70. SARAH WALSH – 2x Paralympian Achieving Dreams and a Passion To Keep Getting Better and Stronger


70. SARAH WALSH – 2x Paralympian Achieving Dreams and a Passion To Keep Getting Better and Stronger

Today on the show I have the pleasure of chatting with 2x Paralympian, Long Jumper Sarah Walsh.

Sarah was born with fibular hemimelia which led to her right leg being amputated below the knee when she was 18 months old. At 10 years years of age, whilst watching other Para Athletes compete at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, it was then that she decided she would one day compete and represent Australia at a Paralympics. 8 years later she made that dream come true and competed in her first Paralympics at the 2016 Rio Games. An experience that only fuelled the fire, set her up for a bronze medal at the 2019 Dubai World Para Athletic Championships and a second Paralympic appearance in Tokyo.

We chat about fibula hemimelia, her love of sport growing up, her dream to become a Paralympian, her passion to get better for Paris, and the importance of people with disabilities being at the forefront of mainstream media and getting the representation and equality they deserve. We also get an insight into her Long Jump routine and some of the technicalities of the sport.

We also chat about her ambassadorship with an incredible organisation Lifeline providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support.

Growing Up With A Prosthetic Leg

Jackie 2:56
Sarah, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Welcome to the body’s built better podcast.

Sarah 3:02
Thank you so much for having me.

Jackie 3:04
I’m so excited to chat with you. You are a two time Paralympian and I dare say that figure is going to grow. You recently came first in the Oceania championships in the long jump. And, and I can’t wait to just dive into what it takes to be an elite long jumper. But before we do, you were born with fibular hemimelia. Can you tell us what that is and what that meant for you in terms of how you grew up, you had a prosthetic leg. Tell us about your upbringing.

Sarah 3:43
So I was born with a condition called fibular hemimelia, which essentially just means that when I was born, I was missing part of my leg on my right side. You don’t know too much about how legs are supposed to form, supposed to have two bones below your knee, or a foot with five toes. I was born missing one bone below my knee and my foot didn’t really form properly, didn’t have all of its toes. So when I was born, my parents were presented with two options. amputate my foot, as soon as I could pretty much start walking and wear a prosthetic for the rest of my life. Or the other option is to go through limb lengthening. And it’s kind of like multiple surgeries throughout your childhood up until you stop growing in the hopes that they can, like, lengthen the bone in the foot that was there to make it kind of the same length as your other one. So for my quality of life and being able to live the best life that I could, my parents chose amputation. And I had my foot amputated when I was 18 months old, worn a prosthetic leg ever since, and I don’t know any different. So I guess my childhood was relatively normal. I’m the eldest of three girls. So like I was always involved with the sport that my sisters were playing or the sport that my friends were doing and like, I don’t know any different. So when I looked at, like, my friends and their childhood, mine looks pretty similar to that as well. Just the fact that I had a prosthetic leg. Yeah.

Jackie 5:08
That’s so interesting. Like, that’s all you know. But, you know, when you looked at other children growing up, and they don’t have a prosthetic leg did that–did you ever question about what, why that was for you?

Sarah 5:22
No, really, I guess, like, I always knew that I was different. But I also knew that like, my difference was my strength. When I started school, I remember everyone wanted to be friends with the girl with one leg. And I thought that was so cool. Like, they thought it was the best thing in the world. So it was never something that, like I had to hide or shy away from. It was something that was always accepted by everyone around me. So I just like, always knew that, like everyone was different in their own way, my difference was like, a little bit more obvious than anyone else’s. But like, it was something that was always accepted and embraced by everyone around me, which is something I’m super grateful for. Because I know, a lot of people don’t have that support network around them.

