Hannah: Becoming a Paralympian

interview by marie chung

Hannah was born without the lower part of her right leg – many of us would assume this would be a drawback on our ability to live an active, mobile and fulfilling life. When talking to Hannah, it became apparent that her life story is not about impairment, disadvantage or incapability. Rather, it is about hard work, positive thinking and success. Hannah is currently doing a PhD for the well-being of athletes with a disability. She is also training for the next Paralympics in Rio 2016, working at the Victorian Institute of Sport and when she can fit in her already busy schedule, she is a motivational speaker for schools around Australia.

Hannah, what is your PhD about? 

We have been comparing the well-being of athletes with and without a disability. After this, we are moving into a pilot study that will qualitatively explore the well-being of Para-sport athletes. And lastly, it is my intention to develop a targeted Para-sport athlete well-being program. The journey has  been academic so far and hopefully it will be less soon!

I’ve just finished a systematic review for the first stage of my PhD, which was very process driven. It was very quantitative and I’m very much from a qualitative background. Numbers and Hannah do not go well together, especially statistics. I’m drawn to well-being and why we have our strengths.

Are you doing work outside of that?

I’m also working at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) as an Athlete and Career Education Advisor – helping athletes find balance in life. It’s also helping me get practical experience whilst doing a PhD, and getting out of the academic space to work one on one with people on a regular basis. The VIS is based out at Albert Park and is dangerously close to a lot of coffee shops, which is fantastic.

I have heard that you like your coffee, but you are having tea now which is a disappointment.

I try to limit it to one good cup of coffee a day. I obviously love spending time with friends at cafes and checking out new places, and breakfast places of Melbourne. We are so lucky.

You spend a lot of time doing work otherwise. Do you identify yourself through your work?

It’s definitely part of what I do. Then we’ve got the whole athlete identity as part of what I do, which is quite a big part because you’ve got a lot of training hours. You are looking at 20-30 hrs a week.

When do you sleep?

I can do that later, it just means I’m quite an organised person.

What type of sports are you doing?

I’m currently a cyclist. I was a swimmer for a few years but I essentially got burnt out and was doing it because I was good at it and not because I loved it. I have transferred across into cycling. I’m absolutely 100% passionate about this sport again and aiming for Rio in 2016 for the Paralympics.

How did you get into athletics?

That goes back to growing up in Australia and the country being into sport. You grow up with the culture, school sports and the Learn to Swim program. It wasn’t until I was 9, when I was getting a prosthetic leg made and saw the picture on the wall of this guy who had one leg. He also had three massive gold medals on his neck. I thought to myself,

“I really want those gold medals, how can I get one of those?” I saw the caption that said he was a Paralympian and then I turned around to my mum and said, “this is what I want to do, I want to become a Paralympian”.

How were you so sure at that time?

Just big shiny things at that time, but then I actually learnt more about the Paralympics and found out that there were other people in the world like me and I’m not alone. Also, I had success in swimming and in sports and met a lot of different people from that, which then fuelled the love behind it and contributed to a meaning and purpose.

So you are obviously fairly good in sport.

Individual sports that don’t involve hand eye co-ordination and catching balls. We’ll leave that for other people.

Are you a good dancer?

No. I was kind of kicked out from ballet school because I couldn’t point my right toe. It was a slight issue being an amputee and having a fixed foot.

What was it like growing up with restricted physical movement and relating to other children?

There were definitely challenges, but I was very blessed. I went to an all girls school, I had amazing friends and I grew up with the same group of girls since I was 5 years old.

Kids don’t really look for differences. They look for whether you will be their play mate or not. At that age we were playing cops and robbers. I became Hannah, as opposed to “that girl with one leg”.

When anybody new came to school, they’d ask, “what’s wrong with Hannah?” My friends usually said, “There is nothing wrong with her, what are you talking about?,

“But she’s missing part of her leg”, and they thought “oh yeah”.

I was very lucky in that sense because I had an amazing group of friends. There was a large time period when I was about 7 – 12 years old, and because of my leg, I was doing sports at schools with peers and would generally come last. I’d go home and cry on mum’s shoulders with the competitor ribbon. It was an understanding process in terms of why others had an advantage over me, but then I suppose finding out about the Paralympics and being able to compete with people who have similar disabilities to me became fuel to the fire of going to the Paralympics.

A lot of people could take the side of self-pity or lack motivation to do things. It’s great you had that mentality at such a young age.

Part of the reason is that my parents divorced when I was 5, and I grew up with mum as a single mum. We had those hardships, like not being able to afford peanut butter, not having a full lunchbox or only vegemite sandwiches instead of meat. I came from that “life is tough, but life is also amazing” attitude and ethos. I remember my grandpa when I was 8, he gave me a gorgeous gold medallion that says “awarded to a courageous little girl”. I had a really great family support network around me that didn’t shield me in cotton wool and allowed me to fall down, but then help me stand up again.

