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For 30 years the Speight’s Coast to Coast has led the way in adventure sports, bringing together endurance junkies of all age and ability from across the globe. This year a Christchurch woman hopes to be the first legally blind person to finish the 243k race across the South Island.
Neelusha Memon doesn’t remember much about the turn of the new Millennium. In one week during the year 2000 she went from snowboarding at Cadrona to fighting for her life as a post-viral auto-immune disease put her in a coma for four months. For a year, the hospital was her home, after which she went home for real with just 30 percent sight and major coordination problems.
Eleven years later Neelusha Memon wants to be the first legally blind person to finish the Speight’s Coast to Coast. Asked why, she shrugs and says, “I’ve always wanted to do it, even before I became injured.”
That sums up Neelusha Memon’s life since 2000. From having to learn to walk, talk and eat again, to taking on challenges even able-bodied people struggle to meet, the 27 year old is going about life as she always wanted to. She has climbed Mt Aspiring, heli-skied across the Tasman Glacier and ridden at the Paracycling World Championships in France.
Through all this, however, the biggest barriers she faced were often less to do with her own disability and more to do with the support available to her.
“When I started the recovery process,” says Memon, “I spent five years just grieving for what I’d lost. I had to relearn everything; walking, talking, eating. But as I started making progress and learning to live with it I noticed that the biggest stumbling block was the perception that a person with my disabilities couldn’t achieve these goals.”
“It’s something I really started thinking about when I was preparing to climb Mt Aspiring. People supported my enthusiasm but couldn’t grasp that someone like me could do it. They were asking if I’ve bitten off more than I could chew. I rang my mentor Gavin and said, ‘everyone is talking me down; have I set my sights too high.’ Gavin said, ‘Neelusha, just don’t talk to anyone who can’t support your goals.’”
It’s this problem that Memon highlights as a far bigger handicap than her own physical disability, which makes February’s Speight’s Coast to Coast, where every participant requires a committed support crew, a perfect place to highlight that no one does anything without some form of support.
With her paracycling experience, cycling is almost second nature to Memon now. Kayaking, she says, has proven to need more organising but the actual sport itself isn’t too bad.
“I’ve managed to get help from really experienced Coast to Coast kayakers, Warwick Taylor, Glen Hedges and Dave Maitland. We’ve been down the Waimak twice now and fallen out both times. If we fall out I need my kayak partner to stay close to me so I can find the river’s edge and get orientated in the kayak again. But on the water I get a good feel for what we’re doing.”
Indeed, Memon and Glen Hedges finished the 67k Waimak River Race last December in 5hrs 33min, well within the Coast to Coast time limit. But she is less confident about the run.
“If I get through the run I’ll finish the Coast to Coast,” she says.
While she handles running quite well, the gruelling nature of the Goat Pass route across Arthur’s Pass will be the biggest challenge she has faced.
On the bike and even in the kayak, my guides can tell me what’s coming & I know how to adapt. But a mountain run like that is hard. You can’t describe every rock or root or river crossing.”
“I’ve done some parts of the run and I’ve fallen over so many times. It’s tough physically for me because my balance is not great. But I think the mental side of it will be the real test. Having to cope for so long.”
But Memon is somewhat accustomed to challenges, both mental and physical. As tough as the Speight’s Coast to Coast will be, day to day training is perhaps even tougher.
“I need people to train with,” she says. “So I have to be organised and motivated and have people willing to help me get out there every day.”
”I have an amazing crew. I talked about the three people I kayak with, but there are people I run with – Virginia Winstone, Dion Vincent, Glen Hedges and Nick Crocker – and a Christchurch Boys High School student, Ollie Marshall, helps with most of my cycling.”
It’s this support that Memon is keen to highlight. Sponsors such as Shoe Clinic, 2XU, Mizuno and Drymax socks have also helped. The website, limitlesswithsupport.com, tracks her progress and life as an athlete. But also as a student at Canterbury University where she has just finished a masters degree in disability policy, which she puts to good use as a disability awareness and education trainer for the Crippled Children Society.
“When I talk to people about my disability they want to talk about what I’ve achieved,” she says. “But I want to talk about how I couldn’t have achieved any of it without support from others. And that everyone, not just disabled people, can achieve almost anything if they have enough support.”