Jackie 6:01
Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Sarah’s Athletic Journey: Finding What She Did Best

Jackie 6:04
Did you find whether there were any disadvantages, growing up in terms of your sport or opportunities with–

Sarah 6:16
Um, no, really I guess, like when I was playing sport against my friends at school, or classmates, like, I was never the one that was crossing the line first, or being the best in the class. But it was never something that I was like, concerned or worried about, like, my parents always encouraged me to get out there and give everything a go. And they put me in many sports when I was younger, like I swam from, like before I had my amputation up until I was like 12 years old. And like so many, it’s not for me these days. That was something they encouraged me to do, because it’s super important to learn to swim. And like I did gymnastics for 12 years as well, still can’t do a handstand or a cartwheel to save my life. Like there’s nothing to do with my prosthetic leg. But the only like, sport that I really struggled with or kind of felt like my leg is kind of stopping me from doing this was dancing. And it just got to the point where as I got a little bit older, and like, dance moves got a little bit harder. And dances got a bit faster, I was finding that I was like, struggling to like get up and down off the ground as quick as everyone else. Or the thing that I told my mum that I wanted to stop dancing, because of, was the fact that I couldn’t point my right toes. And that’s my prosthetic leg. And like no matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be able to point legs that are made of carbon fibre and metal. My mom was like, okay, but like I’ve paid for the rest of the term. So like he’s sticking it out. And that was kind of like the only thing that it’s like, this, like, maybe this prosthetic thing is kind of like a bad thing, I guess or like impeding me from reaching my potential. But let’s be realistic, my potential was never going to be in dancing. When I look back in the videos like I was so out of time rhythm being so like pointing my toes wasn’t the problem.

Jackie 8:03
Did you, did it get any better for you? Did you find that it eventually was any better?

Sarah 8:09
Like, I’m still not a great dancer. So, like, my career in dancing ended around I was eight years old. But like, when I look back on it now, it’s not something that I’m like, “Oh, I really should have like, just pursued that.” I look back on it. Now. I’m like, “Good thing you have to choose.”

Jackie 8:26
Did you learn to eventually enjoy it though?

Sarah 8:29
Yeah. Like, it wasn’t something that I like hated going to it was something that my friends did. So I really loved it. But I was like, if I have to, like, give something up, and if I want to try like something else after school, like I’m going to throw in the bag for dancing and my sisters danced throughout their childhood up until like, they finishrd high school. And when I went to watch their concerts like dancing was not for me, like it was a struggle to sit and watch them. So it wasn’t something that I was missing out on. But like looking back on it now. The fact that like, I couldn’t point my toes was the reason I gave mom for wanting to give up because I was, like, pretty pathetic.

Jackie 9:04
She’s like, “No shit, Sarah.”

The Inspiration Behind The Athlete

Jackie 9:12
So tell us about your inspiration, like who are your biggest influences, I guess, on your career, and even that mindset about keeping on going.

Sarah 9:23
I guess like first and foremost, my parents like they were the ones that, like, encouraged me to get out there and give everything a go. They weren’t gonna see it on the sideline and be like, Yeah, we know you can’t point your toes there but like, we’re still gonna send you to dancing like they never once said, like you can’t do that, like they let me figure it out for myself. The only sport that like mom said that I couldn’t continue with anymore was netball, because it got to the point where like netball changed from after school to early Saturday morning and we’re not morning people in our house. What was the month that I’m not getting in the winter to take that. Like that’s my netball career pretty quick. Like, I look back now, I wasn’t going to be a netball player anyway. So like they were the ones that always encouraged me and were there to support me and like say, “You know what, you can do it. But you might not be as good as everyone else. But like one day, maybe you’ll find like that sport or that thing that you’re passionate about.” So like, they were the ones that were there from early on. And I guess then, like, as I’ve gotten older and been a part of the Australian team, like the people I’m surrounded by every day, whether it’s like at the track training, or in the gym, during gym, where like, they’re the best athletes in the world at what they do. And it’s really incredible to be able to train alongside those types of people and learn from them and learn from their experiences and just have those people to support you in your life. And then my coach, Matt Beckenham these days, he’s really important to get the best out of me as an athlete, but I’ve also had many coaches throughout my career and they’ve all played pivotal roles at that point in time that they coached me whether it was my first coach who taught me the basics of athletics, or the coach that took me into my first Paralympics, like they’re all really special and have taught me so many things along the way. And like, without all those people, whether they’re in my life now, like Dave shaped me into the athlete that I am, yeah,

Jackie 11:18
That’s it. Everyone has a part to play in your life, no matter how short or how long they’re in your life.

