If there’s anything this past year has taught us, it’s that the only thing that’s predictable in life is the fact that it’s unpredictable!
Whether it’s a trip around the world, starting a new job or achieving a certain goal, you can have the most epic plans in the world. But, you never know when life is going to serve you a major curveball and completely derail your plans.
Sometimes, this leads to even bigger and better things that we couldn’t have even envisioned for ourselves, but this doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
Nobody is better acquainted with the uncertainty of life than Paralympic Gold and Silver Track and Field Medallist Vanessa Low.
From losing her legs in an accident, to receiving the news that the 2020 Paralympics had been postponed following a period of rigorous training, Low is the perfect example of turning adversity into opportunity.
Here, Low shares how she builds mental resilience to deal with changes in plans — plus, how she practises mindfulness and finds balance as a professional athlete.
What are some of the biggest life lessons your accident taught you?
“If I have learned one thing, it is that life turns out different to what we had planned — and that is not okay but can sometimes turn into something bigger and better. When I first lost my legs, I made myself busy trying to return back to normal, return back to the life I lived before my accident, I put all my energy into ‘overcoming’ this adversity.
“Although I celebrated a few smaller and bigger successes gaining back a great quality of life, I struggled to find my identity within this new me — not realising that you can’t go through what I have, losing both of my legs, and coming out the other side unmarked and untouched.
“Overcoming adversity and challenge is not about returning back to life as it was or the world around us changing to our liking. It’s really about stepping into life as it is now, and all that it can be.
“It’s about accepting the change, accepting what is, and leaving room for imagination of what can be. Not viewing change and adversity as something to overcome, but adapt to, accept and allow your imagination to think about all the possibilities life as it is may have to offer.”
How did it feel to get the news that the Paralympics had been postponed — how did you mentally process it and put a positive spin on it?
“In sport, we usually have very clear and defined goals attached to a fixed timeframe — that can be a time or distance or even a ranking within this world. But, what is crucial to success is staying adaptable and flexible while working towards those marks.
“As an athlete, you learn early on that what many call ‘success’, has to be something that is beyond medals and achieving certain times. There are so many factors outside our control like injuries, weather conditions, or simply a competitor being better on the day.
“When the news of the postponement hit, it certainly took a few days to process, but I soon realised that this doesn’t change the goal, but rather just the timeframe.
“Coming back from a number of injuries over the last couple of years, this new timeframe opened up so many opportunities to be a better athlete when the games will finally come around. It gives us time to work on smaller and bigger details that sometimes take second priority while preparing for a bigger competition.”
Do you have any tips for turning adversity into opportunity, or examples on how you’ve done this in your own life?
“My first walking legs had what we call a Barbie doll cosmetic — which means they would cover all the electronics and mechanics that makes our prosthetics work under a foam to make them look like somewhat ‘normal’.
“Let me tell you one thing — these legs looked nothing like a Barbie doll, it was basically a beige foam covered by a set of nylons. I hated everything about them, it was like putting on the same pair of ugly shoes every single morning. Nothing I wanted to wear would work, walking into a shoe store basically 90 per cent of the shoes weren’t an option. I can’t point my toes, so I can’t wear any heels or boots, and even getting into a pair of skinny jeans was basically impossible.
“I think things really started to change when I got asked to do a photo shoot with the amazing designer twins Jila & Jale. The designers were exploring the options of making fashion more accessible and suitable for people with a physical impairment and through some coincidences they happened to choose me to represent their first collection.
“When I arrived at the location they took a quick look at me and my everyday walking legs and asked if I happen to also have my running legs with me. They explained they would work much better with the look they had in mind. I was skeptical but went back to my car to get my running legs out of the boot.
“After I had all of my hair and makeup done, got fitted in the most incredible black leather dress I have ever seen, and changed into my carbon fibre running legs, I looked in the mirror, and for the first time since losing my legs I looked into the mirror and didn’t think of myself as pretty despite my disability. No, for the first time I felt truly beautiful as I was.
