A lawyer who became a paraplegic after a catastrophic mountain bike accident in Rotorua is bravely returning to the city to conquer the Rotorua Marathon.
Laura Stuart, 31, made headlines two years ago on February 12 – her birthday. She lost control on her bike and careered off a cliff in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest, landing on her head. A helicopter had to airlift her to hospital where she had surgery. The accident left her a paraplegic.
It had been a hard journey to recovery and adjusting to life in a wheelchair. She recently returned to full-time work as a Wellington lawyer.
Before the accident, Stuart was a marathoner and keen mountain-biker. She thrived on being active outdoors.
Adjusting to life in a wheelchair has been hard. she admits.
She missed being active and so became a member of the Achilles charity, which helps people with disabilities to take part in mainstream events. She did the New York marathon in November in a racing wheelchair.
Doing this saw Stuart achieve something medical professionals advised her against attempting so soon. She was ecstatic over this achievement and it inspired the confidence to take on further challenges.
Now, she has decided to do an event in Rotorua – the place where her life changed irrevocably.
She will be in a wheelchair and will use the might of her arms to power herself through the 10km distance at the Rotorua Marathon on Saturday. This will be more of an emotional, rather than physical, challenge, she said.
She is honest about how tough the day will truly be.
"I've tried not to think about it too much to avoid getting anxious. The more I think about what it will be like to go back and have memories of what life used to be like flood in, the more nervous I get about going. So I try not to think about it at all.
"I signed up because I knew I would be committed to returning to Rotorua for the first time in two years. I've been putting it off and the longer I leave it the harder it gets. So the race is an excuse to give myself an arbitrary deadline to return.
"Besides the location, I think it's important for disabled people to get out and be seen participating in events - whether they're sporting events or otherwise.
"If people don't see us then the adage 'out of sight out of mind' applies. I want people to see me in a wheelchair doing everyday things and hopefully change their perceptions of what it is to be disabled - that we can still be independent and participate and contribute to society.
"However that comes with challenges so hopefully people seeing me struggle and overcome those challenges will make them see disability and accessibility issues in a different light.
"I'm really scared of failure and disappointing everyone who has supported me on my journey so far. I feel I owe it to those people to succeed.
"In my darkest moments - of which there are many - knowing that I would upset so many good people if I didn't keep persevering motivates me to get up and face another day."
TV presenter Greg Boyed will be by her side during the race.
Boyed said Stuart's return to Rotorua for the race was "incredibly brave".
"I don't think I'd have that kind of grit, I don't think a lot of people would."