I first had the pleasure of interviewing Paralympic athlete Stef Reid MBE six years ago, mere weeks after London 2012, where she won silver in the long jump. Determined and dedicated, Stef exudes positivity, and yet her story – when she recounts it once more – still shocks me.
An aspiring and talented sportsperson even at a young age, New Zealand-born Stef (whose mother is English and father Scottish) was showing great promise in the world of rugby, and at the age of 12 dreamed of playing at international level. However, aged 15, while staying at a friend’s holiday cottage in Canada, where she grew up, Stef was involved in a near-fatal accident that changed the course of her life.
“My friends had an amazing boat and we did a lot of tubing [being pulled through the water riding an inner tube] while we were there,” Stef remembers. “The morning I was due to leave, we decided to go out one more time.
“I’d fallen off the tube during my turn and was waiting to get picked back up. I saw the boat coming towards me and didn’t think much of it, but then I looked back a few seconds later and realised he was coming way too fast. There’d been a miscommunication between the spotter and the driver, so the driver didn’t even know I was in the water. He didn’t see me.”
As a lifeguard and strong swimmer, Stef quickly assessed her options. Realising she didn’t have time to swim to safety either side of the boat, she decided to perform a surface dive and swim straight down, out of the way.
However, due to the split-second nature of the situation, she had forgotten she was wearing a life jacket, which kept her buoyant.
“I remember going under and then eventually surfacing and thinking, wow, that could have been really bad. I’m probably not going to mention this to Mum on the way home!”
Then she noticed the darkening water and the faces of the people on the boat.
“I remember kind of reaching down to feel what had happened, and realising I just stuck my hand inside myself.”
The boat propellers had caught her lower back and glutes, as well as her right leg.
“I was conscious the whole time, although I was in shock. I remember I just wanted to see my right foot, because I knew it didn’t feel right. But once on the boat, somebody kept shoving their hand on my shoulder and making me lie down, because they didn’t want me to see. I thought I was going to die.”
Stef was rushed to a local medical centre, before being transferred to hospital in Toronto, where one of the best orthopaedic surgeons in the country and an expert team saved her life. But her right leg had to be amputated.
“I was very, very lucky. My right leg is the residual injury that everyone sees, but it was considered a minor injury compared with what was going on in my back. It was just a massive open wound, and then on top of that the propeller blades were very dirty, so it was full of dirt and rust, and awful things that easily lead to septicaemia.”
Against all odds, Stef started to recover, but with her future so dramatically altered, she fell into depression.
“I was in a really dark place,” she remembers. “I was angry. I was a sportsperson – all I wanted to do was play basketball and rugby. But my foot had just been amputated and all I was thinking was, how am I going to play any of these things when I don’t know if I’m even going to be able to walk, let alone run? I was feeling very sorry for myself and, on top of the sporting concerns, I just didn’t want people to feel sorry for me my whole life.”
With those closest to her unsure how best to respond, it was eventually one of the nursing team who helped turn Stef’s mindset around.
“She was able to say things that people who were close to me just wouldn’t have been able to say at that point,” acknowledges Stef. “I wasn’t dealing with things well and it was coming out really angry. She came in with my breakfast one morning and offered to help me get up and maybe take a shower, but I just didn’t care. I closed my eyes, pretending to go back to sleep, thinking she’d get the hint. But she didn’t. The details are fuzzy, but the essence of what she said next was, ‘That’s enough’. She called me out. She also told me there was a young girl in another ward who’d lost both of her legs, yet she could still smile.
“To this day, I don’t know if that was true, but it kind of bothered me that someone younger than me was dealing with it better. That nurse laid down a challenge. As an athlete, I love being challenged, and she was the first person who walked in and challenged me. That woke me up again and reminded me I was still the same person. That even though life might look a bit different, I could still make it good.”
Stef certainly did make it good. With her sporting career apparently at an end, she turned her talents to academia, going on to study biochemistry at Queen’s University, in Canada. But while there, walking past the athletics track one day, she felt compelled to try running – simply to see if she still could. It was a revelation. She joined the athletics team.
“I kind of had in my mind, because I was a big-time rugby player before the accident, that I was going to be really awesome,” she laughs. “But I was not awesome! Running was hard. I’d had a really traumatic thing happen to my body, and I’d lost a lot of fitness and muscle mass. But you know what? I loved it. And I just kind of accepted, OK, I’m not good at this now, but that’s fine. It just felt so good. And I felt fast, because it was the fastest I’d moved in a long time! It made me so happy.”
Stef admits she struggled with self-image prior to starting running once more, but attributed her newfound body confidence to sport.
“It wasn’t until I started doing sport again that I was finally in a place where I was proud of my body. For me, the difference was going from thinking about my body in terms of what it looked like, to thinking about it in terms of what it could do, and that was the most incredible shift. I think it’s one of the most important things any woman – any man – can experience: just stop focusing on what you look like; this is about what you can do. As an amputee, I just wanted to fit in. But when I started running again, I lost that concern. I got to the point where I wasn’t embarrassed about my leg – I loved it! Suddenly I had this running blade that allowed me to run again, and I got it in hot pink, because I wanted people to stare at it, because it was awesome!”
After graduation, Stef put her academic goal of studying medicine on hold, in order to pursue a career as a professional athlete. To name just a selection of her sporting achievements, she has gone on to win bronze in the 200m at the 2008 Paralympics; silver in long jump at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics; and is the reigning World Champion in long jump. She’s now targeting Tokyo 2020. Her hard work and dedication has most recently led to her being on the New Year’s Honours list in 2018, for her services to Paralympic sport.
The fact she simply loves what she does is evident, if you watch any footage of her competing.
“The most popular questions I get asked when I visit schools is, ‘How do you deal with nerves?’ ‘What if things don’t go well?’ ‘What if you come last?’ The truth is, I feel really confident now when I go out and compete. And it’s not any magic formula – it’s just because I’ve experienced all those things! And I’ve realised, it’s OK. I’ve experienced coming last – you just get through it. The world hasn’t ended. I can move on and learn from it. I don’t see the point in doing something if I’m not at least trying to be better than I was yesterday.”