Anna Maxwell, SkiingIt was an honour to have met Anna Maxwell. I can honestly say I left our lunch meeting with a refreshed perspective on my petty complaints with everyday life. Yet I have found myself procrastinating when trying to write this blog. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to write something that would genuinely capture Anna’s remarkable courage and warm disposition with the integrity it deserved. As I hope I can portray, Anna’s inspirational story extends far beyond her injury and the rehabilitation from a devastating luge accident that resulted in the amputation of her leg. Anna possesses a strength of character and attitude towards life that I wish I could bottle and drink. As we sat in a busy Bond street cafe, I lost myself in complete admiration of this strong woman who had never lived her life defined by the limitations of a stereotype; by her ability to reshape aspirations and consistently move forward; to boldly grab life with openness and passion;  and to bravely face, challenge and conquer her fears…. the list goes on! Hopefully, you also take something away from this brief introduction to Anna Maxwell –  February’s Inspirational Woman.

Born and bred in Yorkshire, Anna is a country girl through and through. She went to boarding school in the Lakes District and upon completing her A-levels she was encouraged to pursue a civilised career for a lady behind a desk as perhaps a lawyer or architect. Having joined cadets at school, Anna had always been drawn to the great outdoors and was attracted to the lifestyle the Army could offer. Following her heart, this was the direction she went.

“It was an exciting time for women in the army, it wasn’t without its struggles but it promised change and it was a privilege to be a part of that”. Following the disbandment of the WRAC in 1992, women were absorbed into the rest of the army. Whilst they were still restricted to support and medical positions, many went on tour facing frontline conflict. However, women could not officially engage in combat roles until 2016, when David Cameron announced all areas of the armed forces would open to women. Find a full history of the service of women in the British Royal Army here>>

I was introduced to Anna through our mutual connection with the charity Supporting Wounded Veterans.  In addition to being captain in the Adjutant General’s Corps and completing two tours in Iraq, Anna was a professional full-time athlete in the army. Initially, she competed as a Race Skier, before moving into ice sports and taking up luge. In 2005, Anna was in Latvia preparing to qualify for the Turin Winter Olympics. Hurtling down the luge track at speeds exceeding 120 km p/hr, Anna’s life was catapulted in a painful new direction in the blink of eye.

Now it’s one thing to sit on the sofa and watch a seemingly fearless person launch themselves feet-first on a flat sled down a sharply descending tube of ice. But to hear Anna explain how the force of hitting a tiny glitch in the ice at speed has the power to rip your leg from its socket, vividly brings home the immense high risk of this sport.

Following an X-ray and treatment in Latvia, it was confirmed Anna had not broken any bones in the accident; suffering from a severe dislocation and ligament damage. Upon her return to the U.K. Anna began her rehabilitation, still distantly hopeful to qualify for the Turin Olympics. This dream was abruptly shattered when her Doctor called with the results to a follow-up MRI, requesting she return to the surgery immediately. Whilst the exterior shell of the bone in Anna’s lower leg had appeared to be intact in an X-ray, the MRI showed it to be internally shattered.

And so it began… Anna underwent a series of unsuccessful surgeries to repair her injuries. In constant agony, as time progressed she developed a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). In layman terms, CPRS is a poorly understood condition in which a person experiences chronic pain that is severe and debilitating.

As Anna best describes:

“Eventually the brain gives up on the infected limb inflicting such physical and mental strain and it basically begins to die.”         

The thrills and adrenaline rush of being an elite athlete had dissolved into a life of torment and misery that confined Anna to a wheelchair. Her mental health deteriorated and if it wasn’t for the companionship of her dog, Anna admitted she questioned whether she would’ve been able to continue.

One day when venturing out and about in her wheelchair, Anna fell amongst a crowd of people. Every emotion that had been boiling inside her, from humiliation, anger, despair and frustration erupted all at once. Little did Anna know at that moment that this was rock bottom and would mark a hopeful new chapter.

Upon returning home, Anna called her Doctor. She had come to the conclusion her life was one worth living and the only way to improve the quality of this life was to remove her leg to minimise her discomfort. Anna’s doctor agreed that this was the best decision and subsequently Anna elected to undergo a through-the-knee amputation of her left leg.

As part of her rehabilitation, Anna set herself 2 goals. The first was to walk her dog which up until this point she had never been able to do, the second was to ski again.  Within a matter of weeks, Anna took her first liberating steps in 5 years. Not before too long she was able to walk her dog. Skiing became an integral part of her rehabilitation and never shying from a challenge, in a mere 37 weeks following her surgery, Anna was not only back skiing but competing on the Paralympic circuit.

But the pressure of intensively training and race skiing on one leg came at cost and Anna’s right leg begun to suffer, reaching a point where she could no longer stand up ski. Having fallen love and recently married, Anna made the decision to retire and pursue another of her dreams – to have a family. She was medically discharged from the army in 2012.

Whilst many people experience stress and complications when trying to have children, few people are given the medical advice to remove 6 inches from an already amputated leg. Never to be defeated, Anna once again went under the knife to create room for a more stable prosthetic. Yet before doing so, she received a tweet from Supporting Wounded Veterans (SWV) with an invitation to join the 2014 Ski Week in Klosters. This was to be Anna’s last hurrah before her operation and would be the last time she would stand up ski. “I could have never of anticipated the timely support that followed”. Post-surgery, SWV organised for Anna to be mentored by Jane Durgan. A former solicitor, mother of three and amputee herself, Jane could offer Anna invaluable support. “Not only could Jane commiserate my frustrations and relate to my fears, she provided me with hope and reminded me that it is possible to live a full life with a family as an amputee”

Now the very proud mother of a beautiful little girl, Anna’s life has taken on another new lease of energy. With the thought that her skiing days were behind her, the glitter of freshly groomed corduroy still beckoned. In 2017 Anna was invited to join the Blesma Hartford Ski Spectacular trip to Colorado. Never to say no to an opportunity, she accepted. But making it back to the snow would be no easy feat.

“Sit down skiing is completely different to stand up skiing. I had to forget everything I knew and rely solely on my upper body and head. It was the most awful 4 days. I had gone from being a proficient skier to a complete beginner. It was a good challenge but I was terrified.”

When I asked what motivated her decision to return to skiing Anna said:

“I am not one to stand on the sideline and I wanted to one day be able to ski with my daughter. I don’t want her to view me as not being “able” to do something and I want her to understand that a disability doesn’t hold you back. I am capable of all the things every other mother is capable of and more!”

This really struck a chord with me. Perhaps because I am the mum of two boys and was a spotlight on how much I took life for granted with them; there are many times I had declined opportunities to play football or run outside with them for some insignificant reason I had prioritised. Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the illusion that Anna, or any parent for that matter, is above this type of parental guilt. It was more the ironic realisation as I sat there listening and jotting down notes… Anna openly embraced every opportunity life threw at her. Undefined by the stigma of a stereotype, whether it is that associated with being a woman, mother or amputee, she follows her heart and courageously challenges her fears. Whilst the majority of us might deliberate the pros and cons, analysing potential risks, maybe we could all benefit a little from Anna’s approach to life:

“I try to never say no to an opportunity, you never know where it will take you. This has opened so many more doors for me… I have been on stage in a West-End play, climbed a mountain in the Antarctic, even given a TED talk as a part of International Women’s Day! You just never know where saying yes will take you.”

 

 

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