Strong Women: 'The burns almost killed me – strong is being a survivor of life'

Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.

A recent Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.

We hope that my normalising diverse images of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.

Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.

Sylvia Mac almost died when she fell into boiling water when she was three years old. The accident left her with severe burn damage and scars all over her body. She was forced to stay in hospital for years.

Swimming has been Sylvia’s lifeline for years. The water is her escape and being active has taught her to love and appreciate her body again.

Tell us what happened after your accident

I spent many years in hospital having hundreds of surgical procedures and operations.

People often don’t believe it when I say hundreds, but the hospital staff had to rebuild the hole in my back, which meant years and years of skin grafts, z plastic procedures, skin releases.

The hospital kept my skin on ice so that I didn’t have to continue having skin grafts. They literally took skin from my buttocks, tops of feet, arms and legs so I was left looking like a mummy, wrapped in bandages from my neck to my feet.

I wasn’t supposed to survive being so young, but luckily I did, just. I had my last rites read to me twice.

How did the accident impact your life growing up?

In my teens, I realised that I was different to my friends. They were all beautiful young ladies and I had these horrible scars under my clothes which made me feel ugly and different.

When I look back at my photos, I can see just how model-like I looked and in fact I was scouted by a model agent. The agency asked me if I had any marks on my body and you can imagine what happened next. I was ushered out of there quickly and told I could never walk on a runway.

Well I’ve walked on about four runways since then and modelled many times.

Relationships were extremely difficult from a young age and I was terrified of boys. All the boys seem to make a beeline for me and found me extremely attractive with my long golden hair, olive skin, slender figure and hazel eyes. All I saw was ‘ugly’.

I used to compare myself to John Merrick – the elephant man – because I felt the same. He had a great big heart on the inside but was deemed ugly on the outside. I watched his movie several times and cried every time. It was difficult feeling like I was the only person with scars.

As I grew older and met someone, I told them about me and they accepted me and my scars.

Now, I embrace myself as a person. My scars are an added unique element, showing strength and survival.

How has swimming helped you?

Swimming has been my lifesaver! In fact water has been my lifesaver. I can’t believe that I was burned in water and yet it also helped to rescue me.

I remember being bullied on the poolside, but in the water I was at my happiest.

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Every piece of clothing I wore over my scars had to be thick. These were my worse times at school trying to avoid anyone touching me, falling on me or brushing past me. I was always nervous and anxious suffering with paranoia at such a young age. Most people thought my scars would only bother me when shown in public or private, wearing underwear or swimwear. This is definitely not the case and scarred me mentally for the rest of my life until one day I no longer wanted to feel trapped in my own body. I was Physically & Mentally Scarred which meant all those opportunities that I wanted to have, were NEVER possible. They weren’t possible because I was unable to open my mind to positivity. It’s easy for us to blame our age, our disability, our skin differences on not achieving and YES this was the case for me and many others. However, when society can learn to help support us and embrace humanity and it’s uniqueness, life can get better for us all but we together can change things. Check out the following: PROBLEM: (negative) There will always be Campaigns that don’t wish to share Burn Scars like mine. FACT: (Positive) Things are Changing worldwide and recently @dove shared a wonderful campaign called #showus Reach out to other brands calling for change or diversity. PROBLEM: (negative)There will always be brands that don’t wish to share over 50’s just like me. FACT: (Positive) Look for brands that feature your age group, size, ethnicity, disabilities, differences…lots of Body Positive brands out there. PROBLEM: (negative) There will always be Press articles that don’t wish to feature my story because I don’t fit into their type of content. FACT: (Positive) There are thousands of Press articles looking for New content. Diversity is becoming a ‘trend’ so let’s take advantage of it & together fight for our rights. POSITIVE FACT: There will always be someone somewhere something that decides what they want for me but remember this…… I will decide what I want for me. I will model if I want to. I will walk runways if I want to. I will create my PATH because it’s MY PATH and I CAN, so CAN YOU ❤️

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I was a competitive swimmer for many years and trained mornings and evenings. The weekends were for land training and competition. I trained to be a swimming teacher and coach for the local swim club. I loved working with children and worked throughout the day in a special needs school then evenings at the club.

I love feeling fit but also healthy so that I don’t fall back into that world of giving up and spending my life not being able to do anything.

This is one of the reasons why I love swimming so much. Even though working out in a gym is tough for me, swimming is much easier as I can sweat in the pool. I don’t have any sweat glands in my back so I sweat profusely out of my head.

I’ve always been physically fit from the age of nine, until my son was born 15 years ago. I couldn’t walk and had to have an occupational therapist come daily to assist me with walking.

It was a real knockback but my Burn scars had taken its toll on my body. I had always had pain, but muscle spasms, sciatica, nerve damage and higher risk of blood clots were affecting my body as I aged.

What are you most proud of?

I think my biggest achievement is receiving a signed letter from Theresa May, along with a certificate ‘Point of Light Award’. I looked at the envelope for a whole week – at the words ’10 Downing Street’.

My biggest swimming achievement was attempting and finishing the Bosphorus Outdoor Swim from Asia to Europe.

On the 21st July I swam from Asia to Europe alongside the wonderful talented physical sports expert Professor Greg Whyte OBE. I approached Greg several times asking for his support on a swim challenge until and he agreed to help me out.

It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done with regards to swimming. I remember thinking about ‘finding nemo’ while I was out there as you’re alone in your thoughts.

I swam with jellyfish, currents and had people swimming over me. It wasn’t so much about the time but more about the accomplishment.

I was doing this for all those people who had suffered years of self body hating, severe depression, low self-esteem and of course my wonderful mum, sisters and family.

When I climbed out I broke down in tears and just couldn’t control my emotions. I was told afterwards that I finished in one hour and 28 mins. I couldn’t believe the finishing time as I kept stopping wanting to give up but Greg really motivated me all the way to the finish.

The term ‘strong woman’ to me means someone who goes through daily trials. These could be medical conditions, singlehandedly raising a family, supporting others, taking on challenges or dealing with their own mental health. Strong women are survivors of life.

I am Team GB

Toyota has teamed up with Team GB to re-launch the hugely successful participation campaign ‘I am Team GB’.

Inspired by the achievements of Team GB athletes and the amazing efforts of local community heroes, Team GB has created ‘The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day’, which will take place on the 24thAugust.

Over the weekend, there will be hundreds of free and fun activities across the country, put on by an army of volunteers; the ‘I am Team GB Games Makers’.

To Join the Team and be part of The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day sign up at:

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