A Lucky Break Changes Sarah’s Life

Jackie 11:27
So tell us about that journey into becoming a long jumper. You said you, you’ve you play you’re you grew up, grew up playing different sports? How did you eventually get into long jump?

Sarah 11:42
Yeah, I guess athletics wasn’t like the sport that I was doing. I never did able athletics, or anything like that. It was just kind of, I was in a year three school athletics carnival, just like you’d have every year came dead last against my classmates, but it just had a ball like, you were there. Having fun, day off school, didn’t have to do too much. And then after that, my teacher came up to me one day after school and said, “Oh, here’s a lead off, you’re off to the zone athletics,” kind of like “take it home, get your mom and dad to sign it, bring it back.” And I just said, why? Like, why are you sending me to the athletics kind of came last against everyone else. And I kind of found out that there’s a section just for our para-athletes. And because I was missing a leg that was the events that I could go in. And this teacher had entered me in the 100. The 200, the long jump in the shot put. I didn’t have a choice. And of course, I said yes, because it was another day of school. And little did I know like a few years later found out that her intentions were she was going to send me, I was going to come home with four gold medals. And that would put our school on the top of the medal tally, and we’d like win, but like, things like that I didn’t realise back then. But now I do. And little did I know that one day that I took off school because I was’t sure about how fun and the one day that she told me to take the day off school so I could win medals. My school was the start of my athletics career. And at the time, I could barely run 100 metres, let alone 200 metres. I’m not the strongest person, upper body. So shotput was just stupid of me to do and like wasn’t very coordinated either. So long jump was just there for a bit of fun. And I didn’t have the right equipment to be like doing athletics, I was just running on my everyday leg, which wasn’t designed for that, it’s pretty much designed for getting you around from point A to B at walking speed. Like no training, no experience in the sport. But like that was where it all started and eventually found myself an athletics coach, joined a little Lion’s Club, which was kind of like the backwards thing of how people would expect your athletics career to start out. Like you’d kind of be doing that from a young age. And then a couple of years later, was gifted a running blade that I’d only ever seen on the TV at the Paralympic Games that like the best athletes in the world were using and that was kind of the point. As a 11 year old girl where I was like, hang on a minute, I could actually be good at this, like this could be the sport that I could do. Like I’ve got the right equipment, I don’t need to worry about pointing my toes like this is probably for me, but like, at the time I was still running 100 metres, 200 metres, gave up the shotput and then was just doing long jump on the side for fun and I always kind of thought that if I was gonna go to the Paralympics back then it would be at a sprint job. But little did I know that long jump was going to be the path that was gonna get me to those major championships. Yeah.

How Sarah Discovered Her Love For The Long Jump

Jackie 14:33
And so tell us about that transition. Like how, at what point did you go 100 and 200 metres not working out, but it’s time to pursue long jump?

Sarah 14:45
Um, it was kind of like a funny transition, I guess in 2014. I was 15 years old and I’d received an email to say that I was invited to compete overseas in my first athletics competition as a lead up events for the Commonwealth Games in Gloucester. And it was in the long jump. And it was kind of something that I never really thought about, like pursuing properly before. Like, I’d kind of done like one long jump training session of an afternoon like after my sprint stuff. And like it was just doing it for fun. And it kind of made me realise that like, if I wanted to represent Australia, and I wanted a career in these, like long jump was the sport that I was going to do that in and like whilst you need to be fast or have speed to do long term patterning to run 200 metres, and I look back now and I’m like, I’m so glad I’m not like that. I absolutely love long jump, like, it’s my favourite thing to do. And like, it’s the sport that I love the most and the one that I’m the best at so it was kind of like a transition that I didn’t really see coming, but I’m so glad like it happened then.

