How life changes in an instant: thoughts and reflections

When I woke on Saturday 20 February, 2021, I felt this day was different. I felt nauseous, light headed, I had butterflies. Why on earth am I nervous? 1900m is NOT a problem for someone who swims further than that almost every time she visits the pool. But, this day was different. This day will go down as a landmark in the history of my life. This day is definitely different.

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I looked back at my race report from 2020. I had not managed to finish any races I had entered in the months following my knee replacement in late 2018. I called the Oxman (December 2019) short at one bike lap instead of 2. I recorded my first ever DNS (did not start) at Challenge Wanaka Aquabike (February 2020). I was a bit cheesed off to say the least. That is how I came to know Trevor and join his team as the cyclist. A last minute ditch attempt to be able to do at least something by offering myself online for anyone who needed a swimmer to fill their team.

This is how I looked before the race last year. I was disgusted at the fact that a supposed ‘athlete’ was using crutches. I refused to purchase my official photo (from the swim exit) after the race. Little did I know that I would upgrade these hospital crutches and purchase myself some much more expensive ones (that did not cause blisters) because I was beginning to use them full time. I did not know that less than 8 months later, I would no longer still have that left foot and crutches would become my new mobility norm.

Walking was already proving to be difficult and cycling was completely out at the stage this photo was taken. The crowd were super impressed I was there (on crutches) participating.

Wait till they see what I was about to produce 12 months later.

8 Months, significant pain and seven surgeries later on 2 October 2020, I was to learn that I would have to have my left leg amputated below the knee. This took place on 8 October 2020. Why waste time, I thought. Who the hell wants to spend any time at all going stir crazy thinking about the fact that someone is soon going to be chopping your leg off.

That is why I went for the soonest date possible. That is also why I started my daily Vlogs. A way to force myself to be accountable to find the positives in this journey. I am still to this day making daily video blogs.

Prep for this year compared to last year

Last year, I was still officially a normal, age group athlete, who simply had a foot injury. So Challenge Wanaka allowed be to take part, but no one was allowed to help advance me forward or better my position in any way. My crutches were taken to the swim exit, I got out under my own steam, shouted for them and took myself the 500m or so to transition to the cyclist.

This year, I had contacted Bill Roxburgh (race director) the week my surgery was scheduled, right after I learned I would lose the leg. The very first thought in my mind was would I be able to recover fast enough to swim again in Challenge Wanaka. It was a complete unknown. So Bill and I chatted through all the possible options including someone taking my timing chip to transition for me if I did not have a prosthetic leg or was still unable to walk. So all I had to do was cover the 1900m. Well, that was the easy part.

Changes to the race event site

I have done Challenge Wanaka a few times in a team, so I knew the course and transition layout / site well. But – then they announced it was changing venue. We drove up to take a look a few months before the race. I was so unsure of how it would all be laid out I had still no idea if I would actually be able to walk it to transition. But damn it I was going to try, if it was at all possible.

So, once again, me and Bill had a chat (the day before the race this time at registration) and I did a walk through. It was only now that I found out it was a beach start. This is absolutely the worst possible nightmare for a leg amputee, and something the race team had not considered. I am glad we had a chat because it was then decided that I would be allowed to start in the water, whereas the rest of my wave would be stood up, on the beach. No one really asked too many questions at the start of the race, except one woman who offered to help me up, thinking I had fallen over rather than being deliberately sat down. I had to explain I was down here on purpose because actually, I only had one foot!

The swim and swim exit

The swim, as I said, was absolutely not a problem. I was out there to enjoy it, back in open water, find my mojo and remember what it felt like to be at least a small part of a triathlon: a sport that was such a major part of my life for so many years and one that I had completely lost touch with.

I couldn’t see the second buoy at all despite it being huge and red, because it was completely in the shade of the mountain and the sun was just rising over the top of it shining right in my eyes (even with my tinted goggles!) I followed the swimmers in front of me till I could actually see it, hoping like hell they too were actually going the right way! It is a stunning place to swim, with such amazing scenery in all directions. I started to catch and pass a few of the people in my wave that had set off faster than me and even got past a few of the people that had started in the previous wave 5 minutes before mine.

