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Jul 18

Tragedy leads to love of surf

Len Snowdon, a member of Support Amputees Family and Friends, was a finalist for distinguished service in 2014 NSW Disability Industry Innovation Awards. Picture: KIRK GILMOURWOLLONGONG ADVERTISER
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I was born in Kiama in 1962. I left school early and worked in a clothes factory at Oak Flats. There were 360 girls and nine guys. I liked those odds. When I turned 18, I went to the steelworks with something like 20,000 men and half a dozen girls. I started as a storeman and then moved to the traffic section where I worked with trains hauling steel. I met my wife Carol at a New Year’s Eve celebration and we got married in 1985. This year we’ve been together for 29 years.

In 1992, on December 21, our lives changed forever. I had an accident in the steelworks with a train that left me with traumatic injuries. I had my right arm and my right leg and hip amputated. Only 10 days before the accident we moved into our dream house in Balarang. It had 15 internal stairs. We had to find a new place and we relocated to Windang to a house with no stairs. I had to relearn the basics that we all take for granted. I had to learn to do everything with one hand and to try and navigate around with one leg. The hardest was learning to do basic day-to-day activities such as dressing, brushing my teeth and putting shoes and socks on. Before the accident I was right side dominant so I did everything with my right hand and leg. I had to learn everything left handed, especially writing. It changes a lot writing with your other hand, like when I was learning to write ‘b’s, ‘c’s and ‘d’s were the hardest because I would write them backwards. Luckily at that time they were introducing these things called computers and they helped tremendously.

I got into surfing a year after my accident. When I was browsing through the Advertiser I noticed an ad about a disabled surf event at Bulli Beach. I recognised the organiser, Jim Bradley, as teacher who I had at school many years ago. When I attended the Disabled Surfers Association beach day I was met by a group of enthusiastic high school volunteers. Before I knew it I was on a surfboard in the pool surrounded by all these people giving me the opportunity to do something I never dreamt I could. The most exciting part was doing a tandem surf. Thanks to the skills of the volunteers I was able to catch a wave and have all the people out in the water clap and cheer me on.

I was the torch bearer for both the Sydney Olympics and Paralympic torch relays in 2000. I carried the torch across Windang Bridge – one side was considered the country and the other side was the city. I was the last person to bring the torch from the country. I nearly fell with the torch because even though I had practised the route a few times before, I did it going up the side of the road. They asked me to walk in the middle and I nearly slipped on the cat’s eye reflectors because I can’t feel them under my prosthetic leg.

Since the accident Carol and I have had two beautiful daughters Emma, 19 and Amy, 12. I taught my daughters how to dance but my wife had to remind them they could dance with two arms. They used to copy me and only use one arm so they would leave the other one by their side. Now I work at Illawarra hospitals, including Wollongong and Shellharbour, visiting people who have recently had an amputation. There was one lady who had just lost her right arm and she was quite down. She came along to the Support Amputees Family and Friends meetings and told us she was upset that she couldn’t drive. After that meeting she realised she could drive with only one arm and that you can still do all the fun things. Life goes on.

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