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New leg turns recent arrival’s focus to shot at Paralympics

One week on from having an artificial leg fitted Brooklyn Bakalich was out last Friday in her shorts, weeding her backyard garden in James Street and dreaming of sporting glory.

“I just want gold medals,” she told the Chronicle of her new-found mobility and confidence now the prosthesis has replaced her badly damaged left leg, which was run over by a truck when she was a teen.

Brooklyn’s set her sights on the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and has already begun training in discus and shot put at Hamilton’s Porritt Stadium after getting the go-ahead last week from SportsForce ParaFed, a Sport Waikato organisation for people with physical disabilities.

The 25-year-old recent arrival in Raglan reckons she can do “anything on the field” – except maybe long and high-jump for which a run-in is required – now she’s cast away the crutches and can walk unaided.

A bonus is that she can also pick up two-year-old daughter Lexi in the night if need be, carrying her back to the comfort of her own bed. “I’ve just got to put my leg on first,” she laughs.

Brooklyn’s candid when it comes to talking about her below-knee amputation at Braemar Hospital recently. It was elective surgery, she reveals, a decision she made over having a tendon transplant which would have come with ongoing complications.

Amputation and an artificial limb guaranteed her a fully functioning foot and leg. “It’s bliss to walk [unaided],” she says. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for; I am so much more independent.”

But Brooklyn needs to walk before she can run, as the saying goes, even if running was her “thing” before the accident. She’ll aspire to discus and shot put for now, says the gutsy young mum, but come the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo she’d like to win a spot in the track team.

Meantime she’ll keep an eye on advancements in technology for “blade runner” prostheses. That may be a lofty ideal, she concedes, but “my mind is in it and I’m determined”.
SportsForce ParaFed development officer Carol Armstrong says Brooklyn’s “nothing’s going to stop me” attitude is what could get her to the Paralympics. “Though it’s early days yet, and she’ll have to get some good distances to qualify, she’s as much chance as anyone else.”

Since moving to Raglan from Hamilton Brooklyn’s also taken to paddling in the local waka ama club for fitness. She’s out on the water training with a crew every Sunday morning and loves it. Swimming’s next on her list of to-do’s, she says, and will start in Raglan from the end of this month.
“I do get my bad days,” she says. “But I’ve waited 12 years for this … I’m just putting things in place.”

Coincidentally, at waka ama training, Brooklyn’s come into contact with another disabled sportswoman – a paraplegic who’s set on international success on the water rather than at an athletics stadium.

Margaret Paparoa, who’s two years younger than Brooklyn, is hoping to be able to paddle her own canoe soon after also getting out on the water with Whaingaroa Whanau Hoe Waka.

Her waka will arrive from Tahiti in a few weeks, she says, and will enable her to paddle solo on the Waikato River in between the challenging weekly team training sessions on Whaingaroa Harbour.

For Margaret, who’s had limited mobility since a car accident four years ago left her with paralysed legs, paddling means feeling free again.
“I don’t feel disabled, I feel abled,” she says of the sport she last tried while at school in Northland.
Margaret – whose story recently featured on TV3’s Campbell Live – says she’s grateful for the support from the local club which also used a bit of Kiwi ingenuity to design a special seat for the waka she’s lifted into and out of.

Carol sees Margaret as a “great hope in waka ama, particularly if it’s going to be included as a sport in the 2016 Paralympics”. She recalls the 23-year-old’s eyes “lit up like a possum’s in the headlights when we (SportsForce ParaFed) suggested waka ama”.

Meantime, even though they’re set on representing the country in entirely different disciplines, there’s a good chance both Margaret and Brooklyn will be turning out in the national sprint championships – the country’s biggest annual waka event – at Lake Karapiro next January.

Edith Symes

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