Paralympic bronze medallist Jess Gillan endured a year to forget in 2018. Here the Kiwi shot putter talks about her challenging journey to the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships (Nov 7-15).
Surely no Kiwi athlete set to appear in next month’s World Para Athletics Championships has to have overcome more obstacles on her journey to Dubai than Jess Gillan (formerly Hamill).
The experienced shot put ace, who won a Paralympic Games bronze medal in 2016 and snagged a silver and bronze at each of the past two World Para Athletics Championships, endured a wretched 2018 in which she broke her left leg on two separate occasions.
Yet undeterred by the twin setbacks, the experienced Gillan refused to be beaten by her injury hell and she returns to the New Zealand team scenting more precious metal on the global stage in Dubai next month.
A world silver medallist at the age of 16 in 2006, Jess has had a long and successful career in the sport. Born with cerebral palsy, the wheelchair user, enjoyed the best period of her career so far from 2015-17 – winning three successive medals on the global stage.
In 2018 – a fallow year in terms of global championships – the Raylene Bates-coached athlete took the opportunity to try something new and introduced boxing training into her training programme.
Looking forward to the winter training and in “a good place” in her life, the Dunedin-based then suffered a huge jolt following a desperately unfortunate driveway accident.
“It was a bitterly cold morning and I was wheeling down the driveway on my home, which is on a hill,” she explains. “I was on my way to work when the heel on my shoe became trapped on the footplate of my wheelchair. As my body lifted out of the chair my leg snapped and I fractured three bones in my leg.
“I was so upset because things had been going so well. Work had been going well, a big winter training period had been planned. I was heartbroken.”
Undergoing surgery and with metal plates fitted, Jess then committed to the long rehab programme. As a wheelchair user prone to swelling this made the recovery process much longer than it would for an able-bodied person. Carrying out extensive work in the pool, gym work and regular sessions with her physio, Helen Littleworth, the road back was arduous for the police clerk.
Yet slowly she recovered from the tibia break and double fracture of the fibula. She returned to the throwing frame and was one week away from the start of 2019-20 campaign when disaster struck a second time last October.
“I was just visiting my brother-in-law who lives (in a flat) up some stairs,” she explains. “My whole life I’ve thought nothing of crawling up stairs and I thought my leg was fine. But I must have put my leg on the wrong angle, I put pressure on the metal plate and my bone snapped.
Jess had re-fractured her tibia, again.
“It was a very emotional time for me,” she explains. “It was way worse (mentally) for me than the first broken leg. To happen again one week out from the start of the season was heartbreaking.”
Undergoing surgery once more, thankfully, Jess had an extensive support network to draw upon during her rehabilitation. She received huge and greatly valued support from her husband (then fiancé), her parents, husband’s family, her coach, Raylene Bates, her physio and massage therapist and the Athletics NZ management on her journey back to fitness.
Going through the same re-hab process of gym, pool work and physio a second time was gruelling for Jess. She had some difficulties with the scars taking a lengthy time to heal and besides working towards her return to the throwing frame she had another more pressing goal.
“I was getting married in February (2019), and I remember thinking all I want is to for my leg to be right for my wedding.”
Thankfully, by her wedding day the leg was fully healed and she made her long-awaited return to competition in March at the 2019 New Zealand Track & Field Championship in Christchurch. On a day in which rising para F37 shot put star Lisa Adams took most of the plaudits by throwing beyond the world record distance, Jess also impressed.
Hurling a best of 7.40m was a big “confidence booster” which proved to Jess she was “still up there” among the best F34 throwers in the world.
Then in June to stepped up the quality of her performance by hurdling the shot out to 7.68m - within 16cm of her lifetime best - at the Oceania Championships in Townsville.
“The Oceania Championships were a really good competition for me and I really enjoyed it,” she recalls.
Since then her preparation under the guidance of her coach, Raylene, which also includes regular boxing training, has gone swimmingly for the veteran thrower with 13 years of international experience.
“I feel the boxing training has really helped by fitness and I’ve really knuckled down on technique in the frame,” she explains. “I’ve changed a few things technique-wise with the leg. I’ve made adjustments to make sure I get the timing right.”
She has enjoyed quality training stints in Gold Coast and Darwin before the 29-year-old flies out to Dubai tomorrow where she will not be fazed by the hot conditions she is likely to face in the United Arab Emirates.
“I absolutely love the heat,” she explains. “I won a silver medal in Doha (four years ago) in warm conditions and I am looking to repeat that. I feel very positive and excited.”
Currently ranked third in the world behind reigning World and Paralympic champion Lijuan Zou of China and Morocco’s Saida Amoudi, what does the South Islander hope to achieve in Dubai?
“To be honest, I would love to go there and get a personal best,” she explains. “And if this gets me a medal – then, great. I just love competing, so let’s just see on the day.”
Enduring her multiple leg fractures in 2018 was a far from easy road for Jess, and it is hard to see too many positives out of the distressing experience.
Yet it forced Jess to take an honest look at herself and she now adopts a more cautious, realistic approach to everyday life.
“I have learned I can’t do everything and I have just to take better care of myself, she explains.
“My cars is parked at the top of the driveway, so no risk of falling out the chair, for example. I like to be very independent, but I have to find ways to make sure I don’t put myself at risk.”