Emily Gray is a confident and beautiful athlete. The loss of her leg to cancer at age 11 ultimately forged greater strength and resilience in her life, but it certainly didn’t happen right away. “After the loss of my leg, I told my father, ‘No other man will ever love me’”. Clarity grew with time and Emily now understands how far she has come. Founded on the rock of her family’s love and embraced by the healing hands of time, she grew in strength and confidence, but it was her involvement in sports that enabled her to finally, truly believe in herself.
A positive change in the way you see yourself, especially after a mobility loss, can often lead to an expanded outlook on life. Your ‘liberation’ enables you to defy the ‘normal’ ways of imagining what’s possible and by your actions, you are showing yourself, and, ultimately, society, what’s possible. It’s really a gift, that results in a better understanding of who you are, what you’ll accept, and where you want to go. Ultimately, this changes society’s conventional perceptions of mobility loss.
Defying convention to Emily is nothing more than the conscious ability to think more broadly – beyond what’s expected – and try new things. Emily is still pushing her boundaries – both physically and metaphorically. She recently moved from South Africa to New York City, leaving not only her family and home country, but also her successful Paralympic swimming career. Shaking things up in a transition this big certainly forces one to reflect and grow. “I’ve had my dark days and have struggled to see the future, but everyone does.”
Emily has learned that loss is a cyclical experience, often accompanied by big changes in life. But when embraced, loss can naturally teach us new lessons in exercising courage, gratitude, and resilience, which are all important steps in becoming a stronger, more beautiful you.
What does ‘defy convention’ mean to you?
To defy convention is to go against the normal way of thinking, in terms of disability and what people perceive as possible and impossible. Breaking through those elements of society’s perceptions of you and understanding what you can do, to me, is defying convention.
Tell me about your journey towards acceptance.
When I first lost my leg, I said to my father that no man would ever love me. I really believed that. I didn’t know any other amputees, so I thought I was this really outcast figure. Obviously I realize now that this is not true, but going through my life and having the confidence and courage to see the beauty in myself has really taught me a lot, and it’s helped me become the woman I am today. So I think that although it was hugely challenging, and I had a lot of dark days, it’s definitely made me a stronger person.
My acceptance of myself really developed over the years, and I really feel that sports helped me grow into that person. That helped give me confidence, and when I had that confidence, people naturally saw me as whole. They saw me as someone who’s really overcome a huge obstacle in life, and who can continue to do great things, and I think everyone can relate to that in some way or another. Everyone’s come up against some sort of obstacle where they struggle to see the future, and I think once they relate to that, you have a connection.
What are your passions?
Swimming is obviously a big passion. I swam for 15 or 16 years, and went to three Paralympic Games. I retired after the 2016 Rio Paralympics and began rock climbing, taking my passion from the pool and putting it onto the wall.
I started rock climbing with Adaptive Climbing Group (ACG). I think my background in swimming and my shoulder strength from using crutches most of my life really paid off, and I was naturally drawn to the wall. I feel like they’re very similar sports in a sense that you have to figure out the movement. I’m not going to move the same way as someone with two legs and two arms, on the wall or in the water; It’s going to be slightly different. I kind of derive joy out of figuring out those complicated moves, and how I am able to adapt. I would definitely say that my passion is being able to adapt to different situations and challenge myself.
Sports as a whole are really important for an amputee, to just become a healthier, whole individual, and continue movement in life. There are definitely a lot more opportunities in the States for adaptive sports. It seems like there are just so many organizations and people that are willing to help you and assist you, whether it’s just having a more accessible gym or doing outdoor trips. There are a lot more organizations that are hands-on with people with disabilities and encouraging people to get outdoors. I also work as a coach for some amputees, so I definitely have a passion for helping other amputees, and hopefully they can find the same joy that I felt in swimming.
What is your favourite thing about SideStix?
I think the shock absorbers are such a brilliant idea. With long-term crutch usage, I really worry about my shoulders, and I always try to be aware and think into the future. I’m really conscious about how I look after my body, and I think the shock absorbers are such an amazing tool because if you’re on your crutches for your entire life, you’ve got to look after yourself! You can’t use crutches from the hospital that are only meant to be used for 6 months. You’re just beating up your joints.
I would say my favourite thing is the adaptability of SideStix: being able to change out the tips, choose what kind of handles or cuffs you like, or really customize the entire crutch, and choose what you want depending on your environment. I think most of the time, crutches tend to hold you back. You could say, “I can’t go hiking because I’ve got this old pair of crutches and they rattle, and the rubber at the bottom is starting to rip apart, so that’s the reason why I won’t go outdoors”. Whereas with SideStix, it’s just giving me a reason to go outdoors, because I’ve got these amazing crutches that allow me to do so. They’re more like encouragement than discouragement. I like the adaptability and the customization. That’s amazing to me. I wish I had these crutches when I was growing up, because they’re fantastic.
How do you stay motivated?
I think all amputees have gone through some pretty hectic life experiences. I think my experience naturally taught me to go for things and stay motivated because the next day wasn’t guaranteed. You never know what’s going to come around the corner, so you should live life to the fullest. I think those experiences help with that type of motivation. It’s definitely not the same for everyone, because some people who recently had their leg amputated don’t wake up with motivation. It’s different for everyone, but I would say that personally, losing my leg at 11 and seeing how close I was to death has given me the strength to go on and try to live life to the fullest.
I love writing things down and keeping a logbook. I find that my goals are a lot more attainable, and I like to see my progress and how far I’ve come. I like to push myself to the limit. If it’s in rock climbing or swimming, I like that feeling of really pushing and challenging myself. I find motivation in those experiences afterwards. I’m also motivated by seeing other amputees out and about, and just seeing how other people adapt, and learning from their ways and trying to put that into my own life.
Have you ever had to navigate a dark period or a difficult time adjusting?
3 or 4 years after my amputation was a dark period for me. It’s a bit of a cycle, because you have these highs and lows. After my retirement from swimming there was a bit of a dark period, because I had to figure out who I was without swimming. It’s challenging for every athlete who’s been labelled as a football player, or a softball player, and then suddenly they aren’t anymore. It’s a big adjustment, and I think that was quite a dark period for me. I moved to the States as well, so that was really challenging because I didn’t have a lot of family or friends around.
Then, I started working with Prosthetics in Motion, and they fitted me with a really good prosthetic leg, which I was finally comfortable in. They actually made me a running prosthetic, which is kind of mind-blowing to me because I never thought that I’d be able to run again. It’s taken a lot of adjustments, and I’m definitely going to fall a lot, but it’s just an incredible experience, so I’m very excited to see where that goes.
What advice do you have for other crutch users?
I would urge the importance of health. I think being healthy and just looking after yourself and your joints is critical for long-term living, and if you want to continue being active and staying outdoors, you really need to look after yourself. SideStix allows that. Like I mentioned earlier, the shock absorbers can really help your joints. You wouldn’t wear the same shoes for 5 years, so you should make sure you treat your crutches the same; look after them, and get new ones if you need to. Look after your joints, and yourself as a whole.