“I felt whole, and proud, and probably for the first time in my life whole-heartedly accepted and embraced who I was. Not because I spend about four hours in hair and makeup, or because I was wearing this beautiful dress. For the first time I looked inside the mirror and had the feeling that this society I live in has a space for me, a space for the person just the way I was.
“Instead of replacing something that is irreplaceable, my flesh and bone legs, why not accept who I am? Why not embrace this uniqueness as a part of me and maybe even make them part of my visual identity?
“Instead of desperately fighting to fit in, to be and look like everyone else, why not transform the thing that might have made people fearful into something that invited them to look, and look a little longer and maybe even understand?
“My story was no longer about overcoming deficiency; it was about embracing who I was. I discovered that a prosthetic limb doesn’t have to represent the need to replace loss anymore but it can stand as a symbol that I have the power to create whatever it is that I want to create in that space.
“(I would) not only become the author of my own identity but maybe even create a life different to the way I had imagined – not from a place of loss, chasing to return back to my life as it was, but from a place of empowerment.”
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What has your training as an athlete taught you about mental resilience?
“When I cross paths with complete strangers, they will never look and me and think to themselves ‘Wow, this girl has been given an incredible opportunity’. No, the first thing that comes to their mind is the incredible adversity, hardship and challenges I must have been through.
“But somehow, when standing on top of a podium after a successful competition, even though all these strangers are still looking at the same person with the same physical challenge, with the same smile and the same heart, they first and foremost sense a story written by empowerment.
“The empowerment I have given myself over the disempowerment that a physical loss such as mine is seen to bring into one’s life. It is through my achievements in sport that I get perceived and judged by the things I have done, the life I have created for myself, worked for, believed in and fought for, and not by the circumstances that I found myself in, but the cards I have been given in life.
“Paralympic sports enable people to understand that we, as humans, aren’t what happens to us, the circumstances we find ourselves in, but the courage we show, the actions we take, the responsibility we take over our own lives. Somehow sports help people to imagine the incredible opportunities we all have, instead of focussing on our personal boundaries.
“And that is probably the number one lesson I have learned being an athlete — most boundaries and limitations are in our minds, rarely ever do we access our full potential without expanding our minds to new ways and new possibilities. No athlete ever succeeded going by the textbook, we all need to find our own personal edge, our own little superpower, to live our life to the fullest and be the person we are capable of being.”
What are your favourite ways to practise mindfulness, especially in hard times?
“I love my morning routine; it sets me up for a mindful and intentional day.
“I love starting my day with seven minutes of heart coherence breathing/ meditation. It helps me to look inwards and feel into my heart. I then get my little journal out to write down things I’m grateful for, remind myself of my values, purpose and goals and set intentions for the day that will help me feel aligned with those values.
“I truly believe finding happiness is having a clear sight of your values, knowing what’s important to you, and aligning your day-to-day actions to those core values.”
Do you have any tips for maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle?
“I believe the key to a healthy and balanced lifestyle is intention.
“It’s not about weighing your food and saying no to every pleasure, but it is about being intentional about your choices, priorities and constantly reviewing your purpose, goals and vision.
“It’s knowing what you get up for in the morning, and then creating small little goals every single day that will bring you closer, while staying open to change, and understanding that balance requires some form of discipline while also allowing yourself to have fun and create space for enjoyment and pleasure.
“The right balance can sometimes be hard to find. Being an athlete, sport takes up a huge amount of your life – it’s not just the training but also getting the right amount of sleep and rest in general, nourishing our body with healthy and wholesome food, and sometimes being on the road for 26 out of 52 weeks.
“When I prepare for a major competition, discipline is key, and athletics takes the first second and third priority on my list. But during all those times in between I make sure that I devote plenty of time towards my loved ones, have dessert once in a while, and go to that birthday party.
“Balance is a fluent state; constantly reprioritising and being intentional about our day-to-day actions and choices.”