Kiwi Liam Malone has a very realistic chance of succeeding Oscar Pistorius the as T43 Paralympic 400m champion in Rio. Steve Landells chats to the Nelson-raised athlete to reveal the Bladerunner’s remarkable story.
Aged 19 at the time, and fuelled by the pain of losing his loving mum, Trudi Scott, to bowel cancer the previous year the University of Canterbury commerce student was making a series of “bad decisions” which were threatening to derail his life.
“Dealing with my mother’s death while trying to party like everyone else at university was a terrible combination, I was in a horrible mental state” says Liam.
Pushed hard by two friends Georgia McCrae and Alice Eddington and his family he took greater ownership of his destiny and re-set his future ambitions.
He “brainstormed” a number of ideas, which included everything from completing an ironman, climbing Mt Cook and starting his own business. But it was an analytical decision to choose the Paralympics, as he believed it would give him “the greatest room for personal growth and opportunities in a short period of time”.
Bold, ambitious and optimistic, Liam - who was born with the condition fibular hemimelia in which part or all of the fibular bone is missing and who had both legs amputated below the knee at 18 months – knew that to achieve his dream he had to find a way to fund a set of blades.
As it happened he found a novel solution by pure chance.
“A magazine asked me if I would do an article with them and I met an ex-producer at TV3 who then put me in contact with Phil Vine from Third Degree” he explains.
Together with Phil Vine he pitched to the public that he needed the blades in order to be competitive - which cost approximately $20,000.
Miraculously the generous New Zealand public were so taken by Liam’s story within days they had met his financial target.
“I only expected to raise about $1000,” says Liam. “When I saw that I had the full amount of money, it was completely overwhelming.”
Liam’s journey as a para-athlete had begun.
The fact that the South Islander had selected athletics was a surprise. As a youngster he played rugby and cricket and enjoyed snowboarding. Athletics was a sport he admits to “hating” at school. Competing against able-bodied kids on very basic wooden prostheses with a rubber foot he understandably struggled. In his first school cross country he recalls finishing “ahead of only three girls” despite the girls starting after the boys and although his parents were keen for him to be involved he later “pushed back” on the sport in preference to other pursuits.
“My inability was really down to the lack of technology, although my dad always said the technology would catch up,” It turns out dad's know best.
The blades made by the Icelandic company Ossur arrived in late 2013 and although he adapted quickly to his new “running legs” he initially faced some far more demanding challenges.
“As much as I had been involved in sport in the past, I had never been an athlete, so making the transition from being a typical uni student of going to parties and drinking to living the lifestyle of a professional athlete was really tough,” he says.
“I had to quickly learn about training sessions and understand the different technical aspects. I had to develop the habits of a professional athlete. It was hard.”
In early 2014 with no synthetic track in Christchurch following the earthquake so he transferred his commerce degree from the University of Canterbury to the Victoria University of Wellington - motivated to be able to train on the Newtown Park 400m track.
He hooked up with Nelson-based coach and sports scientist Brodie Hewlett – a man whom Liam describes as “a genius” – and so his athletics journey began in earnest.
His first year was underwhelming.
“I had no endurance, speed, power or strength,” he says. “I was lacking everything I needed to run fast.”
Yet he remained patient and true to his long-term goals, although he did feel an external pressure from the generous New Zealand public.
“The toughest part was the thought of taking that fundraising money from the public and never qualifying for Rio,” he admits.
Wisely recognising his best chance of success as a double-amputee lie in the 400m rather than the shorter sprints - where single-leg amputees have the advantage of generating more power from the start because of greater leg stability - he set about principally training for the one-lap event.
However, last year a misunderstanding between himself and team management led to him failing to post a time for the 400m in a 12-month period before the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha.
Instead he raced the 100m and 200m setting PB’s of 11.42 and 22.90 to place fifth and sixth, respectively. He was boosted by the performance but reckons he could have triumphed in the 400m, especially as he competed in sub-standard blades in Doha.
“Over time the carbon fiber starts to delaminate and split apart. Once they split the blades go softer, and then I go slower, due to the extended time the blade spends at point of contact. That’s what I was competing on in Doha.”
The next mission was to secure better blades. With a rising status in the sport this time Liam did not seek public help but went straight to Ossur. They responded positively offering him two pairs of new blades providing he agreed to be a brand ambassador. Liam leapt at the opportunity. “Ossur are responsible for improving my standard of living throughout my life due to their innovative prosthetics, if it wasn’t for them I would be far more limited in terms of mobility”.
The blades arrived just one week before last month’s Porritt Classic in Hamilton. Inside a steamy Porritt Stadium he set a PB by more than two seconds to record 48.28 – a time which would have won him gold at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships.
He had finally arrived.
“The blades felt a bit heavier and I felt I had a greater energy return at a faster rate,” he says. “I only trained in them two or three times before Porritt and at it felt fast. I was hoping to get under that 50-second time and maybe get a low 49-second, but to run 48.28 was awesome.”
Liam had planned to relocate to Auckland after the world championships in Doha, knowing that the best facilities and support teams could be found there. Brodie Hewlett, Liam’s coach guided him through this process and found Liam a new coach, James Mortimer, who could offer more direct feed back in terms of face time, something needed leading up to the Paralympic games.
“Brodie has been fantastic throughout the whole process and has done a lot for me, he has gotten me to where I am now” he says. “The next step will be working with James, being an athlete himself has that inside perspective on what works and what doesn’t. He is also a good dude, which makes it good fun to both train with him and be coached by him.”
In his next two races at Auckland Track Challenge and at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships he could not quite match his time at Porritt, recording times of 49.44 and 49.88, respectively. Yet he believes the slower times can be explained by fatigue caused in part by sleeping on the floor in his new flat in Auckland and a lack of relaxation during the first 200m of both race.
He next competes at the Australian Championships (Mar 31-Apr 3), where he will be looking to lower his 100m and 200m PB’s and also secure Rio qualification in those two events (note, in a convoluted qualification process he has not yet secured 400m qualification for Rio, although with a time of 48.28 this is unlikely to be an issue).
Beyond that it is all about Rio and achieving some big goals.
“I don’t know why anyone would not aim for gold,” explains Liam. “Anyone can aim low and hit low – that’s easy. To aim high is tough because if you miss it you damage your integrity, but I’ll never shy away from aiming high and saying I’m going to win the 400m. I have no doubt I can out work everyone and win the gold medal.”