13 December 2017

A Once Broken Reid!

raAs they pulled her out of the water, 16 year-old Stef Reid sensed that she was in trouble. There was so much blood. To make matters worse, they were in rural Canada, three hours from the nearest decent hospital.

Stef was a typical sport-mad teenager. While her parents weren’t churchgoers themselves, they had chosen a Christian school for their daughter. There, Stef learned about God. “We had Bible classes. I had very good head knowledge of the Bible but for me it never really hit home. It wasn’t a major part of my life. I didn’t spend time praying – only when I wanted to do well in a test etc. I didn’t know God.”

“I remember lying in the ambulance. I was scared because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to heaven”

Growing up she played basketball, volleyball and tennis as well as swimming. Rugby was her favourite sport and she was making progress towards her ambition of playing for Canada. “When I was 12, I was first introduced to rugby and fell in love with it. It was a sport that pretty much showcased the spectrum of my abilities. It was agility, it was speed, it was endurance. For me, there was nothing better than running up and down that field, covered in mud.”

“It was a complete miracle that I survived the accident. I know that God had a hand in that.”

Then everything changed when she was invited to go out on a boat with friends. “In Canada they have a thing called tubing where you attach an inner tube to a motor boat. The point is to go very fast and then you fall off and they come back and pick you up. I saw the boat coming in the distance and thought they were coming to pick me up. Too late I realised they had not seen me. The propellers caught me across my lower back.”

On her way to hospital Stef tried to face up to the seriousness of her situation. “I remember lying in the ambulance. I was scared because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to heaven. I did not know God. I had never asked Him what His plan was for my life. I remember praying for a second chance.”

She survived – although she sensed at the hospital that the doctors were not sure she would – but at the cost of her right leg which had to be amputated just below the knee. She was thankful and devastated at the same time: “It was a complete miracle that I survived the accident. I know that God had a hand in that. But with my love for sport, I was absolutely devastated at the prospect. The stuff that you love to do, you are told that you cannot do it anymore.”

Someone told Stef about paralympic sport but she wasn’t interested. Eventually she agreed to enter a race and won easily – which confirmed that it was all “Mickey Mouse”. Then in the next race she was well beaten and her competitive nature forced her to take it all more seriously.

Stef’s background is a bit mixed up. Her Scottish father and English mother were in the international hotel trade and went where the jobs were. So Stef was born in New Zealand and grew up in Canada.

By 2008 she had progressed sufficiently that she was representing Canada in the Paralympics. She had no idea what to expect. “The best way to describe Beijing would be 10 times harder and 100 times more fun than I had ever imagined. My best event was the long jump but I was shocked that at 8 o’clock in the morning there were 90,000 people in the stadium. It threw me. Six jumps and I fouled five of them and finished in 5th place – in an  event I should have won. I hate it that that medal came down to the fact that I could not hold it together mentally.”

“Then four hours later on the same day having hit a massive low I had to go back to the stadium and compete in the 200 metres final. I am proud of that because even though I had basically just failed in the long jump I was able to learn from what I did wrong and go back with a different attitude. I walked away with a bronze medal.”

“I am thankful that at 16 I learned what was important in life.”

She holds the world record in long jump in the F44 category [Stef is classified T44 or F44. F means Field Event and T means Track. 40s means amputee and 41-46 the degree of disability caused by the amputation]. In 2010 she broke the record three times in three weeks. “The first time I broke it was at Barnet Coptall at a tiny meet, not many spectators. I was there with my, then coach, Dan and we were there with some very specific things to work on. It wasn’t expected to be anything special. I think it was the third jump. I saw the result. I checked wind reading and I knew that was the world record. I went to Dan and said, “That was the world record.” He had the smallest glimpse of a smile for a second and then said, “You did this, this and this wrong and missed out on thirty centimetres.” I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to celebrate or not. But I was very happy.”

“The next time was on a bigger stage at Crystal Palace, which was awesome because my family was there. It was announced in a big stadium and it was really satisfying. But I was still hungry because I knew I could do better. It is just awesome to see years of hard work culminate in a world record. It is affirmation that you are on the right track and not bad at what you do.”

I wondered how she looked back on the accident, was she mad at God? “I don’t think I have ever felt mad at God. There are moments when you have little pity parties and tantrums. You are walking on bones that are not meant to have that kind of pressure. Suckers are uncomfortable and you just want to be able to walk down the street without discomfort. So I certainly had moments of frustration but never anger towards God. Despite everything, I still know in the back of my head that God is in control and if He could save me from an accident like that, there is not much else that He cannot handle.”

“I just believe God’s hand was in it. I don’t have any bitterness towards it. He knew that this was the only way He was going to get my attention. I am thankful that at 16 I learned what was important in life.”

Having an artificial leg has its lighter side. Once Stef booked a pedicure by telephone and explaining that she only had one foot, asked if it would be half price. “No!” On arrival at the salon, she explained again but got the same response – “Set price.” Stef accepted defeat but not quite.

“I said, “OK. That is fine but I want you to do everything you do to this foot to my other foot.” So I went back there and I had a fairly new guy. He finished soaking and massaging my left foot and I said, “Now this one.” I was trying not to lose my nerve when he is feeling like a complete idiot massaging the lifeless foot. After about 5 minutes I had to give it up as I felt bad for him. He did paint the toenails though. I think I made my point. It tickled me. I had a good time.”

On the subject of legs – and not a lot of people know this – Stef has five legs in her closet. “There is my everyday leg to walk around in. I have two running legs. Those are the cool blades that I run and do practice with. I have a swimming leg – which does not have any metal components in it. And my favourite leg which enables me to wear 3 inch high heels should the need arise.”

After competing for Canada in 2008, Stef decided to compete for Britain – or Scotland as her dad puts it – in 2012. She grew up with a British passport and very aware of her British heritage, would have preferred to have competed for GB all along. Pragmatically, she chose Canada as living there made that the easy option.

Now she splits her time between Dallas where Brent, her husband, is based, and Loughborough where she trains.

Brent is also a paralympian in wheelchair racing. They met at a track meet in Canada in 2005. For Brent it was love at first sight. For Stef it took a lot longer. “He asked me out 27 times – literally 27 times – before I said “Yes.” I got progressively less nice about it because he was not taking the hint. He was quite persistent and he knew what he wanted. We got engaged in 2007 and were married 3 weeks after the Beijing Paralympics.”

Having an artificial leg has its lighter side.

Asked what her hopes are for the 2012 Paralympics, she goes in two directions: “Part of it is medal-oriented and partly person-oriented. From a personal standpoint, I just want to be in a place where I can go out there in complete freedom and perform to my best potential. I want to go into the arena, free from nerves, free from fear and go and attack. From a more objective perspective, I want to win gold in the long jump and reset the world record in doing it. And I would like to medal in the 100 and 200 metres.” Considering all she has been through to get to where she is, would you bet against it?

WORDS Stuart Weir Executive Director Verité Sport