Amelia White: How Her Unbridled Ambition Led To Tokyo
In this episode, Peta sits down with Amelia White, a Paralympian in equestrian dressage. Amelia shares her remarkable journey from a life-altering accident to representing Australia at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Her unyielding determination and love for horses shine through as she discusses the challenges she overcame to achieve her dreams.
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Peta [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have the amazing Amelia White. Amelia is a Paralympian in dressage. She competed at the Tokyo Paralympic Games and I was really interested to hear how she views what it's like to be a Paralympian as often. And it's changing, thank goodness. But as often the only people that are held up as successful are Paralympians within the disability community. And you know, by listening to this podcast that there are many forms of success within the disability community. Amelia isn't just a Paralympian, though. As you'll hear, she is a total powerhouse. So without any further ado, I'm going to hand it over to Amelia.
Amelia [00:01:21] Hi, everyone. My name is Amelia White. I am 31 years old and I am a Paralympian representing Australia in the sport of equestrian dressage.
Peta [00:01:32] Well, thank you very much for being here. I'm so excited to speak to you particularly. You know, Paralympians are held up so much in the disability community, so I'm always really interested to hear different people's perspective on what it's like to be Paralympian. But first and foremost, I want to ask you, what was it like representing Australia in the pinnacle of sport that you love so much?
Amelia [00:01:57] That's a very good question. I think it's it's really hard to sum it up in a couple of words, even a few sentences. I think it's it's something that. You work two jobs for your entire life and in a way, you get to the Paralympic Games and it's just two weeks, but it feels like the longest two weeks of your life, but also somehow the shortest two weeks of your life. So when I look back on the time, it, it went by so incredibly quickly, but at the same time, it took a very long time for those two weeks to go past. So what does it feel like to be a Paralympian? It honestly doesn't feel real. It sometimes it still surprises me when people ask me, Oh yeah, how did it go at Tokyo? And I think, you know, Yeah, that's right. You know, I went there and I think it's very surreal when at the same time it, it feels so incredible to be able to say this was my, my goal in life. And we got there.
Peta [00:02:57] And I'm sure we'll get into it. But you certainly didn't pick the easiest Paralympics to compete in.
Amelia [00:03:03] No, that's that's very true. I mean, what what happened with Tokyo? It was the Covid Olympics. So we started our qualifying period at the beginning of 2019, and then along came COVID. And there was this period of supreme uncertainty as to whether or not the Paralympics would take place. But not only that, we didn't have any qualifying competitions to go to because the whole world went into lockdown, so competitions just ended and that was really uncertain as well because the policies that we have to follow, they don't prepare you for an an event where there's just no qualifying competitions. I was one of the fortunate ones where a year didn't didn't harmper me. It actually gave me a bigger advantage. But for some athletes, you know, a year was catastrophic to their career because perhaps their horses were too old. You know, you then have to keep yourself sound and fit andespecially with the disability. It's hard to know on a day to day basis how how well you will be in one year's time. So it was very difficult and complicated for a lot of people. And it was certainly an Olympics for the history books, that's for sure.
Peta [00:04:15] And with excelling in a Paralympic sport. Did it change your disability identity or how you view your disability, or are they not interconnected?
Amelia [00:04:27] So my disability is acquired. It's not congenital, meaning that it came later in life and there's a very clear division in my mind of life, pre disability and life post disability. And you go through a transition phase of life before and what life looks like now. And for me that was incredibly difficult. I had a very clear idea of what my life would look like. And at the age of 18 that all came crashing down. And so it was probably a few years of learning to accept that this is life now. And I think at 18, it's such a key point in your life because you're transitioning from finishing high school. Maybe you want to go to university, maybe you want to do something else and you're becoming an adult and you have a very clear idea of what being an adult looks like. And then suddenly overnight, that changes. It was a long time actually, before we realised the extent of what the disability would look like. So in the beginning it was in my mind it was very much like, you know, it's just this. And then over several months and a few years it became clear that it wasn't just going to be that. And so it took a long time to accept the fact that I was now going to have this sort of impairment in life and how to manage that and going to the Paralympics. I mean, you meet such a wide variety of of people and you see a wide range of disabilities. And the thing with riding is you tend to see the same disabilities or the same same impairments that people have. And then you you get into an Olympic village with, you know, 10,000 other athletes and team members and you see so many different sports and you see so many different varying impairments or varying disabilities and people with things that you know, that are so different to what you've seen and so different to yours. And then you meet people that have similar disabilities. Are impairments yours. And it was such an eye opening experience for me, not because I was not used to working around people who function this way, but also because you see that, you know, you're not alone, you're not the only person going through this. And there are people who have gone through things very recently and other people that have gone through it 30 years ago. And maybe it doesn't get easier, maybe it is easier. But the one thing that was overwhelming to me was that they're such positive people. And they're very motivational people and they're such a joy to be around. Some people would say, you know, you have every excuse in the world to say, this is too hard. I don't want to do it anymore. It's been said to me a lot. In the end, I think it's not a choice. You know, you keep going because you want to and you want something bad enough. And that's that's what it was like for me. So going to the Paralympics, it it changed how I viewed myself a little bit. And it provided me with more acceptance for this is life now and maybe it's not so bad.
