One moment Suzy Barton was sailing through the air in the Millennium Dome, suspended from a giant helium balloon to perform a tricky aerial stunt for the delight of the crowds below. The next she was plummeting towards the Dome's concrete floor. "As a gymnast you think you can somersault your way out of anything," she says. Instead she hit the ground within seconds, shattering her left foot and much of her right, smashing her pelvis, breaking her back in several places and narrowly escaping death.
"With the helium balloon, you have this feeling of weightlessness," she says, eight years after the accident in 2000. "But when the pins came away I went down like a ton of bricks. I hit the floor almost instantly. I landed on the balls of my feet, folded over the harness and slapped the floor. I actually heard my pelvis smash."
Despite the extent of her injuries, Barton knew at the time that it could have been much worse. The act involved flying between a number of high walkways and towers, and the accident occurred at the beginning of her performance. They were running late because the harness had been changed for a new one between shows, and it was a rush to get Barton ready to go. So they decided to skip the first high bridge she was to dive from, and to start from a more modest height instead. Her first, gentle flight passed without a hitch, but a sudden pull upwards from the balloon proved too much for the faulty harness. The pins holding her in place were tugged out of their sockets and she was no longer supported by the balloon. "Luckily I was upright," she says. "If I had been somersaulting I could have come down on my head." The other stroke of luck, if it can be considered luck, was that Barton fell six metres. The immense canvas of what is now the O2 Arena reaches up to a height of 35 metres.
Barton was trapped inside the tight corset of the harness, and after her feet crumbled, her body snapped shut like a clam shell. "Your subconscious behaves weirdly in these situations," she says. "I kind of knew I was screaming, and then my head thought, 'OK, this isn't helping. Shut up.'" She propped herself on to her side, still spliced almost in two by the restrictive corset.
Anyone listening in to Barton's remarkable story, here in the bar of a west London health club, would have difficulty believing it. Her tiny frame looks in peak physical condition, as you would expect from someone whose body is their work. Barton used Pilates to aid her recovery from the horrific injuries and is now a teacher, drawing on her own trauma to help rehabilitate other people who have sustained major injuries. Amazingly, she'd only had one other accident in a 16-year career, when she broke her ankle at the end of a two-year run travelling around the US with the Barnum and Bailey circus.
After the accident at the Dome, she was rushed to the nearest accident and emergency. She was given x-rays and MRI scans and learnt she faced at least two months in hospital. Soon she was transferred to St Thomas's in central London, where the foot specialist Mark Davies set about piecing her fractured feet back together. Of 26 bones in each foot, Barton had about 19 breaks in her left foot and another handful in her right. "I did think, 'Why aren't I wearing trainers?'" she recalls. She was in constant pain for three years following the accident; high-impact activities are still out of the question. "The ends of every bone were smashed apart. I have no covering of cartilage on any of them. If I jump, I land straight on to the bone."
It's a miracle she can walk at all. After two months in hospital she went home, but was practically housebound, still unable to bear her weight on her feet. A supportive boyfriend and friends and family got her through those first months. "It was a slow process. Even going out to the pub was a no-no. It changed my life a lot because I used to have an active social life and be really sporty. I was very frustrated. I got tired really easily and felt shattered all the time."
She was also at the top of her career game, had six months of future work planned and had started getting into choreography. "Because I've worked all my life since I was 16, I even felt guilty for lying around and doing nothing. I had six months of not being able to do very much and it was quite tough. But it was best to stay in. If I went out and fell over, I would land on my bottom. My pelvis was so sore, and I couldn't jerk my back to stand myself up." Despite the constant pain, which she describes as "nagging background pain, like a toothache", Barton's body rejected strong painkillers like morphine and codeine, so she made do with paracetamol.
The breakthrough came after regular physiotherapy and 10 sessions of hydrotherapy, which finally got her left foot moving and able to bear weight. "After that, I got my confidence back," she says. She joined the Pilates studio at her friend's physiotherapy practice, started swimming and joined a gym – anything to get strong again.
Barton is strikingly positive, and says she has never been depressed, but she did have some counselling to exorcise her anger. Had the harness been properly welded, she might still be performing today, instead of relying on the £510,000 compensation payout – the biggest to a UK performer in history – to pay her ongoing medical bills. She has never been back to the O2, but has flashbacks to the accident. Two years ago she stayed in a hotel with a glass lift that made her incredibly anxious. "I felt panicked all holiday, but it was just part of dealing with the trauma."
Ultimately Barton's accident led to the end of her relationship. She and her former boyfriend remain close friends, but her injuries meant they developed in different directions: he stayed social and active, while she had to build a new life.
In 2002, she signed up to a Pilates teacher-training course. Her own experiences of chronic pain help her to empathise with clients; but her amazing success in rebuilding her body masks the long-term consequences of the accident. She has frequent joint problems and is worried about arthritis, her long-term medical prognosis. "There are always going to be issues," she says. "I am never going to be the person I was 10 years ago. I loved performing, and hearing the audiences gasp when you first appeared was a real high, but I feel that Pilates has helped me grow in a really positive way. I get something back from the people I help."
A guide to Pilates
* Pilates is a method of maintaining physical fitness through performing a series of postures that focus on the body's "powerhouse" – the abdomen, lower back, hips and bum. It addresses posture and postural balance, and works at muscle tone.
* It was developed by Joseph Pilates during the First World War, to rehabilitate returning veterans and work on their mental as well as physical health. He ran a studio in New York during the 1960s frequented by dancers and actors who were devotees of his techniques.
* The "Pilates Principles" condition the entire body through proper alignment, centering, concentration, control, precision, breathing and flowing movement. The ultimate aim is for the mind to correct physical imbalances as the body moves unconsciously, by training the mind to work with the body and to carry it correctly.
* Celebrities who use Pilates include Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Madonna, and even Martin Amis, John Cleese and Ian McKellen. Belinda Carlisle believes that she has grown over two and a half inches in height thanks to eight years of Pilates.
* One million Brits swear by Pilates, but trouble is brewing between the couple who brought it to the UK, Lynne Robinson and Gordon Thompson, of Body Control Pilates. The pair have sold 4 million books and DVDs, but Robinson now wants to oust Thompson, who wants to promote the use of Pilates machines; Body Control advocates matwork.
* Suzy Barton does Pilates at Physioworks and at The Scott Studio in Somerset, and trained with the Pilates Foundation. She urges that you check out where a teacher has trained before you commit to their course.