When a horror cycling accident left PE teacher Melanie Woods paralysed from the waist down, she feared her dream of inspiring a generation of active youngsters was in tatters.
Now, as she prepares to compete in her first Paralympic Games, she hopes to inspire more children than she ever believed possible.
Melanie, 27, of Drymen, Stirlingshire, took up wheelchair racing less than a year after suffering life-changing injuries.
The sport-loving teacher had been enjoying an afternoon cycle on a quiet country road when she was hit by a car.
Melanie will never forget the terror she felt when, in the moments after being struck, she realised she could no longer feel her legs. Neither will she forget the tears she shed the first time she was pushed in a wheelchair.
Melanie, who spent seven months in hospital, was determined not to let her accident stop her being the fit and active person she had always been.
Inspired by the para-athletes she saw on television, she tried her hand at everything from para-skiing to wheelchair tennis.
As she prepares to compete as a wheelchair racer at the Paralympic Games – which will have a TV audience of more than 4billion people – she hopes she in turn will inspire many others.
Melanie, who now lives in Glasgow, said: “As a PE teacher, my job was to inspire and encourage kids to be active and show the importance of sport.
“I always wanted to show my pupils that being active can give you great joy, it can be so good for your physical and mental health and it can teach you about overcoming challenges. Now I’m taking part in the Paralympics, I don’t think there is a better way I can spread the message.”
Melanie, an athlete with Red Star Athletics in Glasgow, had been out for an afternoon cycle near where she was living in Inverness when her life changed forever in January 2018.
She said: “I’d taken a teaching job in Dingwall and was out for a cycle when the accident happened. I was on my way home when I was hit from behind. The driver of the car failed to see me.
“I don’t remember my flight off the bike but I remember being face down on the ground in excruciating pain. I remember the ambulance arriving and being asked a number of times, ‘Can you wiggle your toes?’
“I couldn’t bring myself to answer because I couldn’t wiggle my toes and I knew what that meant.”
Melanie was rushed to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness before being transferred to the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.
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The injuries she suffered included a shattered back and pelvis. A large amount of skin was also torn from her leg, which was broken in three places. The most devastating of her injuries was permanent damage to her spinal cord.
She said: “People ask, ‘Is there a moment you were told you will never walk again?’ But it wasn’t like that. It was just a gradual realisation in rehab, where I realised what my life was going to look like.
“I’ll always remember the first time I got pushed in a wheelchair. I just wept.
“I had an image in my head of what life with a disability looks like and it was scary. I know now that image is not necessarily the reality.”
As Melanie was rehabilitating in hospital, she became captivated by watching the 2018 Winter Paralympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
She said: “I’d watched para-sport before but I saw it from a different perspective. I saw all these amazing people achieving incredible things despite what they had been through.
“I was watching one-legged snowboarders and blind skiers. I saw it with a new set of eyes and it got me excited.
“I didn’t imagine that I would become a Paralympic athlete but I saw I could still be active and it made we want to get back into sport. Being active had always given me so much happiness and I wanted to find that again.”
On leaving hospital, Melanie started playing tennis and even travelled to Colorado to learn how to sit ski.
She discovered a passion for wheelchair racing and started training six days a week. By the end of her debut season, she was finishing near the top of the national rankings in her classification.
She said: “You hear people saying, ‘I fell in love with the sport’, or, ‘I was hooked instantly’, but at first, I found it so difficult. You don’t use your upper body much when you’ve got working legs – you just don’t need to. Even pushing the chair was so tiring.
“When I initially went along to the athletics club, I couldn’t even keep up with the others in the warm-up. I would be sitting in a position that was so uncomfortable and I was using a chair that wasn’t made for me. But I enjoyed the challenge and saw myself getting better.”
As Melanie worked hard to improve, she was inspired by world-leading wheelchair racers including Scottish athlete Sammi Kinghorn, who took up the sport after being left paralysed aged 14 following an accident at her family’s farm in the Borders.
Three weeks ago, while wild camping with friends in Perthshire, Melanie received a call from the British
Paralympics committee to say she had been selected to compete for ParalympicsGB as a wheelchair racer in the T54 400m and 800m races.
She is now in Tokyo and looking forward to the adventure ahead.
She said: “When I got the call to say I’d been selected, we had set our tent up and were sitting around our camp fire with mugs of tea in our hands.
“You don’t sleep much when you are camping anyway but I didn’t sleep a wink that night because I kept thinking of things like, ‘I don’t know where my passport is’.
“I was in such shock but so excited too.
“I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved. When something bad happens, perspective is everything and you
have to believe some good has to come from it.
“When I look back on what happened to me, it still breaks my heart – but I know too that it’s given me
opportunities that I’ve never had before.
“And, most of all, I want to show others the benefits of living an active life.”
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – which were delayed for a year because of coronavirus – begin on Tuesday.
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