See the Full Person
The story behind my birth is quite special. I have a brother who is two years older than me. When my mom was pregnant with him, she kept asking the doctor to make sure he had ten fingers and ten toes. And every time she went for a check-up, she would ask that same question. Needless to say, he was born with everything intact.
Two years later, when my mom was pregnant with me, my dad asked her not to keep asking the doctor that question, so she didn’t. And yet, she had a feeling something wasn’t right.
The doctors didn’t pick up that something was wrong with my left hand. I was lying on my side in a way that prevented it from growing. As a result, I was born with a physical disability in the form of a congenital defect in my left arm. I still have a wrist and little fingers at the front. At the time, it was a huge shock to those who were present for my birth – apparently my father passed out and the doctor ran away!
The first advocate for my physical disability – my grandfather
I share a very special bond with my grandfather – he would tell my parents I was born with a disability because God had a plan for me, and that I would bring a lot of joy to the family. He is the one who made sure I developed my hand properly, to make sure I was working the shoulder and back muscles needed for a strong running motion.
Growing up, I wasn’t treated differently by my family despite having a physical disability. If I fell off my bicycle, I was encouraged to get up and try again. I’ve learned that it’s OK to try and fail, because I’ve always had a nurturing family there to support me.
I’m very stubborn and didn’t used to like asking for help but now I’m a lot more comfortable asking when I need it. I’ve learned that we all have things in life that we can’t do.
Showing my ability at school
I always wanted to be part of the action at school but having a physical disability presented many hurdles. Looking back, I remember being the girl with red eyes every day because children were cruel and said really hurtful things. I couldn’t understand why I was the one with a disability, and why I couldn’t be like everyone else. I had classic FOMO and didn’t want to miss out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised the need to focus on myself because when you invest in yourself, you won’t miss out on anything.
I started running at the age of nine, and finally felt as though I had found my place. It was a place where I could be free.
I wasn’t that good at first, but I had a passion for running and knew that I wanted to be better. I felt that I had been given a gift. I wanted to look after it, mould it, and work on it to improve.
I competed in many able-bodied events – the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and relay. Despite my physical disability I even played hockey to get team sport experience. I didn’t want to miss out on taking any opportunities because I was healthy and felt able to do it all.
For the love of running
In my final year of high school, I competed in my first disability national championships and that’s where my professional Paralympic journey started. At that point, I didn’t know that I could compete at the Paralympic Games. I didn’t know how the structure worked. These days I try to educate young athletes with physical disabilities on how the system works so that they can make use of these wonderful opportunities from a younger age.
The thing I tell children is to have fun when they run. You don’t need to become a professional athlete; you just need to have fun while you’re doing it. I’ve always had a lot of fun running, and it’s the reason I still run today. The beauty of sport is that there’s a space for everyone.
When I was 19 years old, I started calling my little hand ‘Pietie’. I have an emotional attachment to him – he’s my companion, we have fun together and I’m grateful for the opportunities he’s given me. When I compete however, I wear a carbon fibre prosthesis as it protects me from getting injuries while running.
Competing at the Paralympic Games
I compete in the T47 classification of physical disabilities. T stands for Track and Field, and the classifications for T45-47 are upper limb/s affected by limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement.
The T47 classification doesn’t have any long-distance events, so we can choose between 400m, 200m and 100m. The 400m is my main event and the one I enjoy most. Competing in the 100m and 200m events has helped me to become a better 400m runner.
I’ve taken part in three Paralympic Games. My first one was in London 2012. I was 19 years old and managed to win a silver medal in the T47 100m and a bronze in the T47 200m.
Four years later, I took part in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. I remember travelling on the bus to the track and telling my coach I was going to break the world record in the T47 400m. She looked at me with big eyes because it was an unrealistic comment to be making at the time. I got to the last 150m of that race and couldn’t keep up with the pace. I ended up in second place, with a silver medal. That’s become part of my learning – knowing what you can and cannot do and being realistic about where you’re currently at.
The lockdown life of a determined athlete
There were many challenges ahead of preparing for Tokyo, with the main one being the fact that the event was moved out to 2021. It was tough adjusting to the new timeline, but I knew I wasn’t done, so I was determined to keep fit during lockdown. I used every corner in our house to train, and it was having the goal of competing at the Paralympics that kept me sane because as an athlete, you need to feel as though you’re working towards something.
The group I usually train with had to get creative during lockdown – we’d even have our kettlebell sessions via Zoom so that we could check each other’s postures! Looking back, it’s amazing how we got on with it and made it work.
