By JILL MALCOLM
"My workmates often call me the Queen of Quirk," says Sally Wenley, the 32-year-old Radio New Zealand reporter who is a three-time winner in this year's Qantas Media Awards.
"It's the offbeat things that I introduce to a story that people often remember," she says. "I had a report to do recently on the return of fur as a fashion accessory, so I interviewed the designer gurus. Then I draped myself in my grandmother's luxurious fox fur and went off down Queen St to see what sort of reaction I would get.
"I stopped people as they walked past, shoved the microphone at them and asked, 'What do you think of my fur?'
"Some of them almost spat on me," she says with a chuckle, "but it got people's attention when the report went to radio."
Then there was the time she was sent to a golf range and a golf course because the nearby residents were complaining that golf balls were being hit into their gardens.
"I went to one woman's house and recorded her showing me the bucketful of balls she'd picked up from her garden and the one that had gone through her window. Back at the studio I wove sound-effects through the story - the 'thonk' as a golf ball was hit off the tee, the 'weeeee, crash' as it went through a window."
We both chuckle this time.
I've only talked to Wenley for five minutes and already I can see why she has that royal nickname. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She tells me that as well as thinking of quirky angles, she also likes to be where the action is - not just as an observer but as close to being a participant as she can get.
Watching Wenley at a media scrum is a study in strategy, says another reporter. "She simply wheels herself into the middle of the action while the crowd parts like the Red Sea did for Moses.
"At first, whoever the celebrity is can't hear her questions, but when they do notice this enchanting girl in the wheelchair it's all over for the rest of us. Usually they bend right down and Sally gets the good quotes."
One of her winning stories is in the sports category - a report on a female boxing match: "For that I got right into the ring with the boxers during a practice session so I could record the sounds of gloves slamming into flesh and the thuds, grunting and heavy breathing that goes with the action."
Another story about the Ellerslie Flower Show won the current affairs category. "I got one of my microphones wet trying to get the sound of a waterfall," she says, "but the best bit was interviewing two little kids dressed up as fairies in the Lewis Carroll garden. Their enthusiasm made the show. Later I added the Dance of the Swans as background music."
The third winning report is a news story about health and medicine, a more serious story about families coping with schizophrenia.
Being a three-time winner is pretty good going for a rookie who has been in the radio reporting game seriously for only two years, but Wenley is cool.
She pushes an unruly coil of auburn hair off her face and goes to the kitchen to pour us coffee. We are sitting in the lounge of her three-bedroom villa in Ponsonby and a soft afternoon light is licking its way into the house from the grass courtyard.
Before she joins me at the table again she crosses to the other side of the lounge to turn on a CD, moving deftly, displaying still the grace of the athlete she once was. I hardly notice the wheels.
Wenley didn't intend to be a journalist. She was going to be a physical education teacher. Her biggest ambition was to make it into the New Zealand hockey team.
And then on February 17, 1987, came one of those random events after which nothing can ever be the same.
She was nearly 17 and in her last year at Woodford House girls' school in Havelock North. She was a prefect, sports captain of the school, captain of the hockey team and of the First XI cricket team.
That Sunday a group of girls had gone on one of the picnics the school ran every so often so the juniors could get to know the seniors. "We'd had a great day," she says, "and for the journey back to school I hopped on the bus first and bagged the middle of the back seat. We set off along the road singing silly songs. We were happy, that's all I remember."
Two weeks later she woke up Christchurch Hospital.
"I couldn't understand why all my close relatives and friends were standing around my bed," she says, frowning at the memory. "And then they told me the bus had rolled and two of my schoolmates, two teachers and the bus driver were dead and many of the others had been injured, some seriously.
"I was the only one who had been critical. I'd been unconscious for two weeks and had missed the funerals of my friends. For a long time the whole thing felt unreal - sometimes it still does - even when they told me I had broken my back and I would never walk again."
I do a quick calculation. "So you've been a paraplegic for 14 years?"
"Yerrrs," she says, uncertainly. "That word, I still can't believe it applies to me."
Wenley's break was in her 12th thoracic vertebra, which means she is paralysed from about the hips down. "When I was in the spinal unit in Christchurch I felt quite lucky," she says. "There were guys there who couldn't even breathe without a tracheotomy. I don't always feel lucky now that I'm out in the wider world again."
After six-months' rehabilitation, Wenley went to Massey University in Palmerston North doing a BA in English. "It was more like a BA in pub studies," she says, pulling out one of her mischievous smiles.
"I also got into the student rifle shooting team and later the New Zealand University shooting team, which took me all over the country. I did a bit of work for the student radio station."
