Photo / John Borren

All Amanda Lowry wants, is to be seen as herself. This is her story of living life as a tetraplegic, and aiming for gold at the 2020 Paralympics.

WHEN she enters the water, she's free.

Weightless, she floats on her back and propels both her arms like a paddle steamer. The lines on the pool's roof guide her where to go.

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Swimming is her time.

"No one is touching me, and it's this kind of lovely, quiet space."

Lowry, a tetraplegic, is a recent addition to the Paralympic development squad for swimming.

"They're saying as long as I complete the particular criteria, I'm going to Tokyo, man!" She punctuates the sentence with the biggest grin.

There has never been anyone with her level of impairment swim for the New Zealand Paralympic Team, ever.

There has never been anyone with Lowry's level of impairment swim for the New Zealand Paralympic Team.
There has never been anyone with Lowry's level of impairment swim for the New Zealand Paralympic Team.

There are challenges to get to Tokyo in 2020, but she's determined.

Most mornings it takes her 40 minutes just to get out of bed.

A carer arrives at her Bellevue home in Tauranga, goes to her electric bed and disconnects her night-bag.

The carer then helps her into her togs, they do some stretches, and Lowry gets into the driver's seat of her modified silver Volkswagen van, and heads to Aspire Health and Sports.

Once there, she's manually transferred from her wheelchair, to a pool-hoist.

She leans on her carer's knee, while the carer's hands are underneath her bottom.

She's then lifted onto the hoist seat, and lowered into the water.

She's gotten used to people staring, but says it's worth it. She sees herself as an "Indiana Jones", making pathways for other highly impaired swimmers.

Getting into a swimming pool is no easy feat and Lowry has gotten used to people staring. She sees herself as an
Getting into a swimming pool is no easy feat and Lowry has gotten used to people staring. She sees herself as an "Indiana Jones", making pathways for other highly impaired swimmers. Photo / John Borren

Lowry doesn't have core muscles, and her spine is pinned from C3 to T1, and C6 is in a cage.

"Effectively if you draw a line from armpit to armpit, that's it," she says looking down on her body, which is 14 per cent functional.

She has limited use of her arms and hands.

Up until a couple of months ago, she hadn't swum competitively since she was a kid.

Her first competition was in Auckland, in a 50m pool, with able-bodied, stunning "handcrafted by God, humans".

The hoist to get her into the pool was busted, so a lane rope was moved so that she could "flop" in.

Her feet were held against the wall of the pool, while the other swimmers dived from blocks.

By the time she completed the 100m race, the other competitors had long finished, but it didn't stop the crowd going nuts.

"I looked at one of the old boys on the sideline, and I just went: "It was quite emotional". The old boy looked at her and said: 'For me too, love. For me too'".

Her effort was one minute inside the Olympic qualifying time, and makes her the current world number two, in para swimming.

Lowry is the current world number two, in para swimming. Photo / John Borren
Lowry is the current world number two, in para swimming. Photo / John Borren

She is on the Pathway to Podium programme, and swims four times a week, guided by coach Mike Lee.

Everything she does in the water is important - from head position to hand position.

"All of them could give me another second," she says.

Lowry, 46, became a tetraplegic in 2013, after she dived off her surfboard and broke her neck on a sandbar.

She wants to be seen as Amanda Lowry again, not a disabled person with an "I nearly died" story.

"I'm just trying to live my life to the fullest capacity that I can. When people tell me I'm inspirational, they tell me I'm inspirational [when they see me] at a shop. Why? Because I'm actually out of my house and doing stuff? Dude, like seriously, how else am I going to be a mum?"

Amanda Lowry. Photo/John Borren
Amanda Lowry. Photo/John Borren

At her wheelchair-friendly home, she navigates her way around the wooden dining room floor, helping youngest daughter, Ziggy, 5, double-tap her way to a Peppa Pig video.

When the iPad plays up, she sorts the Netflix.

She's pre-prepared dinner, and is keeping an eye on the clock. She needs to collect eldest daughter, Lola, 8, from swimming at 4.20pm.

Now that the girls are older, she has them four nights a week on her own, while partner, Gemma, an osteopath, works late.

A former chef, she cooks dinner, with a support worker having helped prep the food: "I [Gordon] Ramsay the cook out of them," she quips.

Eight months ago, she couldn't pluck a tissue from a box, or pull a grape off a stem.

She's since had an operation to relocate tendons from her arms to her hands, and has an 8kg grip in both hands and a 2kg pinch. Lowry, the go-getter, has learnt to be patient.

At the time of her accident, Ziggy was a week old.

Gemma had been out of hospital for two days after a caesarean, when Lowry, a yogi and kite surfer, decided to show a visiting Spanish friend a good time.

They went for a walk up the Mount, went biking, and then for a surf. Lowry dived into the water from her board without her hands up, and life as she knew it changed.

Prior to her accident, she'd never spoken to anyone in a wheelchair. "And then you realise how invisible you are as a disabled person, or incredibly visible."

Other than swimming, she loves the challenge of wheelchair rugby, and is a member of The Steamrollers.

Lowry is a member of The Steamrollers. Photo / Paul Taylor
Lowry is a member of The Steamrollers. Photo / Paul Taylor

She grew up in Reporoa, where her parents owned the prestigious Waikato River Lodge.

