'I don't know who I would have been:' Vernon Paralympian reflects on life after losing a leg | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'I don't know who I would have been:' Vernon Paralympian reflects on life after losing a leg

Image Credit: SUBMITTED: Michelle Salt

Vernon resident Michelle Salt has the words "Life is tough darling, but so are you," tattooed on her arm.

It's a message the 35-year-old tells herself on a regular basis and is apt for many people struggling during this COVID Christmas.

It's also something she has proved is true, because in 2011, at just 26 years old, she lost her right leg.

Eight months after a motorcycle accident that very nearly cost her her life, she jumped on a snowboard.

She's now a retired two-time Paralympic snowboarder, having competed in both Sochi and South Korea, and has 14 World Cup podium finishes to her name. She also competed as a bikini-clad fitness model, spoken at a TEDx event and made over a hundred other inspirational speeches. She also recently advocated successfully to have Adaptive Wakesurfing recognized as an official sport.

She's also very open about her life before and after the accident.

"I think that I'm a much better person now, and I'm really grateful for who I've become," Salt told iNFOnews.ca.

The new person that she became started on June 27, 2011, when she was driving her motorcycle just outside of Calgary. The guys she was riding with were driving pretty fast that day.

"And me being the tomboy that I am, figured I could keep up," Salt says.

She couldn't, and lost control on the first corner.

She has scant memories of the accident but recalls a retired nurse who'd stopped at the side of the road telling her, "it's OK you can go be with God now" as well as her thinking, "I'm too young to die."

She was airlifted to the hospital. She'd punctured a lung, broken her back, her pelvis, and her femur in two places. She also severed an artery and almost bled to death.

A week later she was taken off life support and learnt her right leg had been amputated 10 inches above the knee.

Remarkably, while there were a lot of tears, one of her first thoughts was, "that's it, I'm going to the Paralympics."

She tracked down the Team Canada Paralympic coach and said she wanted on the team. She was told to learn to walk again first and then call back.

Salt admits she didn't really process losing her leg.

"I had my blinkers on, all I cared about was going to the Paralympics," Salt says. "I didn't talk to anybody, I didn't talk to the social workers there or a councillor, I just let myself focus... on getting to the games and getting on the national team.”

Eight months after the accident she stepped back onto a snowboard and two and half years later competed at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. She came third from last.

"It didn't matter," she says laughing. "On my first run, I went down without falling."

She was told going to Sochi wouldn’t be possible because it was less than two and a half years from her accident. Her doctor said she wouldn't have healed enough by then.

"The more people told me it wasn't possible the more I pushed myself," Salt said. "And I became Canada's first female Paralympic snowboarder."

Image Credit: SUBMITTED: Michelle Salt

But it wasn't easy and training took its toll.

"I had so many frustrating days," she says. "It would take me two hours to get down one run... and then eventually I get faster and faster... I just kept at it."

She says she was persistent, and then corrects herself "stubborn," she says.

Following Sochi, Salt became a regular on the adaptive snowboarding scene, competing across the globe and racking up 14 world cup medals. She made it to the Paralympic Winter Games in 2018 and came one place from the podium.

While in itself it’s an amazing accomplishment, Salt didn’t take it well.

“Finishing fourth put me in a very, very dark place,” she says. “One that hit me hard… for a solid year.”

It seems odd that after losing a leg, relearning to walk, and becoming a successful athlete that coming fourth would have such an emotional toll.

She forced herself to keep things in perspective and not give up.

“I have a lot to be proud of,” Salt says. “I dared to become a Paralympian to prove to myself that I could do it, and I did it.”

It hasn’t been an easy ride though.

Divorced at 24, Salt was released from the hospital and went back to living with her roommates in Calgary.

“I spent a lot of time on the couch,” she says. “I would force myself to go to the grocery store, and do my shopping alone and do these things, and I would fall and I would break eggs and I would not be able to stand when I cooked, but I told myself I had to keep going.”

Prior to the accident Salt had a “nice cushy job” as a sales manager and had just competed in her first competition as a fitness model. She was working on getting her pro ticket and competing seriously.

In a society overly concerned with body image, Salt admits prior to the accident she was very focused on how she looked.

“The hardest thing I had to deal with was learning to love myself again,” she says. “I will never look the way I used to, but I've learnt to embrace it, I walk my leg, I have these cool prosthetic covers and I am not afraid to hide it because it’s who I am, and I like that I'm unique and I'm different and my scars tell a story, and my leg tells a story.”

In 2014 Salt stood back on stage again and took part in a fitness modelling competition. A photo from that day went viral on social media and clocked up 20 million views.

While it’s the prosthetic leg that jumps out in the image, that isn’t what stands out for Salt when she looks at the photo.

"That photo shows me beforehand with this half-smile on my face,” she says. “Truth is I was very self-conscious and very shy on the stage, and then you see me after missing a leg, with all these scars and I have this massive smile on my face... I was so proud to be there.”

Salt’s now focused on adaptive wakesurfing, and the move to Vernon 18 months ago was to be by the lake.

She recently successfully advocated for adaptive wakesurfing to become a recognized sport and spends her days working two jobs. She’s a part-time realtor who focuses on finding accessible housing for people with disabilities and works full-time as a sales rep for a company specializing in mobility and accessibility solutions. She also has her eye on the 2024 Paralympics in Paris to compete in rowing.

Her entire life and her outlook are very different now than before the accident.

"I don't know who I would have been, I was superficial before, I was really focused on how I looked,” she says. “For me, it was a really humbling experience becoming an amputee, I went from being a fitness model to being an amputee covered in scars, and I was given a second chance.”

There are still repercussions from the accident, and Salt deals with panic attacks and has an emotional support dog, Lenny. She’s also lending Lenny out over Christmas to anyone who might be lonely.

Her life now though is far more fulfilling than the life she had before.

"I'm really glad this happened, some days I do not think that," she says. "I really, really struggle being an amputee, but I'm so grateful for the opportunities that I've had and the people that have been in my corner.”

And her message to those struggling this Christmas?

“Just don’t give up… people are frustrated, people are lonely, (but) know this is just temporary, I tell myself that when I'm in pain or when I'm struggling, this is just temporary I'm going to get through this, don’t give up.”

The photo went viral on social media when it was released.
The photo went viral on social media when it was released.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED: Michelle Salt

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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