I did everything in my ability not to contract Covid. I didn’t even see my parents. For six months before the Games, my husband and I didn’t have friends over. I would have coffee dates with my friends via WhatsApp video calls! I knew that if I was to contract Covid, I most likely wouldn’t be able to compete at the Games.
But then I got it. Just weeks before the Paralympic Games.
No escaping the pandemic
It was a really difficult period even before I contracted Covid – I discovered that I had a back herniation, which was my sixth or seventh one. Plus, I had a two-centimetre tear in my hamstring. Having Covid, forced me to rest. It gave my back and hamstring time to heal, but it was a tough time emotionally and physically.
On days 8, 9 and 10 of having Covid, my lungs were taking strain – it felt as though someone was squeezing me very tight and I struggled to breathe. My husband would take my oxygen levels at home, and on those three days I was close to being admitted to hospital. I remember sitting with our Zara, our Beagle on my lap while I was using the nebulizer, and seeing the look of concern in her eyes. Covid takes over your mind first, and then your body. It takes your mind to places it shouldn’t go.
I drank a lot of coffee, listened to music, read Bible scriptures and used my mental capacity to drown out Covid. I relied heavily on my faith during this time. I tried to appreciate every single day and then finally I was allowed to start walking outside.
I was excited to be outdoors again, but walking made my heart rate go up to 180bpm! The first time it happened, I sat on a bench and started crying, wondering how on earth I’d get to the Tokyo Paralympics if I couldn’t even walk for ten minutes.
I started doing yoga and training and had to constantly watch my heart rate. I knew I had to listen to my body and take it slowly. I had an ECG just to get confirmation that I was okay, and ready for training. Thankfully all was fine, but I couldn’t go straight back to training full time. I had to leave five-hour gaps in between sessions to make sure I was resting enough.
Not even Covid could keep me from showing my ability
I was meant to peak in Tokyo… but because of Covid, I had taken so many steps backwards. But every day, my body got stronger and reacted well to the training. Recovery became my main priority. Making sure that in between sessions, I was eating well and resting properly. When I got the all-clear to join the team’s holding camp, I was struggling when I had to jog for distances over 3km, but I felt really good over the shorter distances.
That’s how I had to approach the Games – I made the most of every day that I was in Tokyo, believed in my body and my ability, and trusted that there would be a positive outcome.
My main goal was to be in the moment and to focus on executing my race and running with God from the beginning until the end. I had put in the work I needed to, and now it was time to execute.
Watching the race back, you can see that I really started to race at the 200m mark. I raced an extra 10m over the line and the reaction to my win was pure praise – for God, my family and support team, for believing in me and helping me to achieve my goal. And even though my family couldn’t be there in person for the special moment, I felt their presence, and never felt alone. So many people were involved in my story, understood my journey with physical disability and backed me all the way.
It was an absolute honour to represent my country in Tokyo, and to win a gold medal in the T47 400m event.
Working with children with disabilities
I studied to be a Primary School teacher but with my athletic training, it would have been difficult to work in a mainstream school as they would’ve needed me to be at school from early in the morning until late afternoon.
A few years ago, I was at a friend’s wedding and one of her guests was the principal of a pre-school for children with special needs, called I-Learn Development Centre. The principal saw me dancing with the children and having fun with them. She asked whether I would consider visiting the school to see the work that they do.
The school was founded by a speech therapist, play therapist and two occupational therapists, who saw the need for a specialised pre-school environment where children with specific learning needs could develop and thrive.
From the moment I visited the school, I loved the passion that the staff had for the little ones, and their developmental approach. The children were aged between three and five years old, many of whom had a varying degree of autism or cerebral palsy.
I joined the teaching staff, and in the beginning, I wondered whether the children would trust me, given my own physical disability. And if they didn’t trust me then why would they listen to me? So, I set about building trust and connecting with them at their level. I’ve learnt that regardless of ability, once you have an authentic connection with a learner, that’s when teaching can occur.
Being with the kids taught me patience. They taught me that they might not be able to do something straight away, but if you give them enough time, give them guidance, and you believe in them, they are able to do it.
Accepting and loving who you are
I’m taking a bit of time to decide what my next goals are. I’d like to continue creating awareness for mental and physical disabilities amongst children in schools, and to be a vessel to inspire them to accept and fully love who they are.
My advice to those who feel hindered by an emotional or physical disability is to find your gift, your unique talent, focus on that and work hard at it to accomplish your goals.
Being part of a physical disability community makes me appreciate my entire body. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I appreciate all the things that I do.