Ever since I can remember, being in the water has been my safe haven. It is a place I have always felt free, a place where my limitations feel limitless. Never did I imagine that water would play such an import role in me becoming who I am today.
Growing up my hopes and dreams were consumed by becoming an Olympian. At the age of seven I decided to follow in my mother‚Äôs footsteps and devoted my time to becoming the best gymnast I possibly could be. I would spend hours a day in the gymnasium working towards this dream and at age eleven I became Gauteng Champion.
At the time my best friend at school was very into swimming. She had asked me to join the club where she was training so that we would get more time to play together in the afternoons. I agreed and before I knew it I was standing behind the blocks ready to compete in my first race. I won the race and that was the moment I fell absolutely head over heels in love with swimming. My dreams of becoming an Olympian were still the same, but now I knew that above all I wanted to become an Olympic swimmer.
Swimming became my passion. Being on a pool deck just felt right. Devoting all my time and energy to the sport was easy because it was something I loved. The hard hours of training became worth it as I started getting selected for provincial and international teams. My heart was happy as I was well on my way to achieving my ultimate dream.
Life has a strange way of placing different events into your life when you least expect it. On the 9th of April 2004 my whole entire world was turned upside down. From being an up and coming swimming champion, to someone lying flat on their back fighting for their life. It often astonishes me that I almost lost my life while being in the water, yet being in the water is what actually saved me in the bigger picture.
Growing up we were fortunate enough to have to have a holiday home at the Vaal Dam. We would spend most of our weekends there waterskiing. Over the Easter weekend on Good Friday my parents decided to take my brother and I out onto the water for a late afternoon waterski. My dad would always take us out to the quiet areas ensuring that his children were safe from other water users. I jumped into the water, put on my skis and my dad started to tow me behind his boat. After a while I fell off the skis into the water, my mom raised the red flag to alert other water users that there was someone in the water.
My mom‚Äôs eyes were always tightly secured on us while we were in the water waiting to get picked up. As I floated there in the water she could see another speed boat coming right in my direction. She always says to me that it was like she was watching the situation unfold in slow motion. She screamed to my dad, ‚ÄúMichael, this boat is going to hit Shireen, it is going to hit her!‚Äù She can remember praying her heart out that what she thought had just happened, had not. As my parents’ boat approached me I was lying with my face down in the water. My mom and my bother jumped into the water and turned me over. My brother always describes that moment as one of those shark attack scenes in JAWS, there was blood everywhere. They swam my body to the side of my dad’s boat. He lifted me out of the water while my mom and brother held all the pieces of my body together. I was rushed to shore and immediately airlifted to the Union Hospital in Alberton. My family tells me that as that helicopter took off they weren‚Äôt sure if they would ever see me again.
That night I received seven pints of blood where an average 13 year old only has eight in their body. I was in theatre for many hours as doctors washed out my wounds trying to clean out the dirty water from the dam. They also had to put my pelvis back together because the propeller of the boat had broken it into nine difference pieces. The doctors working on me found it extremely difficult getting blood flow back into my left leg. They explained to my family that if they couldn‚Äôt get the blood to flow they would have to amputate my leg because saving my life was more of a priority. By the grace of God, blood started flowing back into my leg and amputation was no longer a concern. The propeller of the boat entered at my navel and left at the clevis on my bum, slicing my body in half.
I spend the next seven months of my life flat on my back in a hospital bed, one of them I spent in a coma. I endured 18 operations and over 76 hours of anaesthetic as doctors put my body back together, piece by piece. Doctors often told me that I survived because swimming had made my lungs so strong. Looking back now, I believe I survived because God had great plans for my life. As a result of my accident I was I was left with many parts of my body that would never function normally again. My quadriceps, my hip flexors, my abdominals and my gluts on the left side of my body are all paralysed because of nerves that were ripped out of my spine. I was told that I would probably never be able to walk or swim properly ever again.
I have always been a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason. Every day as I lay there in that hospital bed I kept my dream alive. I was determined to prove to myself that I would one day swim like a champion again. All I could think of was getting back into the water.
I spent the next 2 years learning how to walk and swim again with only half of my body functioning properly. Walking was extremely painful but swimming and being in the water gave me the same sense of freedom I had always felt. This sense of freedom always reminded me of my favourite story about the bumble bee, ‚Äúaerodynamically, the bumble bee should not be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn‚Äôt know it, so it goes ahead and flies anyway.‚Äù
After many hours of practice at the Auckland Park Rehabilitation Centre, I had decided that it was time to get back behind those blocks and back into racing. I had never been more determined to prove to myself and to the rest of the world that despite my setbacks, I would become an Olympian. The beep went off and there I was swimming my first race since my whole entire life had changed. The race was a complete disaster. People I used to beat by miles were now beating me. I was devastated and couldn‚Äôt believe how far behind I was.
Over the next few weeks my physio at the rehabilitation centre kept asking me if I would be interested in disability swimming. I was so offended because I could not believe she viewed me as someone who was disabled. After months of trying to convince me I finally said that I would give it a shot.