Jackie 15:49
Yeah. And so what was that conversation like? Was that with your parents first or coach, “I want to be a long jumper and I’m gonna go to the Paralympics,” like what was that like?

Sarah 16:00
I guess like the Paralympic stream kind of started, like in 2008. I remember watching the Beijing Paralympics on the TV as like, a 10 year old girl and being like, when I grow up, I want to be a Paralympian. Yeah. Back then, I didn’t know what sport I’d be good at, or like what sport for shoe. But I just kind of knew that I wanted to put on the green and gold and represent Australia. So I guess like, it’s been a slow journey to get to that point. But like it was kind of like a natural thing where I fell in love with track and field. And then long jump was kind of the sport that I was going to do. But like, the conversation around long jump kind of happened is like, well, “you’re going to represent Australia in long jump.” And like I competed in that over there and came back and was like, realistically, like if you want to keep doing these, like long jump’s away to go. And like it wasn’t something where I said no, I don’t think like I just want to solely focus on long jump as kind of like, Yeah, I think this is like for me, like putting on the green and gold and representing Australia in long jump just felt right and perfect. And in that moment, it was the best so that I wanted that feeling over and over again.

Jackie 17:07
Yeah, brilliant.

How Sarah Deals With The Setbacks

Jackie 17:10
Tell us about looking back over everything you’ve experienced so far. Have there been setbacks that you’ve experienced that have, I guess, in hindsight, helped you build resilience?

Sarah 17:23
Um, yes, and no. I’m so lucky and fortunate that I’ve never been injured. And I’ve never had to overcome, like a major injury in my career, which is kind of unheard of, I guess I’ve always, like I started in the sport so young, and I had people around me who trained me as like, an 11, 12 year old girl, and then train me as a 14, 15 year old girl who knew that like, I didn’t need to be in the gym, lifting heavy weights at that age, like, I just needed to naturally get stronger and fitter. And, like, I was always surrounded by amazing physios and doctors and coaches who like, treated me for the person that I was at that point in time, which has definitely helped me I guess, stay in the sport, but also stay injury free. But like, I think for me, like, the biggest challenge in the past few years has definitely been COVID, the postponement of the Paralympic Games with Tokyo. Like, I look back on it now. And it’s like, you can smile and laugh about it. But in the moment, it was kind of like, like what now like, is the games even actually going to happen in 18 months time, and I remember when it first got announced, or like COVID first kind of came into Australia, saying to like, people, they can’t cancel the Paralympic Games. That’s the biggest thing ever. Like you’re so selfish as an athlete, and you forget that, like the rest of the world is still around you. No, no. It’s, it’s the biggest thing in the world. Like, you can’t cancel that. And then all of a sudden, I was like, yeah, we can and like, we are going to so it’s kind of like, a strange time. And then even leading into the games I still didn’t know if they were going ahead. And I guess I was really hard training for a goal that maybe wasn’t actually going to happen. But like, it definitely made me a stronger athlete. And I use the time to like, the best of my abilities like to become fitter faster and stronger. And knowing that, like the postponement was actually a good thing in the long run, but like, it was a long stretch of like, no international competitions and like everything that was going on in the world, like it was hard to keep training, knowing that like you couldn’t see your family or like, you didn’t know like if there was competition actually going to happen next week. So that’s probably been like the biggest challenge recently.

Jackie 19:37
Yeah. And even though you know, you had a date, there was a postponement, all that uncertainty around it, not knowing whether actually it would go ahead it must have just, yeah, played on your mind.

A Paralympic Athlete Finds Her Motivation

Jackie 19:50
How did you then, I guess, keep your spirits up and the motivation up to keep training for something that was If you weren’t sure what was actually going to happen?

