With the Commonwealth Games upon us it’s a good time to embrace and celebrate the fantastic athletes who will be representing their nations with pride and honour. Donning a sports uniform in your country’s colours can and does make athletes feel 10 feet taller, 10 times stronger and 10 times faster.
How do I know this? I know because for the past three years I have been fortunate enough to represent Australia as an elite paratriathlete and race against the best paratriathletes in the world. It’s an absolute dream come true for me and I pinch myself every time I lay out my Australian uniform ready to race. And yes it definitely makes me feel 10 foot taller, 10 times stronger and 10 times faster every time I zip up my race suit.
But this wasn’t always a dream of mine and once upon a time it would have been a far fetched and ridiculous idea to suggest I would ever have this amazing opportunity to represent my country in my favourite sport. It was a mere five years ago I was competing as an age group triathlete, racing all distances from sprint (500m swim, 20km ride, 5km run), to full Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km ride, 42km run). I would usually finish somewhere in the top third of my age group, and now again on the podium, but never on the top step. I was fit and healthy and loved racing but it was never a dream or on my radar to compete at a higher level. And quite frankly I was just not good enough!
Then in 2013 my life was turned upside down. I contracted a flesh eating bacteria following a bike accident and in a matter of hours I went from being a super fit, active, sportswoman, to being unconscious on life support, in multiple organ failure, and very close to death. The flesh eating bacteria destroyed my right arm and shoulder and amputation was the only option to save my life.
I spent a week on life support, three weeks in intensive care, three months in hospital and endured 11 surgeries before I was finally well enough to come home. The long journey of rehabilitation and recovery was really only just beginning. One thing I was sure of though: despite my new circumstances and learning to live as an upper limb amputee, I was determined to regain my fitness and dreamt of one day being able to participate in a triathlon again.
It took two years of relearning to swim, ride a bike, and run, all one armed, and rebuilding my fitness and confidence, before I finally made it to the start line of a sprint distance triathlon in Melbourne. I entered and competed in my usual age category. To say I was happy to be back participating in the sport I loved is a major understatement. It felt amazing and I was ecstatic. I expected I would be last by quite a stretch as swimming was a struggle for me. Not only did I not finish last I managed to finish about midway in my age group.
It was then the new dream began. I started comparing my times to the best paratriathletes racing in my disability class. Was I good enough to race as an elite paratriathlete? Could I race for my country? My times were quite comparable it seemed. I contacted Triathlon Australia and was given the opportunity to compete in an upcoming paratriathlon race in Penrith, NSW. This would be just my second triathlon as an amputee. Well the rest as they say is history.
I was competitive enough to be invited to join the Australian Elite Paratriathlon Team and not long after I was presented with my first Green and Gold Australian Race Suit. Since then I have raced all over Australia and in two World Championships. The first was in Chicago in 2015 where I managed to win a silver medal, and then in Rotterdam in 2016 where I took out the bronze. Both were incredible experiences and memories I will cherish forever.
This year the World Championships are on the Gold Coast in September and I hope to be included in the team once again. No matter if I am or not, the last three years of racing for my country has been such an honour and a huge thrill.
Most importantly it has given me the drive and determination to get on with my life and be open to any new opportunities that come my way. Because sometimes incredible opportunity comes following incredible adversity.
By Kerryn Harvey
Kerryn has gone from learning to tackle life as an amputee to stepping on the podium at the World Para-Triathlon Championships, and is founding director of START Foundation. Kerryn’s committment to empowering amputees in life through sport is inspiring. Follow Kerryn via @startfoundation_aus or @captainkez