While skiing on the Vaal Dam when she was 13 years old, Shireen Sapiro lost her balance and fell into the water. A passing speed boat rode straight over the teen, almost slicing her body in half. The propeller shattered her pelvis into nine pieces, ripped nerves out of her spinal cord and left the quadriceps on her left leg paralysed.
For more than two years, she endured hundreds of painful physiotherapy sessions to learn to walk again.
Difficult to imagine that only four years later, she made history by becoming South Africa’s youngest ever gold medallist and world record holder when she competed at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 in the 100m backstroke.
“After the accident, I did not want to view myself as being disabled. I was actually quite offended that one of my physiotherapists suggested I compete as a disabled athlete. Having grown up normally and competing in sports it was initially difficult to adjust, but as I got exposed to people with disabilities I got more comfortable with my own and admired them for what they were able to accomplish,” she says.
Sapiro says that despite the difficulties, she relished the challenge of learning to walk again and swimming with only half her body functioning properly.
“After the accident, I have had so many opportunity to meet amazing people and do amazing things. I would not change anything that has happened to me over the past few years.”
Studying journalism and balancing her swimming career remains tough, but she believes that this will help her to change the world for the better.
“I have always wanted to make life easier for people. My swimming, motivational speaking and being in a position to become a journalist after I retire, will help me accomplish that.” — Iwan Pienaar