Heroes inspired to beat the hard times

By Peter Thornton

Peter Thornton looks at some weekend warriors who have come back from the brink to achieve remarkable feats.

Neelusha Memom was the first legally blind athlete to complete the 243km Coast to Coast race. She has also climbed Mt Aspiring. Photo / Supplied
Neelusha Memom was the first legally blind athlete to complete the 243km Coast to Coast race. She has also climbed Mt Aspiring. Photo / Supplied

Overcoming a time of adversity has a life-changing effect. So often in 2012 we have met every-day New Zealanders who have suffered heartbreaking moments (such as cancer, depression, obesity or their own limitations) and after enduring the hard times have come out the other side smiling.

More than that, though, they have come out the other side to achieve incredible things. Of course, it was never as simple as that.

These people will never forget their hard times. It seems suffering hardship is the ultimate catalyst to living with a new lease on life.

Pushing the body to its limit is the ultimate way to feel alive again. These people are the real heroes of New Zealand sport.

Ryan Pearce - from wheelchair to wetsuit

It was a day that Ryan Pearce worked towards for 12 months. The 29-year-old teacher from Christchurch went from a wheelchair to a wetsuit and credited his goal to take part in the State Harbour Crossing as just the motivation he needed.

Pearce teaches Year 5 and 7 students at one of three Christchurch schools to be merged.

Late last year he underwent surgery for a spinal AVM, which in non-medical terms means a varicose vein on the spinal cord. If left untreated it would have squeezed his spinal cord to the point where it would have cut it. But in a remarkable turnaround he was fighting fit and ready for the 2.9km swim. He stopped short of calling it a miracle recovery.

"It is not a miracle," said Pearce. "A lot of hard work has got me in this position where I am able to swim this. I never saw the wheelchair as the end. When I couldn't feel my legs to cope I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best, and to be here is really rewarding. I never accepted that I wouldn't be."

Pearce said the goal to swim the State Harbour Crossing was hugely important.

"That goal has really motivated me in my recovery and has already delivered huge benefits both physically and psychologically."

Sandy McConnell puts hellish year in the past

Sandy McConnell is not looking back. You can understand why after the journey she and her family have been on in the past two years.

The antique dealer in her mid-40s, who completed the 10km of The Lydiard Legend run on Auckland's Waitakere Ranges, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She endured a gruelling recovery including surgery and six months of chemotherapy to get back to full fitness.

"It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, especially as it was over such a long period of time," said McConnell of the chemotherapy.

"It is easy to take good health and feeling good for granted, anyone who has had chemo will know how awful you feel for a lot of the time. I was lucky, though - I had superb care and I never ended up in hospital with immune-related problems.

"The lowest point was probably when my husband was knocked off his bike by a car and broke two bones in his neck. Our life was pretty challenging for a while but it is amazing how you can find new sources of energy to get through trying times."

Almost two years on, McConnell has hope again. Getting back into fitness has played a part in restoring happiness to her life. She had a sporting background in swimming, mountain biking and running. She has run two half-marathons and a couple of 10km races. It was hard to get back into running after the chemo.

Taking on The Legend was the ideal goal. "I felt like a fun challenge, one that made you feel good, so I opted for the 10km as I knew that this year the half would be too difficult for me. I ran The Legend half-marathon a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. The course runs through the area that I live in so I am used to running on hills."

McConnell said a key to her recovery was not looking back. "I try not to think about the last year and prefer to look forward."

Fleur Maunsell finds light at the end of the tunnel

Fleur Maunsell has been on a journey of self-discovery this year. To say life has dealt her a number of cruel blows is an understatement.

The 39-year-old nanny began running in March after her marriage ended last February. It was the last of a series of tragic events in her life that would be enough to break even the most resilient and positive-minded.

In 2006, she lost her first son at 20 weeks' gestation. In 2007 she lost her second son at 18 weeks' gestation, and the next year she lost her third son at 21 weeks' gestation.

"It took a huge toll both emotionally and physically and I lost all hope - all hope of being a mother," she said of the darkest time in her life.