Her upbringing was spent in helicopters, jet boats, and teaching people to skeet shoot. At age 17, she told her parents she was going to London, and left a fortnight later.

She came home, and ran Strand Cafe in Whakatāne from 1992 to 2002: "It brought bloody Whakatāne into the 1990s. They didn't even know what brunch was."

She then went and worked on superyachts, before continuing on with travelling, including completing the 800km Camino de Santiago trek.

She went to University in 2002 at age 35, and had a masters by 40. She now works part-time for ACC as a consultant, is a trainer for CCS Disability Action, and is on the board of Parafed.

Prior to her accident, Lowry says she'd never spoken to anyone in a wheelchair.
Prior to her accident, Lowry says she'd never spoken to anyone in a wheelchair. "And then you realise how invisible you are as a disabled person, or incredibly visible," she says. Photo / John Borren

She and Gemma have been together for 16 years, and Lowry says the key to their relationship surviving is that Gemma has never been her carer.

"The only thing she does is at night is put me into bed."

Once in bed, Lowry's in the same position all night. She's used to it now, but says it's hard not being able to roll over and "hug".

It's tough, but she's grateful they have communication, laughter and a love of "yummy food".

"Five years on, we still love each other, and we're still doing alright. The kids are fine, and Zigs has never known any different."

Ziggy does ask questions though. One day she enquired: "Mumma, why didn't you just wait? If you'd just waited, I would have shown you".

She reached up her arms and made a diamond shape.

"That when you dive in, you put your hands up above your head. Then, you would have been fine."

"Baby…," Lowry started.

Ziggy later turned to Gemma: "Our world would have been very different if mumma hadn't broken her neck, eh mum?"

Lowry lets the story hang in the air, before saying it's time to collect Lola. She suggests I come too.

Five years on from her accident, Lowry, pictured here with Ziggy, says of her family:
Five years on from her accident, Lowry, pictured here with Ziggy, says of her family: "We still love each other, and we're still doing alright." Photo / John Borren

It took her two years after her accident to drive again, but she wasn't scared.

In the early days, she was warned it'd take eight years until she accepted her "new normal". Five years on, she reckons that's about right.

"Eight years to not be blindsided by sadness. Where you're just kind of in it, and you live it, and you're grounded."

We reach the carpark at Ōtumoetai Pool, which is a three-minute drive from her house. Kids with wet hair and towels slung over their shoulders filter out into the carpark.

Lowry looks straight ahead.

"It's not the speed and the adrenaline, and the kiting that I miss." It's hopping into bed with her girls, and snuggling them.

"They have to come and sit on my knee and I go: "COME HERE"," she says in a pretend growly voice.

"I have to make them come here, and that's kind of become a bit of a game now. My journey with them is voice."

When her family wants to show affection, they have to touch her where she can feel it, or put their hand on her leg where she can see it.

Lowry compares this new journey, to youngest daughter Ziggy's.

At age five, Ziggy is just mastering her body, her language, and her way in the world.

"She got given a new body when she got born, and I got given one too. I see our journeys as quite connected."

"Five years on, we still love each other, and we're still doing alright," Lowry says of her young family. Photo / Cynthia Qui.

She is grateful to see her daughters grow up, confiding it would of been easier to check out.

"Easier for me, but not easier for anyone else."

At home, she has a special power chair that blocks her knees and holds her chest, allowing her to stand up at her full height.

Her "babies", as she calls them, climb up, and press their body against hers, wrapping their arms around her neck.

"Body to body. I feel what it would feel like, to hold them."

She instinctively pulls her hands to lips, closes her eyes, and smiles. For a split-second, she is lost in her thoughts. Alone with her joy, and every reason to keep going.

The silence is broken when beautiful Lola, with short, spiked hair like her mum, appears and slides the van door open.

Lowry looks into the rear-vision mirror and says: "Did you play hockey today, too?"

"Yep," says Lola. "They said I'm one of the best hockey players, and I should have coaching."

"Dude!" Lowry says approvingly. "All the powerful genes from me flew into you." Lola smiles amusingly.

Lowry is grateful to see her daughters grow up, confiding it would of been easier to check out.
Lowry is grateful to see her daughters grow up, confiding it would of been easier to check out. "Easier for me, but not easier for anyone else." Photo / John Borren Photo / John Borren

Back at home, Lola joins her sister on the couch, and I'm invited into Lowry's room with a view. I perch on her perfectly made bed.

It's getting dark. A salt lamp is on, and a train is going past far away in the distance.

"I can look at this," she says of her body. "And say there's nothing I haven't done. In the oddest way, I think my family gets a bit of a better deal, because I'm present."

Where does she see herself in five years?

"Instead of trying to beat and control this, which is what I tried to do for the first five years, I'll have learnt to live with it. I'll be at peace with that."

And of course, if all goes to plan, there'll be an Olympic medal slung around her neck.

She's unlikely to take it off if she wins.

"It'll be all stained," she says, pretending to wave it around for all to see. "I'll be like: 'Oh, this old thing?"'
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# Anyone interested in wheelchair rugby, or swimming contact Cherryl at Parafed on 027 727 2333