Athletics: Back broken but spirit very much intact

By Peter Thornton

Scooter accident disabled Lee Warn 23 years ago but athlete's courage has got stronger and stronger

Despite his disability, Lee Warn's impressive list of achievements includes Sky Tower climbs.
Despite his disability, Lee Warn's impressive list of achievements includes Sky Tower climbs.

In October 1989 a scooter accident changed Lee Warn's life forever - but not in the way you would expect.

Warn, then 16, was thrown from his Nifty Fifty scooter and broke his back. He has been wheelchair-bound ever since. But that doesn't even begin to tell his story, which is without doubt one of life's great overcoming-the-odds comeback tales.

Warn, who admits he did very little sporting or adventuring before his injury, can now boast a list of achievements that is quite phenomenal.

"My life changed for the better after my injury," said the 39-year-old from Auckland.

"It was truly one of the best things to happen to me, it just took a few years for me to understand that."

Since taking up sporting pursuits in 2000, 11 years after the accident, Warn has achieved a list of goals that would make impressive reading even for an able-bodied athlete.

He has done ultra-marathons, many Round the Bays events (often in costume), Sky Tower climbs (without the chair), sky-diving, bungy-jumping, rap jumping, rock climbing, archery, curling and fishing. He is also a national rep in track and field.

He is now a motivational speaker, a multi-sport athlete and a marriage celebrant. Naturally he is proud of how far he has come.

"I didn't think much about the future [at 16] I guess but I know that there is no way that I would have achieved what I have. I am proud of the list of achievements I have recorded over the past 13 years. It has been really rewarding for me."

The next challenge he has set himself is completing the Burgen Tough Guy and Gal Challenge in Auckland this weekend.

"This is so huge. I don't know what I am getting myself in for and in a way I think it is better that way. I have a mixture of real excitement and fear ahead in equal measure."

He knew his entry would raise a few eyebrows so he gave the organisers a call to explain his background and push forward his case.

"It is not every day that a disabled person signs up for something like this so I wanted to tell them what I had achieved and that I was serious about completing this. They accepted my entry which was fantastic."

The team at the Tough Guy Challenge had a good discussion about the safety of his involvement.

"We were unsure if this was possible due to certain obstacles involved in the course but after talking to him we have said we have no problems with him taking part," said Aimee Gregory, who helps to market the annual event. "Lee will have a person helping him out through certain parts of the course otherwise the rest is up to him. We are not sure how he is going to get his way around the course but it's something we are looking forward to seeing and supporting him in doing so."

The Tough Guy course at Woodhill includes swamp crossings, a spider's web net climb, a crawl under barbed wire, beautiful native bush trails, a range of natural and man-made obstacles - and mud and more mud.

When asked what obstacle he is most nervous about, Warn said: "All of them ... It is going to be a battle."

He said he'd been told the pools of mud came up to the height of an able-bodied person's chest - "which is fine for them but that is a good drowning height for me," he laughed.

"It is going to be a challenge from start to finish and I am up for it."

Warn has been reading some of ultra-marathon runner Dean Karnazes books for motivation and preparing his mind for the challenge.

"It is all about believing that I will get there and not compromising on this. The biggest obstacle to overcome in this is my mind."

Warn has also been working out his arms and core muscles in the gym to build as much strength as possible to get through the endless mud.

Overcoming challenges has become commonplace for Warn, who has an infectious attitude. He said disabled people had to battle every day and that had been his life for the past 23 years.

"Getting up in the morning is a challenge, having a shower is a challenge ... all of the mundane day-to-day tasks that you take for granted when you are an able-bodied person are really difficult when you are disabled. You have to be really tough to overcome that.

"I have learned over time how to see the positives and focus on what I can achieve and all the things that I can't. I don't like to be told what I can't do. That just motivates me to want to do it more."

Warn has simple advice for people looking to overcome adversity in their own lives. "I think the key is communication - both personal in what you tell yourself and what you believe you can achieve and also communication with others.

"You need to be open and transparent and ask for help when you need it. People are willing to help if you open up and your friends can help you achieve some great things.

"You never know what you are capable of until you give things a go. I have achieved much more than I ever thought I would and that has always come down to never giving up."

When he was injured 23 years ago he never dreamed that accident would change his life for the better.

High achiever

Lee Warn's sporting achievements

• Several Sky Tower climbs

• Lake Taupo Challenge

• Rap jump

• Represented Auckland and NZ nationally and internationally in wheelchair 100m and 200m sprints

• Smashfest Demolition Derbies

• For more information about Lee, click here.

- NZ Herald

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