Kelly Cartwright knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges and adversity. As an active 15-year-old, Kelly was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer within her right knee. In November 2004 Kelly faced the difficult decision to have her leg amputated above the knee in an attempt to save her life. Having to learn to walk again, Kelly found herself heading in a new direction. Not one to let anything stand in her way, Kelly found new drive and passion in running. Commencing intense training with resilience and confidence, soon Kelly would be winning Gold at the London Paralympics, setting new world records, and achieving greatness on and off the athletic field. In. partnership with Suncorp Team Girls, Business Chicks’ Rebecca Bodman sat down with Kelly to discuss her incredible journey.
When you were 15 your life changed dramatically, what led to this moment?
I grew up in a small town with my older brothers and parents. I was a very active kid; it was my dream to grow up and play netball for Australia. When I was around 13, I started experiencing severe pain within my knee. Doctors would say it was growing pains or an injury though netball, hence that year I gave up netball. A year after stopping netball, I was still in pain and so I went to the doctors again. The doctor believed it was a cyst and we opted for a small keyhole surgery to remove it. After the surgery, the doctor asked my parents and I to come back into the hospital. He explained that they had found this rare cancer. It felt like my world was being tipped upside down, all I could think was, I am 15 and I am going to die. Everything was moving really fast but soon I had to make the decision to amputate my leg or to have the doctors try and remove the cancer. I went into survival mode, I wanted to be alive no matter whether it was with two legs, one leg or no legs.
What was the acceptance journey like for you after the operation?
It was initially really tough. Losing my independence and being different to everyone at school was really difficult. I really struggled with sticking out so I would cover up my prosthetic leg and wear pants. It was suggested I give up a lot of things, on the top of the list was running. However, I have always found a way to adapt and find a way to do it myself. I started meeting Paralympians, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world – people with differences doing incredible things.
After the operation, how did you find that new dream of running?
I had this incredible teacher (for year 11 sport class), and she came to me with a flyer calling for Paralympic talent to compete in the Paralympics. I went along, and I met my now coach there, she is incredible. We did some tests and she told me that I’d make a great sprinter. This was about six years before the London Paralympics, so I started training and that was my goal for the next six years.
Through your journey, what have you learnt about discipline and focus?
Firstly, you have to love what you do. That is what got me out of the bed every morning, I love the gym, I love trying to beat everybody, I think that is just my personality. Motivation is hard, so I think it is about setting goals, the small and the big. I also had a lot of people in my corner, and I didn’t want to let them down. My nutritionist and my running coach motivated me to succeed, it is incredible what you do when you are put in that situation. The other thing with sport is it is not forever, it’s only for a short period. So yes, it is sacrificing, yes, it is tough, but if I look back in 50 years and know I didn’t do everything I could when I had the chance, I’d be kicking myself.
What was it like when you won gold in the London Paralympics?
I did a personal best in long jump, and it was incredible. I went out with my family afterwards; it was a massive high. Standing on that podium and hearing the national anthem was 100% worth the ups and downs that led up to the games. I will never forever forget that feeling.
What have you learnt about losing and setbacks? What about resilience?
I have learnt to allow myself to feel down after a setback, but I don’t like to stay in these emotions for too long. Once I’ve felt them, I move back to the drawing board (asking myself) what could I do better and how do we move forward? I utilise these tools to focus on the positives and really try to focus on how I can be better next time. Resilience is about falling down but always getting back up. My biggest quote is about finding something positive in each day, even if some days you need to look a little harder. Another important factor is that resilience isn’t built by yourself, it is about having people in your corner who help you and remind you where you are going.
Kids are often interested in anyone who looks different to them. What advice do you have for parents whose children might have questions?
I am okay with kids coming up and asking questions. When parents pull their children away it doesn’t feel very nice. It is our responsibility to normalise being different and I think we can do this by answering the kids’ questions and providing education. I encourage parents to let kids be inquisitive and curious. Everything starts at children; I feel like if normalise these differences now, when they grow up the world will be a much better and inclusive place.
What’s next for Kelly Cartwright? What goal are you working towards?
I am still working on my power lifting and training my heart out to come back stronger than I’ve ever been. Right now, I’m also working in the modelling world to normalise disability. I’ve got a few photoshoots coming up which I am really excited about, and I love getting my voice out there to speak about disability. I am also focusing on being the best mum for my two beautiful children.
Business Chicks and Suncorp Team Girls have teamed up to bring you the Business Chicks of the Future content series. Visit the hub to find more content to equip you to build meaningful connections with your teen and tween girls in order to build their confidence, help promote resilience and encourage a positive mindset, by encouraging them to stay in sports, precisely at a time when many drop out. For more information on how Suncorp is helping to build a nation of confident girls, visit the Team Girls website.