Port Macquarie’s Janel Manns was rushing for work one day, when she slipped in her bathroom and fell. She broke her back in the fall and lost the use of her legs. Now, almost 10 years later and after much courage and determination, she is one of Australia’s top wheelchair athletes, excelling at both basketball and tennis. We caught up with Janel to talk about her inspiring story, the challenges she faces on a daily basis and her impressive sporting achievements.
>How did you lose the use of your legs?On the 13 July 1998, when rushing to get to work on time, I ran into my bathroom and fell very heavily on the wet slippery floor. Initially medical error resulted in the diagnosis of ligament and muscle tissue damage; despite all physiotherapy efforts, the use of crutches and supplementary wheelchair use, my condition deteriorated along with development of chronic pain. By Christmas 1998 I was reliant on wheelchair use for all intents and purposes.
Nearly 3 years later, the correct medical diagnoses was made – spinal cord injury with damage at T2, L4, L5, S1, S2. Incorrect “treatment” until correct diagnosis had resulted in the collapse of the sacral spinal area, causing pressure, strain and swelling on cauda equina (nerves), resulting in paraplegia level rising from the primary injury site at L4, L5 to T10 to complete paraplegia on the left side and T11 incomplete paraplegia on the right side.
> Before that bathroom fall, you had already overcome many struggles and hurdles in your life, with multiple hospital stays and orthopaedic procedures as a child. Tell us about that …
Earlier in my life I had already gone through many medical procedures, after being diagnosed at age 4 with congenital dislocation of both hips. I had 13 corrective orthopaedic procedures between the ages 4 to 17 and was told by orthopaedic specialists that able-bodied sports were not possible and that I wouldn’t be able to ride a pushbike. I defied all the odds, playing mainstream state level squash, hockey (goal keeper) and volleyball, and I rode a pushbike for many childhood years.
A car accident at age 17 rendered the left hip destroyed. Orthopaedic specialists advised it would be impossible to ever walk on the left leg again. Despite that, during the following 15 years I undertook various employment and studies, produced two children and undertook all “normal” walking activities.
In 2005 I completed 8 years of study, achieving a Bachelor in Legal and Justice Studies, graduating with a triple major: Management, Dispute Resolution and Social Justice.
> How hard was it to overcome losing the use of your legs and to move forward with a positive attitude?
It sits right up there as one of the toughest emotional and physically challenging things I’ve ever had to face in my life.
It is said in medical circles that it takes on average 5 to 7 years for a person to recover from a life changing trauma/experience. I would have to say that I don’t think one ever recovers as such, more so that you just learn to live with what has been dealt you.
For me, overcoming, moving on and learning to live with what I can’t control or change and to get the most from what I can control and change has been a difficult experience, but also a very positive liberating experience.
I was devastated to lose the one thing that I had fought to retain throughout my entire childhood. I hit a very deep depression and envisaged the worst for my future – no future ahead of me at all – while also mourning for so much lost childhood.
Fortunately, Port Macquarie resident Tom Kennedy (quadriplegic wheelchair athlete, silver medallist paralympian) had been an acquaintance for many years before my accident. I am so very fortunate that Tom was and still is a part of my life. Amongst wheelie circles, Tom has a reputation for “saving” wheelies. He provides support, information, encouragement and pure inspiration to live life to the fullest against all adversity.
My greatest saving grace was two fold – Tom, my mentor, and his introducing me to sport. Sport gave me back so many things that I’d lost – goals to pursue, motivation, a reason to get out of bed each day, self esteem, confidence, identity, achievement.
> What led you to become involved in sport at such a competitive level?
My initial introduction to sport was Country League Wheelchair Basketball. I played the country league circuit for 2 years under the guidance of Tom Kennedy.
I was playing the mixed (sex) country league circuit when Australian #1 goal shooter in wheelchair basketball, Lisle Tech, invited me to join the Women’s League based in Sydney. I thought, “Why not?” and played National League basket ball for the following 4 years.
I achieved set personal goals at a National Basket Ball level, 2 gold and 1 silver meda, and retired from play for various reasons – one being that although basketball is a non-contact sport, there is quite a lot of contact in wheelchair basket ball, along with floor falls.
I had no intention to pursue another sport at an elite level when I picked up a junior “Tweety Bird” tennis racket. In a borrowed chair I started playing social tennis with other Sydney based wheelies, in the pursuit of no more than just fun and fitness. So no-one was more shocked than I when I was invited to attend trials to become a member of the Australian Women’s Wheelchair Tennis Squad, no more than 12 months into my playing tennis with my ball, racquet and friends at Homebush.
I made the squad and I’ve now been playing tennis for 3.5 years.
My achievements include: 2006 – Winner, Women’s Reserve Singles, International Super Series, Australian Open and competed at the Malaysian 9th FESPIC games – Bronze Medal; April 2007 competed at the Australian ARAFURA Games, returned home undefeated; singles – gold; doubles – gold; mixed team event – gold.
> How much training do you do and what does it involve?
Approximately 6 times per year I attend either NHPA (National High Performance Academy, Tennis Australia) training Camps at either State or National venues. I received a scholarship through Tennis Australia, which ties me to certain tournament and training obligations.
I train at the gym twice a week with personal trainer Damien Hunes, at 5 Star Fitness Centre. Damien is an exceptional personal trainer, as he has to work outside and think outside the “norm”.
I train at Town Beach Tennis Centre (near Oxley oval) as often as I can get on court.
My coaches, Phil Robinson and Greg Alchin, offer above and beyond any other coaches I have worked with, going out of their way to support, train and mentor me.
> What are the biggest challenges you face day to day?
One of them is getting out of bed each day, and getting going. My back injury has resulted in a chronic pain condition – sympathetic nerve syndrome; this means my body is never without pain. That, combined with normal muscle soreness and stiffness in my upper body from gym activities and on-court training, makes it really hard for me to motivate to get out of bed and get going. I manage that with a hot shower and the knowledge that it may hurt to get there, but once I’m there the enjoyment will far outweigh the cost.
I aim to do one thing each day that brings me enjoyment, so I always have something to look forward to.
Everyday life functional activities and people are also a huge challenge. Mastering once easy everyday tasks all over again can also be achieved, but trying to function in an able-bodied world in day to day activities can be quite gruelling.
Simple tasks such as cooking, shopping, navigating footpaths, reaching clothes racks in shops or grocery items can be quite taxing on energy levels, as the world is structured for the majority. People’s attitudes can also be quite taxing; so many people just do not understand that people with a disability are just ordinary people with hopes, dreams, desires, just like the next person in the grocery store.
> Have you received much support and encouragement at a local level?
Yes, I have. And I’d like to thank everyone for their interest, support and generosity.
At the Town Beach Tennis Centre, Greg, Phil, Bryan and the Club Committee sponsor me in court access and coaching for free all day every day – that’s huge. They have also started major works aiming to make the tennis complex totally wheelchair accessible – $90,000 worth of upgrades are in the pipeline. They are in need of corporate sponsorship, being only $10,000 short for the upgrade project!
Hastings Council has also been a big supporter, whether that be directly through the Mayor’s Sporting Fund or assisting the Tennis Club with accessible upgrades.
> What inspires you to keep aiming higher?
It’s a sweet ride – almost surreal. I feel like an average, ordinary person … yet here I am participating in something not many people have the opportunity to experience. Just wearing the green and gold is amazing.
Each time I play on court I leave with the knowledge that I am one step closer to reaching my tennis goals; but in mastering physical goals I am actually one step closer to freedom from the limitations imposed by my disability.
> Congratulations on your sporting achievements, Janel. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us.