Joany Badenhorst's ascent to Paralympic stage

AT HOME: Joany Badenhorst at her family home in Griffith. Picture: Anthony Stipo
AT HOME: Joany Badenhorst at her family home in Griffith. Picture: Anthony Stipo

JOANY Badenhorst reached the summit of her sport last year when she attended the Sochi Winter Paralympics in Russia. It was an amazing achievement for the Griffith snowboarder, who hopes to have a long career on the slopes. The Area News sports editor Andrew Piva spoke to Badenhorst about her whirlwind 18 months and the journey that took her from South Africa to country NSW six years ago.

THEY were the shoes Joany Badenhorst had to have.

Velvet and coloured in sunset splashes of red, pink and orange, the shoes were the perfect counterpoint to the white gown she had picked out for her Marian Catholic College year 12 formal. There was just one problem – the 5cm wedge heel.

Badenhorst had never worn wedge heels. Of all the challenges she had overcome with her prosthetic left leg, balancing on a heel the height of a Rubik’s Cube hadn’t been one of them. Her Sydney-based prosthetist wasn’t confident and feared her walking stability would be compromised. But Badenhorst wouldn’t be dissuaded. For her, “can’t” is a poisonous word. Saying it would be as offensive as Elmo dropping the F-bomb on Sesame Street. She had nearly qualified for the 2012 London Paralympics in athletics. Wedge heels didn’t intimidate her, so she turned the prosthetist’s office into an obstacle course.

“I was doing stunts around the place to show I was fine,” Badenhorst recalls, laughing. “I had to show that I could balance and that I wasn’t going to kill someone by falling over.”

As Badenhorst proved her dexterity by jumping and vaulting in her wedge heels like a hyperactive socialite, Australian Paralympic snowboard coach Peter Higgins was sitting in the same room with one of his athletes, observing the performance.

“They had no females on their team,” Badenhorst, 20, says. “He saw that I had one leg and saw I was female and he asked about me. He was told I literally retired a month ago from athletics and that I was a free agent. Two days later, he called me up.”

That telephone conversation was the genesis of Badenhorst’s career on the snow. Sitting in the lounge of her parents’ Griffith home, her younger brothers Garret and Peter splashing in the family pool, the temperature tiptoeing towards 35 degrees, Badenhorst couldn’t be further removed from a winter environment.

Born in South Africa, Badenhorst moved to Australia with her family in 2009. The accent of her home country remains entrenched in her vowels, her phonetic allegiance becoming even clearer when she coos in Afrikaans to her protective miniature schnauzer, Scotty. She has the toned physique of someone who demands the maximum from her body. It’s easy to imagine her dominating her teenage brothers in sibling fisticuffs before they had their growth spurts. Even now she could probably hold her own if she executed a headlock-noogie combination, but not at this exact moment.

Badenhorst is struggling with jetlag after flying in from Europe the previous day. Yawns stow away within her sentences as she tries to last until 8pm to reset her body clock. She’s also not enjoying the heat.

“Anything over 22 degrees is uncomfortable for me,” she says. “A good day for me is about six degrees.”

DETERMINED: Joany Badenhorst was determined to learn how to snowboard, despite a shaky start.

DETERMINED: Joany Badenhorst was determined to learn how to snowboard, despite a shaky start.

BADENHORST has become a citizen of the cold. She adores the numbing lick of sub-zero air, the frigid tickle of snow mist and the other sensations of a winter lifestyleBut it wasn’t always the case. Badenhorst’s first experiences with snowboarding were brutal. She moved to Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains in mid-2013 and committed herself to learning the sport under Higgins’s guidance. For someone who had never been on the snow or even a skateboard, it was like studying a new language without knowing the alphabet.

“It was the worst time of my life. I hated every minute of it,” Badenhorst says. “I fell down so much I bruised every part of my body. I had headaches, I was tired. I’d wake up in the morning at five and be back at my house at two, and then go to the gym and train and be in bed at seven, passed out completely.”

Badenhorst’s emotional endurance was tested more than her physical boundaries. The aches gnawing her muscles were conquerable, but the mental strain was harder to sedate. Every training session was a conflict between doubt and determination.

“I honestly wasn’t happy doing it, but I didn’t once think, ‘Let’s give up’,” Badenhorst says. “That wasn’t the idea I had in my head. It was more, ‘I hope this gets better soon’. I don’t like throwing in the towel. I know what I’m capable of if I put my mind to it. My body wasn’t allowing me to do what I wanted and I got frustrated with it. But I never thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to do it’.”

