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Scoliosis sisters Hollie and Jessica Cowdean scale any height to highlight condition

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 09/07/2015

Hollie and Jessica Cowdean both have the painful condition
Hollie and Jessica Cowdean both have the painful condition
Hollie and Jessica Cowdean practising for the climb

Two sisters from Northern Ireland who were diagnosed with a debilitating spinal condition within months of each other are to take on the challenge of a lifetime and climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Hollie (14) and Jessica Cowdean (15) from Lambeg had become withdrawn from sport after developing scoliosis - a serious and painful curvature of the spine. Jessica was diagnosed in November 2012, and it was then discovered Hollie had the condition also while her older sister was undergoing a major operation.

Jessica had surgery in December 2013, having titanium rods and screws inserted into her spine to straighten it. And Hollie now wears a full torso brace for 23 hours a day.

But in August the teenagers will spend around a week climbing Africa's highest mountain to help raise awareness of the condition.

Their father Bryan explained that the diagnoses came as a major blow to the family.

"We had never heard of scoliosis," he said.

"It came as a huge shock for the family - and a bigger shock that her younger sister has it also."

Mr Cowdean explained that Jessica missed months of school at Hunterhouse College because of the agony caused by the condition.

"At the peak of her pain she couldn't leave the house, she was on pain killers and we had to drive them to and from school.

"They missed out on activities and couldn't do PE. It ruled their lives, basically," he added.

However, a new sports programme called Straight2Swimming helped the sisters get their confidence back and also involved with the Kilimanjaro Achievers organisation.

Run by City of Belfast Swimming Club, Straight2Swimming is the brainchild of husband and wife team Philip and Edel Convery.

Supported by Olympic medal winning boxer Paddy Barnes, it's aimed at encouraging young people with scoliosis back to sport.

"She wouldn't have left the house without layers of clothing on and would never have even thought about getting into a swimming pool, let alone put a swim suit on," Mr Cowdean said.

"But the programme was just brilliant."

The programme is in contact with Dr Padraig Sheeran in Dublin, who founded Kilimanjaro Achievers.

"They suggested doing the climb and the girls jumped at the chance and said they would do it to promote scoliosis and raising awareness for parents to be checking their children's backs."

In preparation for the challenge they have climbed the Mournes, Cave Hill and the Wicklow Mountains as part of their training.

"My wife Elizabeth and I are so proud of our daughters and the fact they want to promote scoliosis awareness," he added.

Factfile

The 20,000ft Mount Kilimanjaro has beckoned to adventurers since the first recorded climb in 1889.

Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest mountain not contained in a range in the world.

The oldest person to make the summit was 87-year-old Frenchman Valtee Daniel.

South African Bernard Goosen twice scaled Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair. His first effort, in 2003, took nine days; his second, four years later, took only six.

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