My story begins when I was born. I have a condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex congenita, a rare disorder characterised by fusion of joints and absent muscle formation in my legs. There’s not a lot medicine can do for this condition, although I spent a lot of time in hospital. I had my first operation at 4 weeks old, and was admitted to the children's hospital thirteen times before my 15th birthday.
I never wanted to be treated any different from my older brother or peers. My mum especially, gave me the freedom to try things that I wanted to and she never once told me I couldn't try something because of my disablity.
I went to a regular school and got myself around, up and down stairs and made lots of friends. At the age of four I was taught to swim as physiotherapy and developed a love for the sport. I represented my high school and raced alongside my classmates gaining their respect. I couldn’t use my legs to kick, it was all about my upper body strength. In the water I felt free, powerful.
Between 1999 and 2001 I held six Queensland State Games Records and three Australian National Age Records in freestyle and backstroke.
My swimming career was rather short as I became preoccupied with horse-riding. I had started having horse riding lessons for physiotherapy at The McIntyre for the Disabled Centre from the age of seven. There I fell in love with the horses and discovered a passion for the equestrian sport of dressage.
Not being able to move around very well on my own legs all changed when I was on a horse. I could keep up with everyone else, go fast and it was like the horses' legs replaced my own. At 12 years old I represented my state for the first time at the Riding for the Disabled National Dressage Championships in 1998 and placed 1st in my warm-up test against international riders. However, I nearly didn’t make it. While practising the day before the competition, my horse bolted and left me in the dirt, not once but twice.
In an arena full of people, other riders, judges, it was very embarrassing but taught me something about not being weighed down by those sorts of feelings and I found underneath the hurt to the ego, under the fear, there was a powerful determination within me that I could orient to. Erica, my coach put me straight back on the horse and I was focused on the job. Since then I competed thirteen times for consecutive years at national level, and have been the Australian National Champion three times.
Unlike other dressage riders, my legs didn’t go down the side of the horse. They couldn’t do that and I had to place my legs out the front of the saddle. So, I always looked very different riding and obviously it was clear to others that I had a disability. Even with this, I only ever felt inclusion and I kept hearing from able-bodied riders that they were amazed that I could ride the way I did, but more than that people could see the special connection I had with horses. I knew how to become one with the horse I rode. Horses are sensitive and if they want to work with you, they will partner with you and do everything they can to support you.
In 2006 I made my international debut representing Australia at the Pacific Rim Para-Equestrian Dressage International Competition, held at Milner Downs Equestrian Centre in Langley, Canada. I rode a borrowed horse named "Conclusive Talent," and with only a few days practice together we won a bronze medal.
I felt extremely grateful and fortunate to have a lot of support from the equestrian community. In particular were the families that loaned me their beautiful horses and asked for nothing in return. The Sormani family owned "Larundel Gelata", the McOwn family owned "Mellizo", and the Wallace family owned "Menora Wildfire".
I was given "Menora Wildfire" on my 19th birthday after previously borrowing him for competitions. We had a great connect and I learnt so much from training him. I rode "Mellizo" at the selection trials for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Although we performed well I didn't make the team.
"Larundel Gelata" and I were selected to compete at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, in Kentucky, USA. It was going to be the first time that they were going to include para-equestrian riders, but I had to make the heartbreaking decision that I couldn’t compete. Coming up with the $70,000 to get my horse and I to America was just not possible. I had been so lucky to have amazing people loan me horses and support my career until then, but I knew that financially I couldn’t keep going. Around that time I decided to take a break from equestrian competition and see what else was out there for me in the world.
I did a few volunteer jobs for a while, working with the RSPCA, fostering animals and at the wildlife hospital. I felt a little lost, but knew I needed to keep open and allow new opportunities to find me. Sport called me back. In 2012, I found myself at a completely random ‘come and try kayaking day’ with Olympian Amanda Rankin and that changed everything.