I arrived at Mandeville for their monthly gala for swimmers with disabilities and I was completely blown away. There were so many people with so many different disabilities, yet they could swim freely. I was so inspired but also petrified because my last race did not go as well as I hoped. That day I swam the 50m freestyle and managed to break the South African record while doing it.
Over the next few months I managed to break more and more South African records and before I knew it, I was split seconds away from breaking the world record in the 100m backstroke. As time passed my dream of becoming an Olympian had faded away, I was now determined to become a Paralympian.
In 2008 at the age of 17 my dream became a reality. I was selected to represent South Africa at my very first Paralympic Games in Beijing, China. I had no idea what to expect from the Games, all I knew was that I was going to swim my heart out.
The day of my 100m backstroke had arrived and I was focused and ready, terrified, but ready. My heat was not great but I had managed to secure myself a place in the final that evening. As I sat in the call up room preparing for my final I just remember telling myself that this is the biggest moment in my life. All I needed to do was remain calm and stick to what I had practiced.
I jumped into the water, pulled myself up onto the starting block and waited for the official to set our final off. That evening there were over 22 000 spectators in the crowd. I did not see or hear a single thing; all I could feel was my heart beating in my chest. The beep went off and there I was swimming the biggest race of my life. I kept a good pace and focused on keeping my technique as perfect as possible. Every part of my body started to burn but I was not going to give up, I was going to push my body until there was nothing left. I touched the wall, looked up at the screens above the pool and there I saw it: Shireen Sapiro, Gold medal, NEW WORLD RECORD. I was completely overjoyed and so proud of how far I had come. I could now officially say that I was a proud Paralympian, the Paralympic Champion and South Africa‚Äôs youngest ever female Olympic/Paralympic gold medalist.
The next 4 years of my life building up to the Games in London 2012 were extremely challenging after my success at the Beijing Paralympics. I had struggled with many shoulder injuries that kept me from training. But, I also persevered and trained as hard as I could which allowed me to qualify for my second Games. At these Games I managed to bring home a bronze medal, which I was also extremely proud of. These Games taught me what it means to work hard to get to where you want to be.
After the London 2012 Paralympic Games I was determined to qualify for my third Paralympics that would take place in Rio in 2016. Even though I was proud of my bronze medal, I wanted my title back. I was prepared to do whatever it would take so that I could once more be the Paralympic Champion. Less than a year into my four-year cycle I started to pick up shoulder injuries again. This time the injuries were more severe and needed to be operated on. I needed two operations on my left shoulder which put me out of action for just over 18 months. I now only had a year and a half to qualify and prepare for the Paralympic Games in Rio.
I found myself in an extremely low point in my life during this time. It was extremely frustrating wanting to train and work towards a dream while I was restricted. Once I was healed and given the go ahead to get back into the water, I realised that I needed to do something drastic if I wanted to make it to Rio. I‚Äôve always believed that if you don‚Äôt like where you are in life, you have the power to change it. ¬†So I packed up my whole life in Johannesburg and moved to Durban. I swam under the guidance of one of South Africa‚Äôs top coaches and day-by-day, my swimming stared to improve again. There were so many days where my shoulder would be in excruciating pain and all I wanted to do was give up on this silly dream of competing at three Paralympics. I also found myself wanting to give up because of the fear of not even being able to qualify for the Games. I mean, I had already been to the Paralympics and brought home medals. But, somehow I would always manage to find the strength to show up at the pool for my next practice. My dreams have always been bigger than my fear of failure.
After hours of training and buckets of tears the Rio 2016 Paralympic team had been announced. I had made it. I was officially on the team heading to my third and final Paralympics. I decided that Rio would be my last Games because it was time I started to take care of my injured shoulders. Going into the Rio Games I was always hopeful that I could bring home another medal, but realistically I knew that I had had too many injuries to pull it off. It was extremely heartbreaking for me not being able to bring home a medal, but saying that I was so grateful that I was still good enough to qualify.
Rio was the most humbling experience of my life. I was given the opportunity to represent my country once more on the world’s biggest sporting stage as well as the opportunity to bid swimming farewell. My heart’s desire was to retire at the Paralympic Games and that‚Äôs exactly what I did. After my last race in Rio I just floated in the water and hung onto the side of the pool for a moment. Even though I didn‚Äôt do as well as I wanted to at these Games, my heart was full. I looked up to my family in the stands and waved to them as my soul filled with gratitude that they had been there supporting me from the very beginning.
If I had the chance to turn back the hands of time, I wouldn‚Äôt change a single thing. I would go through my accident, all the injuries and all the heartache over and over again. Even though there have been many challenges along this path, they have been worth it. I have experienced the most wonderful things and met the most incredible people along the way. I have been able to inspire others to chase their dreams no matter what obstacle life may throw their way, and for that I am so grateful. This sport and this journey have moulded me into a person that I am extremely proud of. It has given me the opportunity to walk confidently into my new chapter in life knowing that whatever I do, I will be successful. Swimming as well as the Paralympics will always hold an extremely special place in my heart, but I am exited to see what the future has in store for me.
As my favourite author Paulo Coelho writes, ‚Äúif you‚Äôre brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello.‚Äù
Photographs courtesy of Shireen Sapiro
Swimming pool photographs by Paul Wallington.