This assembly follows the inspiring story of Wanda Summers − her recovery from a serious accident, and her determination to complete an ultra-marathon across the Gobi desert
- Picture of someone hang-gliding
- Picture of Wanda
This term has been full of interesting sporting events: the Football World Cup just finished, as did Wimbledon tennis; it’s the start of the cricket season; and our own sports day is coming up.
Watching top athletes can be really inspiring – even though our football team and tennis players have given us less to cheer about than we might have hoped. Even so, there’s no doubt of the dedication of top sports men and women: long hours of training, the risk of injury that could prevent them from competing – and a short career that could see them finish by the age of 40.
It’s certainly inspiring to see Rafael Nadal smash another ace over the Wimbledon net, or see David Villa slam another football in the goal. But today you’ll hear about an even more inspiring athlete – and it’s someone you’ll have never heard of before.
Her name is Wanda Summers and she’s 35 years old, which is quite old for a top athlete, although not so much in Wanda’s chosen sport. Wanda likes to run. She doesn’t run sprints a hundred metres or 200 metres; she doesn’t run middle distances like 5,000km; she doesn’t even run marathons of 26 miles. Wanda runs ultra-marathons – long distance running races of up to 250km.
Here’s Wanda’s story.
Wanda has two sons: Dalano who is nearly 15 and Anoki who is 13. When they were small, she didn’t have time to go to a gym to keep fit. Like many busy mums with young children, time was a very precious commodity. So to keep fit, she’d load the boys into a buggy and take them out with her – and because time was short, she would run.
Can you imagine that, a young mum with two young boys running down the street pushing a buggy in front of her?
Well, as Wanda’s two boys grew up, Wanda began to train more seriously. She became so interested in how the body works and learning how to run long distances without causing injuries that she decided to study for a degree in fitness and personal training.
Then she signed up for the Marathon des Sables: a 150 mile foot race across the Sahara desert – and finished in a good time.
Running wasn’t the only sport Wanda enjoyed. She also liked to go para-gliding. Para-gliding is when you go flying using only a kite to lift you into the air [show picture]. She loved the feeling of being free. And, unlike flying in an aeroplane, when you are hang-gliding, all you can hear is the sound of the wind. It’s a very peaceful sport.
But then something terrible happened. One day, just before Christmas in 2008, Wanda had an accident while she was para-gliding and she crash-landed, breaking her back.
Here’s what happened in her own words:
‘The aircraft [kite] stalled and I fell 30 feet to the ground, landing on my coccyx and causing my vertebrae to burst. Surgeons told me the risk of paralysis was high as my spine would crumble if I tried to walk. They said I had a one in a million chance of walking.’
Wanda was told that her only hope was if she chose to have a serious operation where metal rods were inserted to hold up her spine. But it was a risky operation that could cause Wanda to be paralysed, and if it worked it would mean that the chance of her running again was nil. No chance. Wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t.
What a decision to have to make!
Wanda decided not to have the operation but to spend three months lying on her back, allowing her broken bones to heal.
The damage to her spine was so bad that people were afraid to go near her. She was just millimetres away from being paralysed.
‘I could see it in their faces: every person who looked at my X-ray had no hope. With every movement I was risking my future.’
Her two sons were a great support to her.
‘It was their faces. When they asked me if I would ever walk again I never told them, “No”, I just said, ”Of course I will”. I didn't want them to let my accident hold them back.’
So Wanda started to exercise – even though she had to keep her back completely still.
‘When I was in hospital I was told not to move my legs, but I put a pedometer on and did mini leg lifts when the curtains were shut. I got dumb bells smuggled in too, and used to use them every day. There was a delay when I tried to move my legs. It felt strange.
‘I blew into balloons everyday to stop fluid on the lungs and got a stepper put on the end of my bed so I could build up my leg muscles.
‘After 11 weeks, I sat up, and my spine didn't crumble. So after 12 weeks, I began taking steps. I'd do 10 one day and then make myself do 20 the next. It was agony.’
Against all the odds, Wanda began to walk. It was slow and painful, but she forced herself on.
Before her accident, Wanda had signed up for another ultra-marathon – a 250km foot race across the Gobi desert in China, where temperatures reach up to 46°C and contestants call it ‘The oven’.
With her spine in pieces, there was no way she could compete. But Wanda made a promise to herself – she wouldn’t cancel her place, just postpone it for a year.
‘I never stopped thinking I would walk again. I kept setting myself challenges. I kept my body moving using the bed which could bend and eventually, at 11 weeks, I sat up. My spine didn't crumble. I lay back down for a week.
‘At 12 weeks I shuffled into a wheelchair and I went out. It was sunny and just amazing; the colours and the warmth. On the way back I stood up and took three steps.’
And, last week, Wanda made her dream come true: she competed in the Gobi March. She endured running 66 miles on the first day, sleeping in a tent and carrying all her food and equipment whilst she ran. Out of over 150 competitors Wanda came 59th – and first in her age group. Quite an achievement for someone who was told they would never walk again. [Show picture]
And while she was achieving her personal goal, Wanda’s marathon effort was also raising money for her favourite charity. More of a Wonder Woman than a Wanda!
There’s been another, unexpected benefit, too:
‘It's amazing what affect the accident has had on my sons, they were the laziest boys ever and now, especially my youngest, they are completely changed.’
Wanda’s story is an inspiration to us all. To have a dream and work towards it, and to work hard; to believe in yourself and to simply do your best.
Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for giving us people who inspire us. Help us to be more like them and to always try our hardest. Amen.
Wanda’s achievement is extraordinary. Whose story do you find inspirational? What inspires you?
This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2010
About the author: Jane A. C. West