When a horrific bicycle accident left PE teacher Melanie Woods, paralyzed from waist to toe, feared her dream of inspiring a generation of young working people was in tatters.
Now, as she prepares to compete in her first Paralympic Games, she hopes to inspire more children that she never thought possible.
Mélanie, 27, from Drymen, Stirlingshire, started wheelchair racing less than a year after suffering life-changing injuries.
The sports-loving teacher was enjoying an afternoon cycling on a quiet country road when she was hit by a car.
Melanie will never forget the terror she felt when, moments after being hit, she realized that she could no longer feel her legs. She also won’t forget the tears she shed the first time she was pushed into a wheelchair.
Melanie, who spent seven months in the hospital, was determined not to let her accident keep her from being the fit and active person she had always been.
Inspired by the para-athletes she saw on television, she tried her hand at everything from para-skiing to wheelchair tennis.
As she prepares to compete as a wheelchair racer at the Paralympic Games – which will have a TV audience of over 4 billion people – she hopes she, in turn, inspires many more.
Melanie, who now lives in Glasgow, said: “As a physical education teacher my job was to inspire and encourage children to be active and show the importance of sport.
“I’ve always wanted to show my students that being active can bring you great joy, that it can be so good for your physical and mental health, and that it can teach you to overcome challenges. Now that I’m competing in the Paralympic Games, I don’t think there’s a better way to get the message out.
Melanie, an athlete with Red Star Athletics in Glasgow, was out for an afternoon cycle near where she lived in Inverness when her life changed forever in January 2018.
She said: “I had accepted a teaching position at Dingwall and was away for a cycle when the accident happened. I was on my way home when I was hit from behind. The driver of the car did not see me.
“I don’t remember my theft off the bike, but I do remember being face down in excruciating pain. I remember the ambulance arriving and being asked several times, “Can you wiggle your toes?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to answer because I couldn’t move my toes and I knew what that meant.”
Melanie was rushed to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness before being transferred to the Spine Injury Unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.
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The injuries she suffered included a broken back and pelvis. A large amount of skin was also torn from his leg, which was broken in three places. The most devastating of his injuries was permanent damage to his spinal cord.
She said: “People ask, ‘Was there a time when you were told that you will never walk again?’ But it wasn’t like that. It was just a gradual awakening in rehab, where I realized what my life would be like.
“I will always remember the first time I was pushed in a wheelchair. I just cried.
“I had a picture of life with a disability in my head and it was scary. I now know that the picture is not necessarily the reality.
As Melanie readjusted in hospital, she was captivated watching the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
She said: “I had looked at the parasport before, but I saw it from a different perspective. I saw all of these amazing people achieve amazing things despite what they had been through.
“I watched one-legged snowboarders and blind skiers. I saw him with a new set of eyes and it got me excited.
“I never imagined I would become a Paralympic athlete, but I saw that I could still be active and it made us want to get back into the sport. Being active had always given me so much happiness and I wanted to find it again. “
Upon discharge from the hospital, Melanie started playing tennis and even traveled to Colorado to learn to sit ski.
She discovered a passion for wheelchair racing and started training six days a week. At the end of her first season, she finished near the top of the national standings in her standings.
She said: “You hear people say, ‘I fell in love with the sport’ or ‘I was hooked instantly’, but at first I found it so difficult. You don’t use your upper body a lot when you have working legs – you just don’t need to. Even pushing the chair was so tiring.
“When I first went to the track club, I couldn’t even keep up with the others during the warm-up. I was sitting in such an awkward position and using a chair that was not right for me. But I enjoyed the challenge and saw myself improving.
As Melanie worked hard to improve herself, she was inspired by world famous wheelchair runners, including Scottish athlete Sammi Kinghorn, who started playing the sport after being paralyzed at the age of 14. following an accident on his family’s farm in the Borders.
Three weeks ago, while wild camping with friends in Perthshire, Melanie got a call from the Brits
Paralympic Committee to say that she had been selected to compete for ParalympicsGB as a wheelchair runner in the T54 400m and 800m races.
She is now in Tokyo and is looking forward to the adventure to come.
She said: “When I got the call to say that I had been selected, we had pitched our tent and were sitting around our campfire with cups of tea in hand.
“You don’t get much sleep when camping anyway, but I didn’t wink that night because I kept thinking about things like, ‘I don’t know where is my passport ”.
“I was so shocked but so excited too.
“I am so proud of what I have accomplished. When something bad happens, the prospect is everything and you
you have to believe that something good has to come out of it.
“When I look back on what happened to me it always breaks my heart – but I also know it was given to me
opportunities that I have never had before.
“And most importantly, I want to show others the benefits of an active lifestyle.”
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – which have been delayed for a year due to the coronavirus – begin on Tuesday.
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