Monique Murphy was in a tragic accident just over two years ago. Now she’s headed for Rio. Murphy speaks to Lucy Zelic about the transition from able-bodied athlete to para athlete, and how she’s more comfortable in her own skin.
Lucy Zelic

18 Jun 2016 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2016 - 12:28 PM

The last time I cried in my professional capacity was back in September last year during an interview with Matildas midfielder Katrina Gorry.

The women’s national team had just announced that they were forgoing their US tour and watching Gorry breakdown in tears over the conditions the team were faced with was all too much for me.

When I left Hyde Park that day, I vowed never to let my emotions get the better of me on the job again but that all changed when I got on the phone to Monique Murphy.  

Growing up as a competitive able-bodied swimmer, Monique’s world was turned upside down in 2014 when she fell 20 metres from a fifth-story balcony and woke up from a coma five days later to discover that her right leg had been amputated.

Not only that, she had a broken jaw in two places, a cut to her neck close to the main artery and windpipe, a broken left collarbone, a tear in her triceps tendon, three broken ribs and a tibial plateau fracture.

There aren’t too many people who could recover from such a horrific tragedy but Monique did and just recently, she was selected as a nominated athlete to compete in the Paralympics at Rio this year.

Cue the tears.

What I discover in my chat with the sparkling 22 year-old is that she’s a vivacious, positive and hugely determined young woman who is so much more than her disability.

She offers perspective in a world where it’s so easy to get caught up in thinking that you’ve got real problems but what I learn from this experience is that they pale in comparison.

Sure Monique still has problems but being a Paralympian isn’t one of them and here’s why.  

Monique first of all,congratulations on qualifying as a nominated athlete for the Rio Paralmpics! How did you feel hearing the news?

“To get that qualifying time and to know that I got a top priority time, to know that I had a very strong chance of going was just fantastic, it’s so exciting."

"It’s been a goal in my mind for a long time as part of my rehab so to be able to achieve that so soon after my accident confirms the belief that I am still capable of so much regardless of my amputation.”

Going back to your accident, I read about the extent of your injuries and they were nothing short of horrific. What was your first thought when you came out of that coma?

“When I came out of the coma, the first people I saw were my parents and it was just instant confusion because I had no idea what had happened or where I was. The first day or two was quite groggy but I remember when I found out that I’d lost my foot my mum was with me and initially we were both in tears and then I just said to her ’is that it?’ And she said ‘yes, that’s the worst of it’ and I was like ‘ok, I can do this.’”

Can you remember anything from the night you fell?

“No. The accident was in the early hours of the morning and I don’t have a memory from about 6pm the night before so there’s complete blackness for me so that did make it easier to, sort of accept.

I just woke up and was told was what had happened. Not having any of those memories was when I made the decision that I was just going to focus on the future and not about the past which I can’t change.”

To be in such a traumatic situation like that and simply ask ‘is that it’ about having their leg amputated is pretty damn remarkable. How did you navigate through the tough times and bounce back from such a tragedy?

“I am not too sure really. I was quite adamant about never getting back into swimming and being competitive was an idea that I shot down many times. Being a swimmer before the accident, a lot of people would make comments about how I could be a Paralympian down the road and I always shot them down because I had no interest in it."

"I just wanted to get better and I think having been a competitive swimmer beforehand, I was just very used to setting goals and doing what I had to to achieve them. That came out straight away and as soon as I had a physio come in and say ‘ok as soon as you can move your legs like this, we can start walking’ it was just a goal and then doing whatever I could to achieve that. The goals have just slowly gotten bigger; from being able to sit on the edge of the bed, to be able to stand, to be able to walk and then to be able to swim.”

When did you realise that you wanted to get back into competitive swimming?

“Part of me knew that if I was going to start getting back in the water it would probably end up there but I was very aware that just because I am in a para sport, it doesn’t mean it’s any easier which can be a bit of a misconception.

“I was out of uni for a good year and at the end of the year, I had gotten a lot of mobility back and I was very bored so swimming was the one thing each day that would put a smile on my face. It was something that I could accomplish with no pain and no issues with my prosthetic because I don’t wear it, so it’s just something that became a bit of an obsession.

“I was at the pool everyday and I was like ‘well, let’s see how fast I can go’ and it wasn’t until I was at my first national championships when I made the team last year when it really dawned on me ‘oh, I am actually really good at this.’

“It sort of snuck on me and my coaches were aware of my capabilities long before I was. Even at trials, I was in the dark around my competing, I would just get up there and want to go as fast as I can and then I am usually quite astounded by the times."

Going back to the comment you made about people having misconceptions of para sports. What are some of the biggest ones?

“Having been an able-bod athlete, I never knew much about para sports and I think I assumed that because it was a small field of competitors perhaps it was easier. I didn’t really understand just how hard an individual can work even though they have physical limitations and how hard they work to push past that because disability never played a role in my life. I never really acknowledged it or understood how incredible these people are.

“I train so much harder, longer and smarter than I ever did with two legs. It’s great to be apart of the swim team that’s going to show the world how incredible we really are and to start to get the recognition that everyone deserves.”

“Everyone who mentioned to me about getting back into swimming, even though it was from a lovely place, I was like ‘just because I am missing a limb doesn’t mean I am going to make the Paralympics. Swimming is a brutal sport, it is so hard at the top of that field and I knew straight away the idea of trying to get to a Paralympics, I knew the early mornings, the dedication, the motivation it would take and I wasn’t quite interested in that when I was in a hospital bed.

Can you reveal just how much your training has changed?

