A Thunder Bay, Ont., woman has turned a diagnosis that cut short a promising athletics career into work as a model, and hopes that people with visible disabilities will be better represented in the industry.

Growing up, Rachel Romu excelled in track and field, training with Lakehead University's athletics department and going on to the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010. But behind her success, she was struggling with chronic pain.

Seven years later, the dream of becoming an Olympic athlete was dashed by physical complications as well as two spinal surgeries. Originally dismissed as athletic injuries, her issues were later diagnosed to be a rare genetic connective tissue disease — Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. 

Romu received an official diagnosis in March of 2016, and though she can find peace in knowing the cause of her pain, she said there is a long road ahead in terms of pain management and recovery.

Rachel Romu

Romu, who uses a mobility aid, says she wants to see more people with visible disabilities represented in the fashion industry. (Connor Remus)

"It validated everything I was experiencing that wasn't making sense," she said. "But at the same time it's hard because I do realize now that it is not a temporary thing, and it's not something I can fix."

The disease has impacted the 24 year-old's education, employment and even personal relationships. Romu is open about the difficulties a young person with a disability — especially one that requires a visible mobility aid — faces.

"There's such a misconception that people with disabilities can't participate in fashion, culture, fun or anything like that," she said.

'He didn't want to hide that aspect of me'

Romu has since taken to modeling, in an effort to reclaim her autonomy as a young person who has endured an incredible shift from a former elite athlete to the "opposite end of the spectrum."

During her recovery, she said she was contacted by photographer and friend Connor Remus, who is also from Thunder Bay, to do a shoot that included her mobility aid.

"He didn't want to hide that aspect of me and wanted to feature that ... and figure out ways to concoct an image that looks like I'm doing something larger than I am," she said.

That experience was a cornerstone in Romu's beginnings as a model and allowed her to understand more closely what pursuing the career entails.

"I wanted to a take modeling as a vessel to shape a little bit of perspective about disability, that we are not only a part of our disabled identity," he said. "There's many ways in which we can present ourselves"

Romu said she also hopes to start seeing a larger representation of people with visible disabilities in the fashion industry, as well as all forms of media.