The first story she published was for the student paper, Chaff. It was about how she'd achieved at school, about the accident and then everything that had happened after that.
"I remember writing it with tears streaming down my face," she says. "There were lots of letters to the editor about it, but only one that I remember. It was from a woman who obviously though I was a guy. She wrote: 'Too bad. Try being a woman.' I would love to have got her story on tape.
"Instead, my first real interview was with Mike Moore. We had to repeat the whole thing three times because I didn't know how to work the tape recorder. He was very patient."
After that Wenley decided to focus on broadcast journalism and she applied successfully for Broadcasting School in Christchurch.
"For one year, I had a ball running around Christchurch with microphones and camera crews," she begins, showing the rare talent for storytelling that is behind her success as a radio journalist.
"Our classroom was upstairs in an older building and I was told that the polytech was going to put a lift in. Nothing happened and every day I was piggybacked up and down the stairs by one of my classmates.
"A reporter from the Press got wind of the problem and came out to get the story and to take a photograph of me being piggybacked up the stairs. The article caused a lot of fuss and the bigwigs from the polytech turned up and said if they had known I was going to do that sort of thing they would have postponed my position on the course.
"That provoked another article, and as a consequence the lift was put in about a week before the end of the course. We all crowded into it with glasses and a bottle of champagne to celebrate. The lift stuck about half way up to the first floor."
After her graduation Wenley got an internship at TVNZ. "That's when you get paid virtually nothing and are a general dogsbody," she says.
But she stayed three years and learned heaps. For another three years she was the health reporter for GP Weekly magazine. Again she did well, making some great contacts and breaking a few national stories.
"One was about hip-protecting underpants developed in New Zealand," she says. "They were for older people with osteoporosis and had fibreglass shells over the hips to protect them [the hips] in a fall. A pair was sent to the late Queen Mother. Back they came with a note to say that she could not accept a gift of such a personal nature. Reuters even rang me about that story."
But for all Sally's quirkiness, her ability to talk in complete sentences, her way of homing in on the ridiculous, the admiration of friends and colleagues and her gutsy determination to do whatever it takes to get a good story, life is not exactly how she wants it. How could it be? She wants to walk. She is highly competitive but for her the playing field is not level.
"I still struggle with the unfairness of it all," she says. "On bad days I tell my friends I just want to be normal. They say, 'Sally, you were never normal."' Although she resists being treated as anything else, some things can still throw her.
"I was covering the last local body elections and at one point I joined a mental health march down Queen St. I was collecting what we call vox pops [impromptu comments]. You know - 'Who are you going to vote for?' or 'Do you know who the candidates are?'
"I approached one old man and asked him to comment. He said: 'Oh you poor thing, how did you get in a wheelchair?' and handed me $20. 'Here, go and buy yourself a nice lunch.' I had a hard job making him take the money back. He thought I was busking.
"But there are other times when my condition is an advantage. I can ask a dishy guy to carry me up the stairs, for instance," she laughs, "and when I'm reporting I don't seem to be the threat to people that others can sometimes be."
The word "can't" doesn't seem to be part of her vocabulary. If she hits a barrier she takes it as a challenge, to find a way over, under or around it.
She swims regularly and water skis on a sea-biscuit when she gets the chance. She drives a car, likes to go out on the town with friends and tours around the country. At work she would like to do more travel and documentaries and she still loves sport. Her ambition is to get to Greece to cover the 2004 Olympics.
As we talk, Wenley occasionally leans forward and flexes her neck to stretch her spine.
"My two biggest barriers are not so much what I can't do, but the bouts of pain in my back and legs and the times when I feel a bit low. My family is incredibly supportive, especially when I'm down. My mum and dad live in Hawkes Bay and my brother has just moved in to flat with me."
Before I leave Wenley tells me one more story: "A year or so ago I was in Tutukaka and I took myself out on to the jetty to sunbathe. I hopped out of my wheelchair and lay down.
"The next thing there was a gust of wind and I looked up to see my wheelchair flying off the end of the wharf. There were a few fishing boats tied up there and the fishermen got out their poles and hooks and hauled it out of the water, yelling things like, 'Catch of the year'!"
Wenley's energy is obvious even if it is bottled by circumstance. She reminds me of a 4-year-old who has been forced to sit still.
As I leave she follows me down the ramp at the front of her house, but she doesn't linger. She has things to do. We say goodbye and she spins around and glides up the driveway at the side of the villa. I watch her go. I am full of admiration.
By JILL MALCOLM