"This took a huge toll on my marriage and my husband and I, even though we tried, we just drifted apart. I found myself extremely overweight and unhappy."

But Maunsell was not going to let the hard times get the better of her. She turned to fitness as a way to change her perspective on life.

"I started losing weight and feeling better about myself. I discovered that life is to be lived, not just sat on the sidelines just watching it go by." Maunsell's new love of the gym and running saw her shed 40kg.

A friend brought the 3D Rotorua Off-Road Winter Multisport Festival to her attention and soon after she entered the 10.5km run. "It looked interesting and a challenge I needed."

Having a challenge and something to focus on has changed her life. It has given her hope again.

Maunsell has been on a lonely journey but on race day she knew she had company.

"I am going to have three little boys looking down on me encouraging me to go for feeling so proud of their mummy."

Belinda Wren overcomes pain to enjoy running again

Belinda Wren is not your usual athlete. She suffers from osteoarthritis - a debilitating condition that makes regular exercise a physical and mental battle. But she has met her condition head on this year by signing up for Xterra Trail Running Series.

Wren said it was hard to believe she could run.

"It is a challenge between my body and my brain more than anything - it is a crap day when you know you can do something but your body is saying, 'no that hurts,"' she said.

In the past Wren has had "unfortunate accidents with nature" - she had a bad fall at Long Bay Park a few years ago which resulted in her having surgery on her leg.

"So trail running in particular makes me paranoid of falling again, for me this is the most difficult hurdle as the trails are often muddy, slippery or steep."

But she is not making excuses. She explains that living with osteoarthritis means "constant pain, stiffness and throbbing or a stabbing feeling".

"Osteoarthritis and bursitis are inflammation diseases. As the osteoarthritis is in my toes, running is probably not the best thing to do, but there is no cure so you can't stop doing the things you enjoy in life just because you have pain.

"I just deal with it by using lots of Osteo Gel and taking painkillers before the event."

Craig Bulloch overcomes depression to complete Ironman

Aucklander Craig Bulloch suffered from depression and had become seriously overweight.

He was motivated to exercise after watching former All Black John Kirwan on television, and is now doing his first Ironman event and raising funds for mental health.

"I am not one to do things by halves and as I have been to the lowest of the low I wanted to experience the polar opposite," said the 33-year-old who is studying physiotherapy at AUT University.

He explained how depression ruined his life and how he came to a turning point.

"The biggest turning point was when I saw the adverts John Kirwan did for depression.

"Here was this childhood hero of mine talking about how he had felt and what he went through, and saying being active helps. I read his book All Blacks Don't Cry and then bought some shoes, and the rest is history."

Jay Shelgren battles The Big C to complete bucket list

Every time Jay Shelgren has an ache or a headache he dreads that his cancer might be returning.

The 58-year-old probation officer qualified for the ITU World Championship triathlon in Auckland in October, and needs to manage his training carefully.

Every event he trains for these days is a real thrill after enduring the toughest five years of his life. In May 2007, the then 53-year-old woke with terrible abdominal pain.

He went to the hospital and was told he probably had a kidney stone. After some tests, the doctor informed him that he had kidney cancer.

"Who would ever wish for kidney stones, but at that point, I was," remembered Shelgren of the lowest point in his life.

"Out of all my friends and family, I was one of the fittest people I knew. It was a complete shock and a little bit of disbelief. Most of us born in the 50s associate the big "C" with death."

The good and the bad news for Shelgren is there is no chemotherapy for kidney cancer.

It has been a gruelling time for Shelgren and his family (his wife Jessica and three adult children back in the United States).

But it is one he has taken in his stride, quite literally, to qualify for the triathlon world championships.

"I realise I need to do my best now, there may not be a 'next year'. There is a popular cliche that we should live in the moment. It really means something when your life expectancy is shortened by 10-20 years.

"That is probably the advice I would give others facing adversity. That, and remain positive."

Shelgren said it was going to take a lot more than cancer to slow him down.

"I have developed quite a long bucket list now, and plan to tick off as many as possible."

Jonathan Smith sheds 60kg to compete in Ironman

Jonathan Smith has a great turnaround to look back on.

