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24 August 2021

Adapting and Overcoming

 


Stef, you haven’t always had your disability, could you describe what your life was like growing up?

My life was great. I really enjoyed it. I travelled quite a bit when I was growing up and I was born in New Zealand. My mum is English and my dad is Scottish, and their dream was to travel the world, so they took us with them and eventually ended up in Toronto, Canada, and that was primarily where I grew up.

From as far back as I can remember, every time there was a sporting opportunity I took it. I just love sport. I always did.

What was your main sport before your accident?

Definitely rugby. Growing up, I did everything: volleyball, basketball, tennis, cross–country, pretty much whatever was on offer! When I was thirteen, I was lucky that the school I was at in Canada had a PE teacher who was on the national team for Canada, so she started up a rugby team for us at our school. It perfectly showcased all of my talents as an athlete. It all came together for me in that sport and I loved it.

What happened to cause the massive change in your life?

I was fifteen years old, and one bank holiday weekend I was at my friends cottage by the lake. One of the things we would do is go tubing, where you attach an inner tube to the back of a boat. I think, over here, people know of it as banana boating.

So, we were doing that, just having a great time. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication and the driver had no idea where I was in the water and I soon realised he was coming back to me way too fast. I knew I wasn’t going to have enough time to swim out of the way. I thought the best thing I could do in that scenario was do a surface dive and get as far below the water as I possibly could. It was a good plan, except that I totally forgot I had a life jacket on, and so I couldn’t get under the water. There was nothing else I could do and I got run over and caught by the propellers, unfortunately.

Did you know immediately that it was a really serious injury?

No, I didn’t. I felt like I was under the water for ages. It was really disorientating, in that sense. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Wow, that was really lucky, I’m definitely not telling my parents about this on the way home. They’re going to freak out.’ I don’t know how much time passed, but there was just an internal sense, there’s something not right, and I didn’t quite know what was going on, but I didn’t feel right. That was the point when the panic set in because, I was still in the water, I could see blood and thought, ‘I can’t see me. I can’t see my body.’ At one point I thought I had been cut in half and that was when the shock set in. What actually happened is I had lacerations on my lower back and my right leg. Those were the serious injuries.

There was a lifeguard on the boat, he dove in, took me back on the boat, and radioed ahead for an ambulance and we went from there and tried to get to a hospital as soon as possible.

At any point did you think you were going to die?

Yeah. They did a really good job of making sure I didn’t see my leg, although nobody really knew the extent of the damage to my back and my torso then, to be honest.

Yeah, I genuinely thought I was going to die, and that was quite sobering.

What were your thoughts about dying?

I was pretty terrified of dying. When I grew up, I went to a Christian school. I knew lots about Christianity and knew how to handle my Bible. I knew who Jesus was, but I had adopted the attitude that, ‘Yeah, this stuff is really important, but I want to do my life as I want to do it now, but maybe when I’m 25 or 30, I’ll investigate that a little bit more. I’ll have a family and that will be important then, but at the moment I’m focused on what I want to do.’ Facing death at fifteen had never been on the radar. It’s just not something that you think about. I remember being in the ambulance and feeling that I hadn’t done life very well. Which, to the average person, they’d think, ‘Well that’s crazy, you do well in school; you have lots of friends; you’re an athlete, a nice person.’ I just knew I hadn’t lived life asking God what He wanted. I wasn’t living for Him; I was living for me. The weight of realising actually, if I do die right now, I wouldn’t be saved, as I’d not honoured God, that was sobering. I begged for a second chance to try again and do things right and I believe that is why I’m still alive.

It’s quite surprising that as a 15–year–old these were the thoughts you were having at this point.

It was a surprise to me! It wasn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t expect to feel a sense of shame. Of all the things you can feel in that moment, I wasn’t expecting that.

You say you prayed to God, what happened next?