“When I was a swimmer as a kid, I was always getting sick or getting colds and flus. I’d always be very stressed, I put a lot of pressure on myself and I was always battling injuries. Since then, I still have to be very careful with my health but I now see dieticians and I’ve had a complete change in my health and wellbeing. Now, I rarely get sick and I am also very on top of all my injuries and see regular physios.

“In terms of training, rather than just trying to go for that time, I focus a lot more on the process, the little steps and breaking it down and just taking each session as it comes and making sure that I am giving 100% effort for every session. So the consistency’s there and when you put all the hard work in the training, you will get the result at the end."

Who was Monique Murphy before the accident and who is she now?

“That’s a tricky one.

“I think swimming is a big part of who I am as a person and the decision to stop, when I look back on it now was probably a bit of a mistake. I think I could have had more belief in myself but for those two years effectively where I didn’t swim, I am still a competitive person, when I sign up to do something, I want to give it 100 per cent, I want to be the best that I can be in what I am doing.

“Now post-accident, I am much more comfortable with who I am as a person and swimming allows me to show that and I think I am a lot more confident.

“To begin with, when I got my first prosthetic I covered it to look like a real leg, I didn’t want it to look different. When I joined my swim clubs and started training, I realised I swim without a leg, so I am not fooling anybody [laughs].

“I love that my leg is a titanium pole and I have a lot of covers that I wear on it and I love dressing it up and really showing that even as an amputee I am still capable of doing everything possible. My self-belief has grown a lot as a person and I am just very comfortable with who I am and my prosthetics is part of me.”

Quick shots from left field: Monique Murphy

You have something you’ve affectionately called the ‘mermaid leg’- can you tell me more about it?

“I had a visit from a volunteer from the Limbs for Life Foundation and he’s a below-knee amputee. He’s also a scuba diver and he told me that he had these big flipper legs and threw out the idea that I’d be able to get a mermaid leg made. I was like ‘mum, I am going to be a mermaid!’

“That was in hospital and I think in that moment I knew that if I wanted to get something like a mermaid leg I was going to have to swim to justify that.

“The department at Royal Park Prosthetics, once my leg had settled and the shape of the stump was all good, started making one and they had some spare material from another patient and it was all mermaid scales. They loved making it because it was something different and a little bit more out there than what they’re used to. It’s very heavy so it doesn’t float on it’s own and it filla up with water so it’s quite a big workout for my other leg. I do often use it just as a bit of a weight. It helps to engage all the muscles through my leg and into my back and it helps my body position and my connection so it’s got a lot of uses and it’s just a great novelty to wear.

“I’ve come to love standing out because of this result from such a traumatic accident I love showing off what I am capable of.

“I think back two years ago, I was that curious person staring at someone with a prosthetic going ‘I wonder what that is’ so I’ve got the chance to open up that conversation that disability is something to be talked about and you shouldn’t be scared of it. It doesn’t have to be a curse, it’s still an amazing opportunity and you’re still capable of so much.

You’re such a positive and determined person but do ever have any moments where you think ‘screw it, I just can’t do it anymore?’

“I think those thoughts can pop up numerous times during the day! When the alarm goes off at 4:30am!

“Swimming’s been quite a life life for me because I do have a lot of issues with my prosthetic in terms of fit and comfort. There are still days where I can’t wear it at all so I’ll need to use a wheelchair. I’ll still get blisters and rashes and it can be incredibly frustrating and it’s quite common for such a recent amputation, it does take a couple of year to get a prosthetic with a good fit.

“I remind myself when I am having these bad days that I can still swim. I don’t wear my leg in the water so there’s nothing stopping me from getting up in my chair and just rolling down to the pool and as soon as I hit that water, I am fine I am safe, I can do anything. I am capable of achieving anything in that water, there’s just no limitation for me.

“It was like that a lot in the beginning it was the one thing I could do everyday to feel like I’d accomplished something so even when I have those bad days, swimming is still there for me so I’d be pretty lost without it, I think.”

I love your Instagram account and the bond that you have with your training partner Ashley McConnell. What’s that like having something go through this journey with you?

“It’s absolutely amazing. We’ve formed such a close friendship through that. We train every session together now and to both be going off to Rio together is incredible. She’s been around in the multi-class world a lot longer than I have and she’s been able to show me the ropes.

“I’ll ask her all my stupid questions and she’ll be able to laugh at me and tell me what’s going on. It’s been so helpful and we just battle everything together and we absolutely love it. The days where we don’t want to train, we’ll motivate each other and we’ll push each other through. I think I’d be quite lost without her. She’s a great motivation for me and also having been born without her arm, to her, she’s no different, that’s just who she is, that’s just how she was born, she’s never lost anything.

“Her attitude to life was just incredibly eye-opening for me because there was no adjustment there. The way she does things is how she’s always done things so she’s very inspirational for me.”

Have you set yourself a goal now that you’ve been selected as a nominated athlete?

“I’ve already exceeded every expectation that’s been put on me so at the end of the day, I’ll be a Paralympian and that brings a smile to my face. I want to be able to race my best and hopefully a personal best time will be the best way to judge that.“I am just focussing on putting in the great training now to ensure that I’ll be faster, fitter, stronger come Rio and whatever my personal best gives me is what I get. I’ll be going up against some incredibly fierce competitors who have been around a lot longer than I have so it will be tough.

“When the going gets tough in training, I think about what it would be like to be standing up on that medal podium and that’s definitely a thought that gets me through. It’d be great to be standing up there.”

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