, so many stories, and Spautism are putting those stories out there.
“Resilience is a buzz word at the moment. It’s trying to learn how to adapt, and for me, that has been extremely hard, but I’ve managed to do it from being in a classroom at college to going online – that switching around can be quite difficult.”
After tackling such challenges head on, Kiera has not only learnt about resilience, but empowerment as well.
“Autism is unique. It helps you be different and look at things in different ways to other people.
“If we’re talking about a job and you need new initiatives, it could help you because you could see it on a different slant all together. Never assume what a person can and can’t do.
“I did an international call where I only had 12 hours to prepare. A few years ago, I would have had a complete meltdown and given up, and although I did have a few challenges, I managed to control the situation and think about how I would deliver it.
“Those skills have developed over the years, and if you go to different sports events, you’ll learn so many different things just by the people around you – they can help you with those skills in everyday life.
“I like the saying, ‘Why try to fit in when you are born to stand out?’ It’s about celebrating that; fighting for what you believe in shows that you are a strong person and you can make a difference to others.”