We got to the hospital, and it really was an absolute miracle that I had no spinal damage, and no permanent internal injuries. There were so many things that could have gone wrong which did not. It was a series of surgeries, three over seven days. The top orthopaedic surgeon in Canada cut his holidays short to come. That in itself, that he showed up, was a huge miracle. I was feeling really thankful to God. I thought, ‘Wow, this is the start, God you’ve got my attention; you’ve pulled through; you make things happen.’ Then I found out that, unfortunately, my right leg had been too badly damaged and they had to amputate. That was quite a blow. I thought, ‘That wasn’t part of the plan, why would you save my life and then take away the thing I loved the most?’ It seemed a bit cruel, to be honest, and I didn’t know what to do with that. How do you go from feeling so unbelievably thankful to God, to then really angry?

What happened in the weeks and months after that?

There were two really big turning points. One was when one of the nurses came to visit me, 7 days after the accident. She could see that I was tired, overwhelmed, angry, and I wasn’t fighting as hard as I could. I was just struggling. She did the most unexpected thing. Most people were just giving me space and allowing me to sit in my pity party, but she came in and she challenged me and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you feel like, you have to start doing something.’ That challenge reignited that spark in me again. That was the moment when I stopped feeling like a victim and instead thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be a new chapter in my life.’

I think, in terms of my faith, one of the things we’re called to do in the New Testament is the idea of surrendering your life to God, giving it to him, asking what His will is for your life, and following that. I was in a place where, to be honest, I was so indifferent to my life, that I didn’t want it. I was like, ‘God you can have it. I don’t want it. You take it and let’s see what you’re going to do with it.’

It seems, from an outsider’s perspective, that it’s been a pretty incredible journey since then, when we see all you have accomplished.

It has been pretty cool. I mean, it’s been really, really, tough and an outside perspective isn’t always the most accurate. One of the most special moments of my life was London 2012 when we were in the stadium and we were having the medal ceremony and my family had managed to find a way down to the front row. That was special because you have this amazing crowd cheering for you, but those were the people there who had seen everything from start to finish. They’d seen the extent of the ugliness and now, this amazing experience.

Once got your spark back, when were you able to start getting back into sports again?

I actually ended up with my first sports leg about eight or nine months after the accident, which I immediately wanted to put on and go back to the rugby field. I was envisioning this glorious return back, where I was awesome, and still scoring as many tries as I used to. But the reality was very different. To be honest, I accepted that sport wasn’t where my future was. It was, ‘Okay, what next?’ I liked working hard. I liked the competitive aspect, so I just had to redirect that.

 

Am I right in saying you were considering becoming a doctor?

Yes, actually. I loved school. Because my surgeon was amazing, I thought if I could do that for one person, that would be a life well spent. That’s why I studied Biochemistry. That was the plan, but when I got to university there was a girl on my floor in my dorm who was on the athletics team. This was a few years after the accident and my body had had a little bit more time to heal and to adjust.

So how did you get into the long jump?

I initially started running. I remember calling the coach and explaining the situation to him. He was fantastic, and said, ‘I don’t know anything about running with a blade, but I’m up for it. We’d love to have you come.’ That was fantastic and I’m so thankful for that. It took a few years to get into it and get back to fitness again and figure things out. At a competition in Canada, I’d competed in the 100m, 200m, and 400m sprint and it was the end of the day and they were doing long jump. Someone said, ‘There’s an extra space, do you want to hop in?’ and I said ‘Okay!’ It was never on my radar to try long jump. I’m totally biased, but I think it’s the best event to do.

You already have 3 Paralympic medals, are you hoping it might be 4?

Oh yes, definitely! In Beijing, I won a bronze; in London, I won a Silver; and in Rio, I really wanted a gold, but I got silver again, and that actually was quite tough. It was tough for a variety of reasons. Mostly it was tough because I jumped really well, but someone else jumped better.

Does your faith impact your sport?