Sarah 20:03
I guess for me, like when we first went into lockdown, like the training then kind of became fun and a bit different, like I was doing gym at home. So I was trying new things and improvising. And so like that first period became fun and something different. And like I look forward to going to the track and having a run. Like that was the highlight of my day. But it also made me realise that, whilst I absolutely love putting on the green and gold and representing Australia, that’s not why I do what I do. Like, I’m very lucky to have those opportunities. But I do what I do, because I love it. So like if the goalposts kept moving or changing or being taken away from me, like, it didn’t affect me that much, because I was doing what I loved and going to the track. And training to me is just as special and important as putting on the green and gold. So like, I guess, knowing that things can be taken away from you so quickly. But I always had that one constant thing of being able to go to training, which is what I love to do, which kind of helped me gradually get through the whole process of COVID.

Jackie 21:07

How Sarah Trains For The Long Jump

Jackie 21:08
So tell us about the training, because I mean, when someone says I’m a runner, we can sort of figure out what training looks like. But a long jumper? Take us through that, what, hat does training look like for a long jumper?

Sarah 21:24
I guess like it’s pretty similar to a runner, I guess. So like, what we do is kind of similar except for the fact that like I got to jump really far. I described lunch on purpose, like oh, you just run and then you jump into the sandpit but like it’s a little bit more than that. So, for me, my training is six days a week can normally have one day off, it kind of depends, like what point in the season, I guess we’re in, I usually am at the track Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, to like sprint sessions a week or speed endurance, as much as like jump is a really technical sport, you also do need to carry a little bit of speed to be able to help you jump further. I normally do two gym sessions a week working on that. And then two, like long jump sessions, where, where that might be like running, jumping into the sandpit or, like plyometrics stuff to build stiffness in my legs. And then on top of that, I chose to do like prehab exercises to make sure like the points that I’m weaker in are being targeted. And just to make sure that I stay injury free. So like, it’s pretty similar, I guess, to a lot of other sports, but like my long jump sessions are a lot more technical, solely focused on jumping, whereas like a speed session is just pure running on the track.

Jackie 22:48
Yeah. And do you leave the jumping stuff to the long jump training sessions? Or do you do any–I know, you said plyometrics. But do you do any explosive stuff in the gym at all with your strength training?

Sarah 23:02
A little bit. So like, I’ve kind of been able to design exercises that are kind of beneficial to my long jump or a bit more technical to what I do to be able to, like, I guess, reiterate that I’m very much someone that if I just do the same thing, hundreds and hundreds of times over, that’s how I learned so like doing certain exercises in the gym, whether that means maybe like standing on a box and jumping on a crash mat, and practising my learning technique eventually translates over into like my actual long jump or like holding positions that I do in long jump off a rope or with a band, things like that eventually transition over into my long jump. So I do a little bit of long jump based exercises that we’ve kind of like made up on the spot that like helped me that then translate over into long jump, but I also like going to the gym and do like single leg squats, hanging bridges, like things that normal gym exercises that most athletes would do to build their strength. Because that’s also important to me.

Jackie 24:04
Yeah, absolutely.

The Technicalities Of The Long Jump

Jackie 24:06
And you said you know, in terms of the technicalities of the of the sport, you’ve been said the technical that–you know, how to land, I didn’t know there was even technique for landing. Would you take us through the, the technicalities of long jump?

Sarah 24:22
I guess it kind of all starts with like you’re standing on the top of the runway and the first bit is to like run and set yourself up for a good round. So you want to run like as fast as you can for a certain point in time, but then it gets to a point where you need to like transition into preparing to jump. So you don’t want to like slow down or speed up but you want to get your body in the correct position I guess to jump so for me that’s normally like 10 metres out from the board. I’ve started like thinking about okay, I need to prepare to jump. And then you penultimate step should be like a heel strike for flatfoot to lower the centre of your mass for your body to be able to get a better jump or get a better head off the board. And then for me, I guess like, you get to the board, I jump off my blades. So that foot that I take off, I want to make sure that you’re not fouling, and so a big part of long jump. And then I do a technique that’s called the huge which is essentially just like running through the air. And that in itself is a very technical, I guess, thing to learn.

