In 2005, I was inspired by a triathlete who spoke to the school about his experience with the gruelling 3 discipline sport. I thought, well I can run and cycle, surely swimming can’t be that hard? I had at least learnt how to float and blow bubbles, so I thought I would join the school triathlon team. I always loved bikes as a young girl. I even lost one of my first teeth crashing into a trailer with my new training wheels.
It wasn’t before long and I was beating the boys on my mountain bike. The coach spoke to my dad and said it’s time for you to buy your daughter a road bike. That was when the journey began. I started off strong by being rescued from the pool at the first camp, struggling to breathe and almost hypothermic. I literally felt like a brick in the water, flailing limbs everywhere. Needless to say I carried on. 5am starts, 4 days a week and one ocean swim. I was built like a stick insect. Lanky, lean, awkward and hunched over. My mum always told me to pull my shoulders back and be proud of my height, but the bullying didn’t help. I was bullied throughout Primary and Intermediate school for being tall. It hurt, but through it all, I carried on.
I was always in the slow lane and constantly being stopped by the coach to be corrected on my technique. I thought, surely with my ridiculously long limbs and phalanges, I would be a good swimmer. This was not the case. I struggled. Always out of breath, stunk of chlorine, had permanent circles embedded around my eyes from my tight goggles and got lapped, even in the slow lane. Despite feeling like a failure and an outlier, I persevered. I focussed on my strengths, running and cycling.
Auckland Champs was a beautiful day. I will never forget the water glistening and the sun's heat on my face. The butterflies churning in my stomach and adrenaline pumping through me. I was wearing a thin, tight, one-piece suit, that was bright blue. I felt so exhausted at the start line from the nerves and constant flow of negative thoughts leading up to the race. I somehow thought I would make history for being the first swimmer to be assisted out of the water with a kayak.
The gun went off and I belly flopped into the water. My goggles came unstuck as I got whacked in the face. The aggression was real. You’d be surprised how feisty girls get when they want to win. Looking up, disorientated to see where the swim exit was, I could see my competitors. Ants in the distance. After what seemed like a lifetime, I felt the bottom and started duck diving until I could stand. I remember looking at a photo after the race and the water was dead flat, not a person in sight. I was last by a long shot. A smurf wading through the water.
At this stage of my racing "career" I was in the Junior New Zealand Development Squad and my coach was cheering me on with a look of apprehension etched onto his face. On the loud speaker I heard, “here comes Hayleigh Niterl, an up and coming Junior.” These words pierced my ear drums and echoed through the crowd. I said to myself, I am not giving up, it’s time to catch these girls. One by one I overtook them, got off my bike, put my shoes on and ran. I ran so fast and didn’t look back.
As I crossed the finish line I heard my name and Auckland Champion in the same sentence. An overwhelming sense of emotion enveloped me as I collapsed on the ground trying to get my breath back. I felt a few hands on my back and looked up to see my parents and my coach. It was at the moment I realised that anything was possible. The early mornings, the humiliation of always being last and the bullying. I was given these gifts; height and long limbs. Through this all, I developed a strength that was unique. It was a kind of resilience that came from what I thought at the time, were negative experiences.
I gained a sense of hope, wrote down goals and trained every day for weeks on end, months and a few more years. It seemed there were more challenges than victories.
At National Cycling Championships I was knocked off my bike in the sprint finish. I lost my confidence on the bike, as well as my physical strength for weeks following this crash. After recovering from the stitches in my hip, 6 weeks later I was running and my leg collapsed. I had herniated a disc in my back. This meant 12 weeks of strengthening and stability exercises, so I could avoid surgery. The pain I experienced was indescribable. Weakness, numbness, burning, sharp excruciating pain. Despite this setback, I kept striving and managed to race Nationals. During this journey I had amazing coaches, however, my body was not conditioned enough to handle the amount of training I was doing, especially while I was still developing.
After nationals, I couldn’t walk. I was in serious pain. The next week I was diagnosed with bilateral (both legs) stress fractures in my femurs. I spent 12 weeks resting before I raced in the National Sprint Championships to qualify for Worlds. A second place gave me a position in the Under 19, Triathlon Age Group World Championships. This was one of the most incredible experiences, although, as a 16 year old, travelling alone with the New Zealand team was tough for me. My parents had been at every event up until this race.
4.30am on race day I woke up to find out it was 14 degrees outside, 11 in the water and raining. Brilliant, so much for a summer sport. The gun went and I hit the water, my chest tightening and heaving for air. I felt like I was swimming in an ice bath. I finished at the back of the group. The whole race I couldn’t feel my fingers, struggled to use the brakes and couldn't do my helmet up without help. I cycled and ran with numb feet, crossing the finish line in 9th place. I was put straight onto a stretcher with hypothermia. It was all worth it though. After a 4 hour sleep I got up to party with the NZ team.
Duathlon Nationals followed, this time racing Open Elite Women and returning to NZ with unreal hip pain. I had a pelvic stress fracture. This was normal for me and my body was getting used to injuries by this stage. I knew that I would heal because the pain was only temporary and I wanted to achieve my goals. I never, ever gave up.
Over my years of triathlons and cycling racing, I went on to suffer from a tibial stress fracture, a chronic shoulder injury, a labral tear which I had hip surgery for in 2014 and bilateral foot surgery this year. I have experienced acute and chronic pain that I cannot even put into words. I am now 26 and I have scars which tell a story. A story of resilience, perseverance, suffering, pain, discouragement, but above all, success. I have gratitude for the injuries I sustained, the bullying and the failures. It's these moments of pain that shaped my story and made me realise I can overcome anything.
From Primary to College I was bullied. Bullied for my beliefs, for my height and for being a diligent student. The bullying made me self-conscious. I used to round my shoulders and walk hunched over so that I could try to be the same height as everyone else. I realised, no matter what walk of life we are in, unfortunately there will be times where we are let down and mistreated by others. I learnt that I can be different, by showing love and kindness to those who disrespected me.
I watched the physio at school treating students and through this, I developed a passion for health which lead me to study Physiotherapy for 4 years and a year of postgrad. I had learnt so much through my injuries, meeting physios and sports doctors. At times I felt lonely, isolated and my self-esteem was very low. I am thankful I had a loving family who encouraged me and my incredible Faith which gave me a reason to keep going.
I now look back with no regrets. I wouldn’t have my life any other way. To be able to experience pain, surgery and bullying made me authentic, resilient and fearless. Through this journey I had the privilege of studying a medical degree that allowed me to invest into so many lives, helping people to be pain-free, and encouraging them to fulfil their purpose. I can now empathise with people who are suffering from pain, injury and other medical conditions. I have learnt rehabilitation in ways no text book can teach someone. Through my bullying I am able to mentor young girls about the impact of words and how this can change someone’s life forever.
Starting work in the modelling industry gave me insight into this world centred around image and I learnt that a body is just a shell, but to be given life is a gift. Ultimately, how we make others feel and showing love is more important than appearance.
I couldn’t swim, but I didn’t give up. I went on to become a lifeguard for many years, meeting lifelong friends and working in conditions I thought were impossible for me to swim in.
Girls, through these seemingly hopeless situations, I discovered, every individual is born with an innate talent and a passion. We need to take hold of what we already have and use it. Every woman is designed to fulfil a purpose in life that is extraordinary and special. No person, setback, injury or illness can rob that from you. We should cherish the body and gifts we are given, no matter how tough a situation may feel. Life is FULL of challenges in every area of our lives and at times we can feel complete darkness. BUT, there is always another door that opens if you get up and open it.