My faith has to impact my view, of course it does! You can’t really box it off. I think the Bible and God’s promises are either true or they’re not, and if they’re true, then they are true in the sporting arena as well. Sport has been, in many ways, a huge challenge to my faith, in terms of helping me to grow and helping me to understand what’s important to God.

I think one of the toughest truths is that God is more concerned with who I am, than whether I win. I remember early in my faith and in my sporting career I used to pray, ‘God let me win!’ but then it was like, ‘What happens if there are 3 others praying the same thing, then who will win?’

Eventually, I have come to the conclusion that, for this period of my life, God has called me to be an athlete. That’s not the same thing as God promising I’m going to win everything; that’s very different. But I’ve been called to be an athlete. I believe that if God has called you to do something, you need to do it to the best of your ability.

How has the lockdown and coronavirus restrictions affected your training?

It was really hard when everything shut down. It’s really hard to train for long jump when you don’t have a track or a pit, you’re just trying to make do with what you have in your back yard.

If you decide to retire from athletics, you are multi–talented, and you’ve already been on Celebrity MasterChef. How was that experience?

It was amazing and definitely one of the most challenging things I’d ever done. It was my first experience of TV. That was a huge learning curve for me and, on top of that, basically having to learn how to cook.

Did you film that around training?

Yes. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have taken a break from training. But I met some absolutely incredible people. I think that was a real treat as well. I met people whose paths, just because of our careers, wouldn’t have crossed before, and learnt some really great things.

How did you balance that out with a strict, healthy diet?

Weirdly, as the competition went on, because I spent more time cooking and researching food, I had no desire to eat it! I actually lost about 4 kilos. It was really bad for me. The fortunate thing was that Brent was doing marathon training. He was all over that, so I always had somewhere to dump the food.

Of course, you’re married to a fellow Paralympian!

Yes, my husband’s Brent Lakatos, who won the London 2020 marathon, a huge bucket list for him. It’s very tough to be in a household where you are both competing at a high level. There are advantages as well, though. The great thing is we will be in the Olympic village together.

You post a lot about Pebbles, your cat, on your social media.

Yes, I adore Pebbles, but she probably couldn’t care less! She’s so funny. She came into my life in 2015, around the time I’d prolapsed a disk in my back. Discs are tough because they can take from 6 months to 2 years to heal and it can be career ending. I wasn’t in a great place and she would just come in and sit with me and cuddle with me. It’s so awesome to have this little creature that does not care how you did in the day, they don’t care if you came first or last in your competition, all she cares about is if I feed and cuddle her.

You’ve also done some work with Leprosy Mission too, how did that come about?

Yes, I’m an ambassador for the Leprosy Mission UK. That is something I love doing. It’s a disease of poverty. People think it’s a biblical disease that doesn’t exist anymore, but it does still exist, and it’s ridiculous that it does, because we can cure it.

They got in touch with me because leprosy, left untreated, causes permanent disfigurement and potentially amputation. I had been watching Dr Strange with my husband and I said to Brent that I’d love to go to Nepal, to go to Kathmandu and the next day I got an email from the Leprosy Mission asking if I would go and host a campaign in Nepal. I was like, ‘That is crazy,’ and they were shocked when I emailed them back straight away and said yes.

I ended up having the absolute, most incredible time in Nepal with these four other women that went. It was a social media campaign to show where the funds are going and what they have done with their flagship hospital. We went in Feb 2019 and it was an incredible and surreal 8 days there. They’re a Christian organisation as well and for me the work they do is the gospel in action, in terms of restoring communities, which is what you need to do to fight this disease.

But you’re excited for Tokyo, and your training is focused on that now?

I still feel like that this is the most challenging thing that I can do for myself, and it’s the thing that pushes me the most, challenges me the most, makes me grow the most and that’s why I’m still here and why I’m still doing it.

Stef’s story is featured in the Spring/Summer Life Magazine, and also in City Lives.

 

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