If ever there was a book full of hope, Elizabeth Wright’s “Ditch the Arm, Keep the Leg” is it.
“Do you ever experience moments of pure elation at being alive? Feeling the ‘thump, thump, thump’ of your heart and the sheer energy coursing through your body and mind? This is how I feel every day of my life.”
Elizabeth was born in a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, with congenital limb difference in an arm and a leg. She had the good fortune to be born into a loving family that picked her up when she fell but which brought her up with the expectation that she could achieve anything if she tried hard enough.
Many of us born with a limb difference confront the thorny issue of prosthetics: some were forced by the medical profession into wholly inappropriate body modifications and cumbersome prosthetic limbs.
In Elizabeth’s case, the lower limb prosthesis was, and is, wonderfully successful - not so its upper limb equivalent, which hung uselessly at her side and was quickly abandoned:
“After a few days, I refused to put it back on. It ended up in my wardrobe for a few years, like a discarded piece of offensive clothing, until it was dumped in the bin. My friends accepted me without it. I accepted myself without it. It was a completely useless appendage, unlike my leg.”
She took to swimming like the proverbial duck to water - grateful to her brother, Phillip, for literally throwing her into the family pool at the deep end when she was still very young.
Her natural aquatic abilities were encouraged and - when in 1993 the IOC announced that Sydney would host the 2000 Olympics and Paralympics - she made up her mind that she would represent Australia. She was slightly taken aback by her parents’ somewhat lukewarm response to her dream:
“I stood aghast at the doubt my parents displayed. My parents, who had raised me to believe that I could do anything, were questioning my aspirations. They’d told me I could walk, play, go to school, swim, write, draw, and dream. Inside, my heart beat with indignation; I turned to my parents and repeated my claim: ‘I AM going to swim at those Games!’”
Undeterred by parental attempts to manage her expectations - in all likelihood a desire to protect her from disappointment - Elizabeth started to swim competitively and received professional coaching.
Though her schoolwork sometimes had to take a back seat, Elizabeth’s dream of Paralympic success began to take place as she ploughed up and down the pool:
“My pool ceased to be a slightly grubby, dark lagoon and instead became a bright, glittering, clean, polished Olympic Pool at Homebush in Sydney. Every dive, every stroke, and every kick was propelling me towards my dream; I could see all the techniques coming together in my mind, creating the right conditions for the desired result.”
Aged only 16, Elizabeth was selected as a member of Australia’s Paralympic squad for the 1996 Atlanta games, a trip that could easily have been wrecked by a throat infection. She came away with a bronze medal and an even firmer resolve that Sydney in 2000 was within her grasp.
Unlike many of her peers, she resisted the temptation to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Of course, there were setbacks along the way and lessons to be learnt: like many high achievers, Elizabeth was able to deal philosophically with disappointment, adjust her course and maintain her focus on the far horizon.
As well as being a fantastically useful motivational tool, this book offers a fascinating backstage pass into the razzmatazz of Olympic ceremonies, the realities of life on the road and in athletes’ villages.
Elizabeth decided - even before the Sydney games - that she would retire from her sport as soon as the Paralympics were over.
After obtaining a first class degree in Australia, she moved to the UK and now works as a motivational speaker.
This book rightly focusses upon the slow but steady build up to achieving her childhood ambition of representing her country in the 2000 Paralympics. The years that follow the Sydney games are skimmed over. Perhaps the author is already preparing a sequel?
“Ditch the Arm, Keep the Leg” will inspire every child who has a dream; it will reassure the parents of children born with any kind of difference that there is hope; it will prove to all of us that self belief, determination and focus are the cornerstones to success.
"Ditch the Arm, Keep the Leg" can be purchased from OodleBooks.