The demolition worker, who once weighed 150kg, has lost 60kg in the past 18 months.

"A huge part of my weight loss has been the focus on exercise but you have to combine that with a healthy diet and lifestyle," said the 30-year-old from St Lukes, Auckland.

"I am not a man to do things by halves," said Smith. "The Harbour Crossing and the Auckland Marathon and now Ironman, which is the big aim."

Neelusha Memom focuses on cans, not can'ts

Neelusha Memom competed in the Speight's Coast to Coast to change the perception of what people with a disability or impairment can achieve.

The 27-year-old from Christchurch was the first legally blind person to finish the 243km race across the South Island. She doesn't remember much about the turn of the new millennium. In one week during the year 2000 she went from snowboarding at Cardrona to fighting for her life as a post-viral autoimmune disease put her in a coma for four months.

After a year in hospital she went home with just 30 per cent of her sight and major co-ordination problems.

Eleven years later she was the first legally blind person to finish the Coast to Coast. That sums up Neelusha Memom's life since 2000. From having to learn to walk, talk and eat again, to taking on challenges even able-bodied people struggle to meet, the 27-year-old is going about life as she always wanted to.

She has climbed Mt Aspiring, heli-skied across the Tasman Glacier and ridden at the Paracycling World Championships in France.

The enormity of the Coast to Coast for a vision-impaired athlete wasn't lost on Memom. "[The running] is a crazy, crazy part of the race with the trail running and boulder-hopping. Those are things I could never do before but I have learned how to do that.

"With the help of my support runners they will cater for my sight and for my balance. I'll get through - it's going to be tough. There is no doubt it is a bloody tough event."

Memom and her support crew crossed the finish line to complete the two-day race, which involved cycling 140km, running 36km and kayaking 67km over mountainous terrain and across rivers.

Nicola McCloy makes 2012 "year of the epic"

Nicola McCloy decided that 2012 would be "the year of the epic".

The 41-year-old editor lost 27kg as she prepared for her ultimate goal of walking the Auckland Half Marathon in October. One of the steps along the way was competing in the 10.5km trail walk at the 3D Rotorua Festival.

McCloy has been on a journey of self-discovery.

"This year started kind of badly for me and I decided I needed to be more open to taking risks in life," said the Aucklander who once weighed close to 140kg.

"I realised how often I would say to myself, 'I'd like to do that but' ... and find excuses not to. So I decided I'd turn that into 'I'd like to do that so ...' and find ways to make things happen.

"I've bungy-jumped, done a half-marathon, flown a plane, joined a triathlon team, gone surfing, done a 1km ocean swim race - and it's only May."

She has lost weight at a rapid rate but the focus has been on adopting a fresh take on life.

"The real change has been my decision to take risks and do stuff that scares me. Not being a wuss has made me much happier. Strangely, the key to losing the weight has been to not think about it.

"A friend's mother challenged me to walk the Auckland Half Marathon with her in October. When I realised what I'd got myself in for, I decided I'd better start training. With the extra exercise I started eating better and the weight loss just happened.

"If I'd decided to lose the weight and made that my focus I'd probably be back on the sofa."

Vinnie Duncan keeps fighting back

Auckland's Vinnie Duncan has overcome breast cancer and is now a regular Ironman competitor.

The 50-year-old office manager and mother of seven children has completed three Ironman events already (Nice, IM Western Australia, and Hawaii) and competed in her fourth in Taupo (which was shortened because of weather conditions).

"It's a bit like having kids," said Duncan. "Each time you complete one you realise how fortunate you are to be injury-free, accident-free and to have been able to finish."

Duncan explained why people who have been through a hard time turn to something as challenging as an Ironman event. "I think there is something in the fact that you know you have been given a second chance.

"There would also be a lot of people who have faced adversity of some type who maybe learn to play an instrument or paint or write, or just do whatever it was that was lurking in the back of their mind previously, but they hadn't been quite able to put it all together.

"It's about grasping that second chance with both hands, and just having a go at whatever makes you feel really good."

- NZ Herald

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