Badenhorst began atomising her training sessions. She broke down the hours into minutes and championed the smallest victories, even if they had a lifespan of seconds. Staying upright on her board a little longer, successfully performing a hook turn – each achievement represented progress.

“Every time I got a little win on the snow, even though 90 per cent of it was failing, that little 10 per cent that I got each day I really enjoyed,” Badenhorst says.

“Even though I hated the rest of the day, that 10 per cent got me to the next day. The big wins, being able to jump off a lip or carve instead of just grind down a hill, didn’t come in the first three months. They came after moving overseas and starting to train with other people whose skill levels were 200 per cent above mine and having to follow and to focus on and repeat what they did.”

Badenhorst vividly remembers her first competition in Landgraaf, the Netherlands. It took place at SnowWorld – the world’s largest indoor ski resort. It was November 2013, and Badenhorst had only been snowboarding for four months. She was self-conscious about her inexperience. She felt like an imposter within the ranks of elite winter athletes and feared her camouflage was about to be ripped away in a public and humiliating unmasking.

“I was completely terrified,” Badenhorst says. “I had never raced. I had never even been on a boardercross course and was racing with people who had been snowboarding for a minimum of 10 years. I looked at the other people and looked at myself and I was mortified."

But despite her fear and inexperience, Badenhorst upstaged many of her rivals to finish fourth.

"It made me realise that with my skill level, I can get to the point where I can enjoy it and be competitive," she says. “That first race cemented the idea of me doing this permanently.”

THE 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympics in Russia were always spoken about by her coaches, but Badenhorst never considered herself a chance of making the team. In her opinion the timeline was impossible. She hadn’t been in the sport long enough to deserve a place on such a rarefied stage.

“I thought it was a ridiculous idea,” she says. “Even though people mentioned it, I never put myself there. I’m not that type of athlete. I focus on what needs to be done now for tomorrow, but I don’t look to next week. I liked the idea of it (Sochi), and I heard the athletes talking about it, but I didn’t open myself up to it.”

That changed on February 14 last year when she received a wildcard to compete at Sochi. The news stunned Badenhorst. She found it hard to reconcile that the girl who couldn’t strap into a snowboard without a YouTube instructional video seven months ago was going to the Paralympics.

“When I got the news, I think it helped me accept the bad days a bit better during training,” she says. “It was kind of a realisation that I was being rewarded for the hard work I’d done. It wasn’t wasted. I was progressing.”

The weeks leading up to Sochi were a strange time for Badenhorst. She was training with renewed purpose, but she and her Australian teammates were also grieving the shock death of para-snowboader Matthew Robinson. The 28-year-old from Melbourne died from cardiac arrest on February 21 while being flown to Australia after suffering head and neck injuries in a race fall in Spain. Badenhorst considered Robinson a close friend, someone she could laugh with and confide in. His passing hit like a sledgehammer to the soul.

“Our entire team was devastated, and this was a couple of weeks leading up to Sochi,” Badenhorst says. “I was far away from my family. I had not seen them for five months. When something like that happens, it’s usually your family that you turn to. But I was alone with my team. We were all suffering. We supported one another and it helped us move on. Though, it definitely wasn’t a good time.”

But Badenhorst was emotionally and physically prepared to compete when the Paralympics arrived. She wasn’t lumbered with grief or doubt, and unlike Landgraaf, she felt like she belonged. Her event, boardercross, was new on the Paralympic program. Anything was possible.

Then the unthinkable happened. In the minutes leading up to her race, Badenhorst was going through her final warm-up run when she miscalculated a convex burn and was thrown into the protective netting at high speed.

“I felt my knee go and hip go, and when I landed I thought I’d broken my femur,” she says. “I’d broken my femur twice before, and the amount of pain I had was similar to that. I thought it was gone. I knew it was bad as soon as I landed on my bum.”

Badenhorst broke and dislocated her patella, had her hip collapse and suffered muscle damage to her leg. Nearly a year on she is still not fully recovered. It was a cruel way to end her Paralympic campaign before it started, but Badenhorst doesn’t recall Sochi with anger or disappointment.The overriding emotion is wonder. She witnessed things there that bordered on the impossible; a defiance of self-imposed and societal limitations; a magic willed into reality by an alchemy of courage and determination.