That’s beautiful. Going through high school, teenagers can be bitchy, what was it like developing your friendships in high school or even relationships?

I suppose in my younger teenage years I was quite self-conscious in having one leg. Disability sport was still in relative infancy when I was 12 years old, there hadn’t been a lot of amputees jumping around full deck before. Naturally, people were staring continuously. With that I sat down with my mentor, and asked “Donnie, people are always staring at me, how do you deal with this?” And he said “Han, they are staring at you because they are curious. You are different, but is that really hurting you?”

At the end of the day, feel free to stare, I’m happy to show that even if you are missing part of your leg, that doesn’t impact on all the things you can achieve and your happiness. When I go out, and I do school talks or whatever it is, I encourage people to ask questions. We are just humans at the end of the day and we share a whole lot more similarities than our differences.

Do you get really strange questions from time to time?

Sometimes I get really great ones, “if you had the choice, would you still be missing part of your leg?” It was beautiful when I did some work with Indigenous Australians in Central Australia. They lacked the inhibition that city kids had. They hadn’t been brought up with, “no, you can’t ask those kinds of questions”. So it was constantly, “can you take that off? Put it back on. Oh it is really skin just under there, can I touch it?” It was beautifully refreshing.

Do you speak all around Australia?

I have and I love it, not only helping trying to promote the Paralympics but also helping to show that we shouldn’t be limiting ourselves regarding disability or whatever it may be.

Why do you think the topic of disability is still taboo in many cultures? A lot of Asian cultures see it as that for example.

I think, firstly, Beijing was a step in the right direction for the Paralympics and also raising that awareness within Asia itself. I know they put a lot of emphasis in the Paralympics themselves because the Emperor had a son who had a disability. There were so many volunteers who were helpful and hopefully that event shifted the attitude about disability. It’s about starting to create some of those conversations and shift perspectives. We are hard wired to focus on deficit, and negative things in life to help ensure our survival. We need to actually actively seek out the positive stuff, and what this person can do with a disability, how can they contribute to our society? As opposed to, they can’t do anything, they are useless people. I’ve seen that shift.

When I was in Tassie, I was the only athlete with a disability competing at their state swimming championship and now there is a whole lot more in Australia. There has been a progression of understanding in the last ten years.

That’s more positive than what I imagined.

It still depends where you go. There was a study done in the outskirts of London, at a lower socio-economic school, that found attitudes towards the London Paralympics was still negative and included comments such as “gross”, “what’s wrong with that person”. It shows that there is still a lot of work to be done.

What have your experiences of adversity been like? 

There were a few tipping points. One of them would’ve been reflecting from Beijing 2008 Olympic games, I went into those games physically in the best shape of my life and great things were expected of me. I was team captain and everything looked really good, I put far too much pressure on myself.

How old were you?

I was 20 and I was the grandma of the team. Swimmers were quite young. For Athens 2004, 80% of the Australian swimming team were under 18 years old. We were known as the pre-schoolers of the Australian team. Swimming is quite a young sport and emotionally and mentally, I was quite a mess in Beijing. I performed terribly and focused on what I didn’t want to happen rather than what I wanted to happen, I eventuated my own reality. I suppose that helped me to take a step back and reflect on why I was doing it. I realised that sport is such a bubble and we create these bubbles for ourselves. We do need to realize the whole picture. We are so immersed in that space at one time and we don’t know what is going on outside of it. At the end of the day, no one outside of my immediate family would’ve known that I swam badly or would have even cared.

But I felt like a huge failure. I had to learn to disengage performance results from a sense of identity. I’m still learning though. You have to have that growth mindset – it helped me ask the question of how long did I want to swim for and why was I swimming? That mentality and reflection started to transfer to all sports.

It’s really hard to dissociate yourself from performance because it is learned in high school through a grading system.

Yes, with sports also there are gold medals and awards.

Do you feel like naturally you’ve always put a lot of pressure on yourself?

That would come down to being a perfectionist. If I am doing a task, I like to do it well. I’m a bit of a nerd and geek, I wouldn’t say I’m naturally good at researching or anything like that. I just work hard for it. I do put a lot of pressure on myself, and that’s why things within the well-being space, like interventions, mindfulness, becoming more aware of your thoughts and time for you to relax are important. We need to realise that at the end of the day, if you are not going to get the work done, the world is not going to end. We try to emphasise balance but that balance might not necessarily mean the amount of time dedicated to different times of life, just making sure you have different areas you have to go to at different times.