Turning An Olympic-Sized Setback Into An Opportunity

Sarah 25:30
And, for me, COVID was actually a positive thing to happen because it made me realise that we could change my technique. So we spent the time of COVID in the postponement of the game, changing my long jump technique to a hitch, which has now proved beneficial. And then landing in the pit, I have a tendency to drop my blade, which is a little bit annoying, and you lose like many centimetres off that if it lands, but behind the rest of your body. So the jump is measured from the point in the sand that’s closest to the board. So if I dropped my blade and the rest of my body lines 30 centimetres in front of that my jump is 30 centimetres less than what it should be. So landing in the pit with like both legs together and not dropping my blade earlier than the rest of my body is really important. So then that’s why exercises in the gym, like practising landing and keeping my legs up, hopefully will translate over into doing that. Because it’s very like technical and each part can be broken down into so many small pieces for them essentially made to run and jump into the sandpit. Yeah.

The Mind Of A Long Jumper

Jackie 26:34
Let’s, let’s go there, said you kind of prepare with 10 metres to go. So how long is the running?

Sarah 26:41
So I, my run up is around about 31 metres. So you start running back as fast as you can, I guess is the easiest way to put it. And then preparing. And like starting the board, like, I’m normally pretty good with knowing like, where I am in the run up. Like there’ll be over the board behind the board, short of the board and then like stuff preparing in that like I guess 10 metres or so. Like what do I need to do to be perfect on the board to be able to jump as far as I can. So it’s such a technical sport, and there’s so many little things that you’re doing like on the run up and like steering yourself. So you’re on the board, that I absolutely love that it’s so technical. But when you break it down some days of training, you do just find that your brain is in overdrive.

Jackie 27:29
Yeah, exactly. That’s it. And you said the run up for you is, you say 31 metres? Yeah. So can that change? Does everyone have a different–

Sarah 27:40
Yeah, so the long jump run-up itself is just over 40 metres long, I think so you can put a mark wherever on the runway and start from there. So like if someone wanted to start from 39 metres back, go for it, if someone wanted to start it 20 metres from the board, go for it. As long as you’re on the runway, you can start from wherever you want.

Jackie 28:04
Ah, okay. And so how did you come up with 31 metres? What was it about that for you?

Sarah 28:12
Just through like trial and error, I guess and a lot of like, biomechanical stuff that we’ve been working on and it was kind of the point where you don’t want to be running flat out as soon as you hit the board, you want to be running flat out about three or four metres behind the board, so you want to have already reached your top speed to then to be able to hold that for a few metres to then jump. So that was kind of the point where we when we looked at my footage and we realised that my top speed was at X amount of metres and like that, ran up should be pretty good in like me being able to run as fast as I can, hold that, and then jump so it’s very like technical even behind the scenes like that’s not something that I just decided to say I’m gonna jump thirty-one metres, that’s the lucky number. The biomech team that I work with at AIS, that was like their recommendation and then it’s just finding like the point in and around that like some days it might be 31 metres and 20 centimetres or some days it might be 31 metres and 70 centimetres it just like depends on like, how fresh I’m feeling after a gym session the day before or how much when there is a headwind or a tailwind so it’s so really, like technical and so many like different parts to think about before you even start your run. But, like, yeah.

Jackie 29:34
That’s crazy. I mean, you say 31 metres and 20 centimetres is like, does that make a difference? Like it sounds so little, but obviously plays a huge part.

Sarah 29:45
Yeah, absolutely. Like even the slightest amount of headway no tailwind can really, like, affect your performance and narrow things like when athletes and on the top of the runway at long jump you’re feeling for the wind. There’s always a wind sock, you’re looking to see, like, how strong the wind is. is and then just know like, if it’s pretty gusty, you’ve got to go back or if it’s blowing in my face a lot, I need to go forward. Or it’s like maybe I just stay where I am and push a little bit harder when I’m running. Like, there’s so many, like, things you need to think about before you actually stop the running process.

Where To Find Sarah

Instagram: @sarah_walsh14

Lifeline: 13 11 14 https://www.lifeline.org.au/

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