“Being part of such an amazing event is phenomenal,” she says. “It changes the way you see things. I saw blind skiers going down a hill at 120km/h following someone. Seeing that is enough to shake you beyond belief. I was so inspired there and met the most amazing people. That’s what made the Sochi Olympics for me. It changed the way I see people and do everyday tasks.

“It changed the way I live my life to be honest.”

POSITIVE OUTLOOK: Joany Badenhorst believes her accident made her appreciate the small things in life. Picture: James Brickwood

POSITIVE OUTLOOK: Joany Badenhorst believes her accident made her appreciate the small things in life. Picture: James Brickwood

BADENHORST can’t remember why she climbed on the tractor. It was Tuesday morning, the 12th of July, 2005. She was 10, less than a month away from turning 11. Her parents were backburning around their hobby farm in Harrismith, about 300km south of Johannesburg. She can still remember the smell of the smoke, the odour of the blood, the pitch of her screams and the eruption of chaos. So much of the day remains imprinted in high definition.

But what caused her to get on the tractor? The machine was off at the time, so perhaps it was curiosity; the mystery of mechanical, moving parts proving irresistible to an inquisitive child. Badenhorst had her left foot on top of the tractor’s power take-off shaft when the engine was restarted. It took less than a second for her leg to be torn off below the knee.

“I remember the colours. Everything seems vivid. It’s still very bright,” she says. “I haven’t forgotten. I don’t know why. A lot of people, especially when an accident happens at such a young age, it becomes dull and misty and you forget the order of events. But I can write down the exact thing that happened at the exact time when it did.”

Badenhorst also understands how lucky she was. Sustaining such a severe injury and losing litres of blood would have killed most people – child or adult.

“I was very blessed with the way the accident unfolded,” Badenhorst says. “My arteries got sealed by the rotation when my leg got ripped off. There was initially a massive amount of blood, but my main artery got sealed. If that didn’t happen, I would’ve died within minutes.”

The Badenhorst property was hours away from a hospital. With no option, Pete and Petra Badenhorst carried their only daughter into the back of the family Kombi and sped to a neighbouring field, where they waited for a mercy flight from Johannesburg. Nine hours of surgery saved Badenhorst’s life. While the details of the accident and its immediate aftermath are clear, her memories of the weeks in hospital are fractured and hazy. But some events are pristine, like the moment she understood her life had changed.

“You know when you’re dreaming and you know you’re about to wake up and you’re actually really happy?” Badenhorst asks. “I remember waking up and going, ‘Finally, I’ve woken up from this horrid dream’. Then I remember sitting there in the bed and looking down and seeing this big cast. I realised then it wasn’t a dream. But then straight after that I was OK. I remember thinking, ‘I’m thirsty, but I’m all right’.”

Badenhorst accepted the accident and the toll it took on her body with amazing maturity, but adjusting to its physical ramifications was harder. She had always been an athletic, active child. Losing her left leg meant she had to relearn the mechanics of many physical movements, such as walking, running and jumping, to live the life she wanted.

“Sport was the No.1 thing that got me back,” she says. “I never did sport because I was really good at it, or because I wanted to make a career out of it. I did it because it gave me the tools to live a normal life.”

BADENHORST doesn’t consider herself handicapped, disabled, or any of those words that implies restriction or limitation. She jokes about having three left legs: her sophisticated competition leg, her robust gym leg, and casual leg – complete with paintable toenails. Later this year she will relocate to Canberra to study health sciences at the Australian National University so she is near the Australian Institute of Sport.

Between competition and training, spare time is precious. Badenhorst considers herself a bookworm and loves losing herself within the plotlines of Patricia Cornwell’s crime novels, if only for an hour a day. She is happy and excited about the future, but it’s impossible not to wonder how losing her leg shaped her personality. Phantom pains still haunt the void below her left knee, the echo of the trauma likely to linger the rest of her life.

But Badenhorst is immune to self-pity and has never sunk into a purgatory of what-ifs. No matter how many medals she wins as a snowboarder, her greatest achievement is the decision never to use one horrible moment as an excuse.

“I think my personality was set before the accident, but the environment I was put in highlighted different aspects of it,” Badenhorst says. “I think in a bigger sense I would’ve been the same person, but I would’ve had a different moral standard. Things would’ve been arranged differently. I appreciate things more now, whereas I’m really scared if this accident didn’t happen I would’ve taken a lot of things for granted.

“I appreciate being able to stand up without falling over. I appreciate seeing effort anyone puts into anything because it’s so easy to be effortlessly lazy. I appreciate achieving the little things, which is great.

“Even walking in high heels.”


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