IT is hard to believe Maria Lyle is still only 21. The sprinter has been at the top of her sport ever since breaking on to the scene with her double victory at the 2014 IPC European Championships.

In the intervening years, Lyle has been on quite a journey.

The highs have been immense: six European titles, seven world medals, including three gold, three Paralympic medals and multiple world record-breaking runs have seen her establish herself as a mainstay of the GB team.

But there have also been significant lows. The Dunbar native has been open about how her cerebral palsy has affected her confidence, the mental health struggles she has endured and her loss of enjoyment in a sport that has dominated much of her life.

In the lead-up to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, it seemed Lyle had the world at her feet.

Aged only 16, she was already a world and European champion, but making her Paralympic debut was not the joyous experience she had hoped it would be, with the pressure of performing getting to her.

“Back in 2016, I was really unhappy,” recalls Lyle. “I didn’t enjoy the whole experience in Rio. I took it all too seriously. I was disappointed in the times I ran and it just wasn’t fun.”

It is, though, an entirely different Lyle who heads into the 2021 athletics season.

A few years ago, something clicked, and she realised she was struggling with her mental health and needed to seek help.

“It was when I became a teenager, that’s when you start to become more aware of how you’re viewed and I became more self-conscious about my cerebral palsy.

“I’d avoid going to school because I felt so uncomfortable being around people. I started to use my running as something to hide behind but when I was bad with my anxiety, if I didn’t run well I was really hard on myself.

“At some point though, you have to realise that something isn’t quite right and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to get help. It’s easy to say it but much harder to actually do it. But I’m so glad I did get help.”

Lyle realised she needed something other than running in her life.

Today, she is in the midst of a degree in sports coaching at Edinburgh’s Napier University, has a far more active social life away from her sport and she also used her time in lockdown last year to become a podcaster.

Along with journalist Gary Heatly, who also has cerebral palsy, the pair started a podcast called “This Ability”.

It is quite a diversion for Lyle but it is a distraction she is relishing and having a more varied life is, she believes, having an extremely positive knock-on effect on her running.

“I’d never done anything like podcasting but we’ve had a range of guests on speaking about their disabilities, the experiences they’ve had, how they’ve overcome it and just sharing the things we all have in common. “I’m really just known as Maria the runner so it’s nice to have another outlet.

“I think I’m a stronger person for having gone through everything I have. You can learn from every experience you go through and I’m definitely better at putting things into perspective now.

“I’ve got a much better balance in my life and now, I enjoy competing and I enjoy training; obviously there’s a bit of stress to competitions but nothing like what I felt before.

“It’s been a tough time but I feel like a better person for it all and I have a better outlook on life now.”

This week, though, Lyle will have her sprinter’s head on. On Tuesday, the WPA European Championships begin in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in what will be the final major championship before the Paralympics in Tokyo in August.

Lyle will run the T35 100m and 200m, defending her European title in the shorter distance.

The ultimate goal this season may be Tokyo, but Lyle is delighted to be back in the major championship environment, although she is reluctant to talk too much about silverware.

“The Europeans is a major champs so you obviously want to do well,” she says. “I used to think about results a lot but now, I look at how I want to execute the race. If I can run well, what will be will be with the results.”

The 47-strong GB team heading to Poland includes six of Lyle’s fellow Scots; Libby Clegg, Kayleigh Haggo, Stef Reid, Mel Woods, Ross Paterson and Alexander Thomson who will all be in the hunt for medals.