As I approached the shore, I could see my husband (the runner and my handler for today) clearly on the beach, waving at me. He had the crutches and the prosthetic leg. This was to be the first time we tried this approach. The previous two races I have not bothered with the leg. But the distance I had to travel to transition – it was a no brainer.

I was helped up to my feet and out of the water. On the shoreline (in full view of the commentator and all the crowd, of course!) my handler knelt on one knee, I sat on the other knee and put my leg on (over the wetsuit). I stood up to a huge cheer and set off up the chute to transition. I had whoops and cheers the entire way. I did not acknowledge them all but I heard each and every one of them and it helped propel me on, across the road, up a sideways sloping field and round transition to the cyclist, my handler by my side in case I ran out of steam!

As the cyclist then set off, with the transponder, I sat down and contemplated what I had just achieved.

My THIRD race as a para-athlete. My third race in an able bodied field. My third race where I was not last in my wave despite being the only disabled athlete. All this just FOUR months after having my left leg amputated below the knee, and just over 8 weeks after I was finally allowed to get back in the water after my surgery (held up by a staph infection keeping the wound open longer than we hoped).

The triathlon atmosphere

I stayed on the event site following and supporting the remainder of my team for the rest of the day. Trevor, last years cyclist, was the cyclist again this year. I contacted him in October last year when I first talked to Bill, and asked would be join again. Yes, without a doubt said Trevor. But what he did not know till the day before the event when I walked into the event site to meet him and collect our race numbers / bag / swim hat / transponder, was that I had lost my left leg not long ago. He saw me coming and said oh no, are you still on those crutches?! So I sat him down and explained. If he was shocked he didn’t show it, was not phased by it and immediately asked was there anything he could do to help either now or during the race. <3 Trevor for that.

So so may people spoke to me that day. I didn’t know any of them but they all knew me, many by name. Words of support, inspiration, thanks, it goes on and on. I was a little overwhelmed by how many people I had touched in so many positive ways, simply by getting out and finding a way to get back to doing what I love despite the horrors that had happened to me.

This is why I blog. This is why I still make videos.

It is not why I do what I do, but it is why I share it. If my and my drive, determination and pig headed refusal to let anything beat me can help a few others be inspired to achieve their dreams too, then I love that.

The future image of me

I am proud as hell of ME. I am so proud of what I have gone through, tackled and achieved in the 12 month between last years and this year’s Challenge Wanaka. This weekend has helped me to come to a decision about what type of prosthetic leg I want to keep moving forward.

I HATE the post shaped leg. I always have. But.. I am not sure I like a fake leg looking leg either. I have been through and conquered an unimaginable amount of sh** in order to be here today having achieved what I have achieved. So hell, everyone should be able to see that every time I choose. So i have decided I will not have either of the above types of leg. Here is my next plan.

I google searched ‘limb art’ and discovered a whole world of wearable art for amputees. Basically they are like shin guards, but made and measured to resemble to shape of a leg so that leggings and trousers hang right on a prosthetic, without it having to be made to look like a fake real leg. Ideal! Best of both worlds!

Here is an example.

They basically strap onto the post of a prosthetic to make it form a leg shape. And yes, there is a whole world of designs you can choose from for the colour wrap! This is my VERY NEXT question for my prosthetist: Where do we order one and can we do it immediately!

My next goal

Challenge Wanaka advertise as a race with a paratriathlon class. But… as far as I can see they have never actually had any entries. By self admission TrINZ have already said it is a development area they are weak on and it needs to be addressed.

So, since I DNS my last attempt – I wonder if, (perhaps 2021 or even 2022, depending on leg progress) I could enter and take part in the aquabike race as a paratriathlete, and perhaps even be their first? Bill knows that I already have this as a goal.

But first, I need to teach this leg to ride a bike and then figure out ho to actually get on and off it! Once I have that all sorted there will be no stopping me.

Watch this space.

Author: Melanie

I am a massage therapist and part time athlete, blogging life thru a disability lens. On wheels, with flipper and occasionally on feet.