We don’t have control over time, to feel balance if we recognise and identify that we do have these different components, and when we work with those areas, we are engaged and connected. We are bombarded constantly with information and distractions – it’s about learning how to minimise those distractions and still feel connected. Obviously social identity has become a big space recently.

It has become quite fluid, now we have social media, interactions are now moving into different spaces.

Did you engage in those common social activities like going to bars and clubs when you were younger?

With swimming, it was a 4:12 am start, 6 days a week, training till 7 am and recovering and retraining in the afternoon again. I did that until I was about 22 years old, so I occasionally went out about a max of 4 nights a year. It wasn’t a big part of my life mainly because I was an athlete and swimmer – it was my main focus and priority, I chose to pursue that path. So I don’t feel like I missed out on anything in that sense.

I don’t know how people stay up all night and go out the next day! I got to do a lot of things that my friend’s couldn’t do. I travelled around Australia and the world, I made many friends, and represented Australia at the Paralympic games. There were certain requirements for that, I wasn’t able to go to a lot of birthdays because of that, but my true friends knew and supported me.

Now that you are here at the other end of your life – a motivational speaker and participant in the Paralympic games – how do you feel about all of it? By anyone’s standards, you’ve achieved so much.

I’ve learned a couple of things. Life is short, we don’t know what’s going to happen around the corner, so really make the most out of every single day. Also, really be grateful for the things that you do have, and cultivate that attitude of gratitude.

Get rid of that tall poppy syndrome. I am proud of what I have achieved but I recognise that I still have so much more to learn and contribute. That’s one thing, life is a continuous journey of learning and growing which is exciting. There is always something we can be doing.

There’s also the importance of your friends and family. Life’s too short to have those negative people. If you surround yourself with positive people, they can help you and you can help them as well. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it is usually through falling down flat on our face and our biggest failures that we have our biggest growth.

What would you say to people who do have a physical disability and to those who have a similar experience?

I would say a couple of things. One of them is to find a mentor to guide you, who is out of your personal bubble to help you see things and connect dots that you can’t. You can learn so much from other people sharing stories, it’s a powerful way of learning. Also, ask yourself what your values are and what you stand for. If you know you are good at social justice, goal-setting, a great organiser, a people-person or whatever it may be, identify your strengths and it will help you take your focus to the positive things and not be bounded by those barriers that society has created around disability.

At the end of the day, we all have impairments, but it’s more so that society has created the disability. It is not only attitude, but physical barriers that place a disability on the person.

Society has a massive impact on how we perceive ourselves, I like that you have taken the focus on personal strengths as a driver and a guidance to what you can offer to society at the end of the day.

Instead of a deficit–based approach, it is a strengths-based approach. The ultimate outcome of my PhD is to increase the well-being of Para-sport athletes. At this stage we are conceptualising well-being through psychological well-being, social well-being and subjective well-being. They all include your personal perspectives and emotions. There are a whole lot of different ways to increase well-being. It is huge and it has to be broken down.

At the end of the day, I’d like to increase an individual’s well-being. You can measure it at an individual level or at a country to country level, such as equating happiness with money. For so long we have equated happiness with money – and it can achieve happiness by ensuring basics for survival – but we are constantly seeing levels of GDP increasing and levels of life happiness decreasing. So maybe we are measuring the wrong things, and if we start measuring other things like the well-being of countries, we can see what is going on and how we can improve it.

How could we help things progress a little faster for people with disabilities?

I think the Dalai Lama hits it straight on. First, approach people with the question about what our similarities are. Most kids are great at doing that. As we grow up, we focus on what differentiates us. We should focus on the person first as opposed to other bits and pieces that are going on. Also, it is important to be curious and harness that curiosity to break down some of those misconceptions. The quadriplegics still get asked whether they can have sex, and most of the time they can.

There are a whole lot of common misconceptions out there that are perpetuated by the media. Don’t believe what you see. Put on your analytical hats and question where that information has come from.

Throughout the conversation, I had completely forgotten about Hannah’s right leg (nor had I noticed it before we met). Her friendly and charismatic aura drew my immediate attention and as we were sitting down over our beverages, I was more interested in Hannah’s life successes rather than her pitfalls. Pitfalls did not seem to be relevant for her.

We took the liberty of photographing her prosthetic leg, with on-lookers curiously watching. Hannah revealed her misfortunes with high-heeled shoes and hopes that there soon will be prosthetic feet catered for high heels. Hannah continues to live an extraordinary life that has been earned through her hard work and positive life philosophies. Her individual efforts are persistent and her support networks are strong. When we allow the social environment to foster the conditions for progress and success, we can produce amazing individuals, no matter what disability they possess.