Amanda give me the contact details of the National Para-canoe coach Andrea King. She noticed that I was very well balanced in a kayak after all those years of riding horses. I had really good core muscles and upper body strength from using crutches all the time and using my wheelchair. I had good feel for the water, probably from my early days swimming and I just took to the kayak naturally.
I joined the Brisbane Canoeing Club to learn more about paddling and started regular training. In 2014 I experienced my first Para-canoe competition at the Queensland State Canoe Sprint Championships and that reignited my competitive spirit.
Being on the water gave me freedom from my limitations on the land. On the water I can go really fast and keep up with anyone else. I just love being out in nature, on the water -ways, spotting the birds, the peace of that. I met so many amazing people. I was the first person with a disability to paddle at my club, but people didn’t hesitate to help me get into my kayak or carry it for me.
I went on to compete at the 2014 National Canoe Sprint Championships and won three of my single kayak races with Personal Best times and placed 2nd in all three single outrigger canoe races. My coach who encouraged me to compete met reluctance in me initially as I had spent so much of my life competing and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back into that world again. Competition puts so much more pressure on you as a person and can take the simple joy out of a sport, but I was curious about how far I could go and the excitement of competing took over!
I think all those years in the equestrian arena and even in the swimming pool, had taught me something about being calm under pressure and people commented on how relaxed I was when they saw me in action. I love travelling and it is a lot less expensive taking a kayak rather than a horse around the world.
In 2014, I was selected onto the Australian Para-Canoe Sprint Team for the K1 boat and moved to the AIS European Training Centre in Italy to train ahead of the World Championships.
At the 2014 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Moscow, Russia, I won my heat and went directly into the final where I came 6th in the world with a Personal Best time. A week later I competed at the IVF 2014 Outrigger Canoe World Championships in Rio De Janerio, Brazil.
There I won a silver medal in my individual V1 race and with the Australian Team won two gold medals in the OC6 (six person outrigger canoe) team events. As a team we also smashed the previous held records for World Best time in both races.
In 2015 I won both V1 and K1 National Titles and was selected onto the Australian Para-Canoe Team for both boats. At the 2015 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Milan, Italy, I progressed straight into the K1 final after placing 2nd in my heat. In the final I won a Bronze medal and qualified the first quota place for Australia at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. In the V1 final I won a Gold medal and my maiden World Title with a Personal Best and World Best time.
At the 2016 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Dusberg, Germany. I successfully defended my world champion title and won a Gold medal in the V1. Again I secured a bronze medal for my K1 race and was very happy with these results.
I proudly represented Australia at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Rio De Janerio, Brazil. One of my favourite moments was being at the opening ceremony. Looking around that stadium full of thousands of people was a moment I will never forget, a heart stopping experience.
In the Paralympic village I met some incredible people. It was a community that I had never experienced before of people with a variety of disabilities where everyone was met and accepted for exactly who they were and their athletic gifts. We did not see disabilities, we just saw really cool people representing their countries in sport. I felt so at home there and part of me wished the whole world could be that cool, could be that accepting and be able to see people for what they offer not what they look like or by the labels they are given.
At the starting gate at the event I had spent four years preparing for, all those hours of training, I heard my name being yelled out. It was a friend in the crowd and it brought me into the moment – a place of calm acceptance, of breath and trust that I could do this. I won a Bronze medal in my event the 200m K1 sprint, and was the first Australian in history to win a medal in Para-canoe at the Paralympic Games.
During the race, it can be hard to see either side of you, to get a sense of how your race has even gone. When I looked up to see the result, it felt amazing to know I had won a medal for my country.
My 'life scars' have never held me back. I hope by sharing my story I can inspire others to overcome whatever adversity or life scars they are facing and follow their dreams. It's the challenges in life that make us discover what we are really capable of and showcase our abilities! Nothing can stop you – but You.
Thank you for checking out this excerpt of Susan Seipel's story for Made Beautiful by Scars- Raw Women's Stories (Book 2) Due for release late 2017-early 2018.
To connect with Susan and see what she is upto and how you can help her check out her website here!
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