Peta [00:07:38] It sounds like it was a very impactful event in your life and in lots of ways. And I'm really glad that you had that positive experience of feeling like that. And it is so important to not feel like you're the only one. Intellectually, we know that, but sometimes it's very easy to forget. You were saying that you became disabled later on in life. You were on the way to uni and you're involved in a car accident, as you say, 18. That's quite a difficult age. I mean, I would argue every age is difficult to go through something like that possibly. But looking back now, what was your perception of what disabled people and their lives, what our lives could be like, and how is that different? Or how maybe was your perceptions actually correct?
Amelia [00:08:32] I think it's a it's a really interesting thing to think about. And I have thought about it a lot because, you know, it's as I said, you have this very clear division of what life is like before and after and. What happened to me was a car accident. So I was on my way home from uni, as you said, and this other car was completely on my side of the road and hit me head on and around a blind corner. And what it turned out to be was that the other driver was Canadian and mistakenly was on the incorrect side of the road. So it was, was very much a classic example of wrong place, wrong time. If I'd been 5 minutes earlier, 5 minutes later, it maybe wouldn't have happened. And then you go through this stage of I shouldn't have gone to university that day. What if I'd stayed home? What if I did this? What if I did that? In the end, you can drive yourself crazy thinking about it. It was quite severe and I was trapped in the car for a very long time. But if you ask me, it was only about 10 minutes, but it was quite a few hours and there was obviously damage to my left leg. That was very clear. But at the time that's all we thought it was. So in my mind I was very much like, cool, you know, had this accident, broke my leg, Shit happens. You just got to get back on the horse. And so in the beginning, you know, when I was in the hospital, it was very much a case of like, I don't understand why everyone is fussing so much because I just it's just a broken leg. Like, yeah, it's okay. It was a very badly broken leg, maybe eight weeks instead of six weeks. It came out that there were a lot more extensive injuries than what they'd initially found and there was damage to my spine. So I ended up breaking my back in seven different places. And so then I was confined to a wheelchair for quite some time. And it was in that moment actually, that it started to change my perception of what disability would look like, because at that time it was very real that maybe I would spend the rest of my life in that chair. And you don't think about, you know, when I was at school, I went to school with some really lovely girls, one of whom was in a wheelchair full time. And I never really thought about it because to me she was that was her, you know, and you have this this accident. And people people are there for you in the beginning. You know, at that point they feel terrible. They send you tonnes of flowers, they come to visit and then life goes on and you're still stuck living this way. Six months later, 12 months later, you know, I was in a wheelchair for two and a half years and people disappear. So the people I was friends with at school, people who I thought were my absolute best friends for life, just disappeared. And I think there's not only the physical aspect, but there's certainly the mental aspect of it as well. And in a way, I think that's hard because especially for for almost everyone, you don't choose to be this way. And sometimes it feels like people blame you a little bit, that these these horrible things happened to you. And in a way, it seems like you get punished for things that were completely not your fault and outside of your control. And that's so that's so difficult to compute as well mentally because you think, well, you know, you guys don't want to include me, but I didn't do anything wrong. And I still get treated poorly because of it. You know, and here I am at the age of 18, stuck in a chair at home with my parents, unable to drive and needing help to take a shower every day or to get in and out of bed. You know, I was completely dependent on my parents and. That changed my perception because I think you're then faced with a choice. You know, you can sit down and accept this is shit. I'm going to sit here and feel sorry for myself, or you figure out a way. Nobody can go through such traumatic experiences and not not change, not come out the other end being slightly different. But I think it's also how you choose to to manage that. And for me, that was why horses were so important, because they were my goal throughout this time and that was the key thing for me was was to get to a point where I could get back to my horses.
Peta [00:12:38] So how quickly did you get back to riding? Were hesitant to do it because it's such a trust exercise between you and your horse and also trust in your body, I imagine.
Amelia [00:12:51] I was not in any way, shape or form hesitant. I was so keen to get back to riding and I think the hardest thing was actually figuring out how to get on the horse because you can't stand, you can't use your legs and someone has to lift you onto the horse and they're not exactly, you know, knee height. So I think I sat on a horse for the first time about ten months after the accident, which was. I think, well needed mentally. I mean, I was in a terrible space. I was being incredibly difficult, according to my parents. And it was that time where, you know, you you go through the stage of like, why me? And it was in that that stage and my parents didn't know what else to do. So my dad dragged me outside one afternoon and said, You need to sit on your horse. And it just made a world of difference. It I didn't do anything apart from just sit, sit on him and spend time with him. And it just improved my mental health so much it gave me what I needed to keep going. I returned to writing probably around 18 months later, and then it was very intermittent for the next sort of 4 to 5 years due to repeated surgeries. And I was perhaps pushing it a little bit too hard, but I was so determined to get back to top level sport that it didn't occur to me that maybe my body was no longer capable of doing it. So I ended up causing a few a bit more damage. One of the surgeries I had was a complete reconstruction of the tendons in my ankle and a lower leg, which meant that they they took tendons from my feet and from my toes and bone grafts from hips. And that means I no longer have control of my my foot. And that was a very weird sensation, sensation when I was riding, because it's something I'm not used to. So you're learning to do a sport that you've done since. I mean, I started when I was eight and ten years later, you're learning to to do it in a completely different way with a completely different set of instruments with material that you have on hand. So it was very frustrating in the end, because I'm not the most patient person and it was not coming along as quickly as I like. So it was both motivating but also extremely frustrating.
Peta [00:15:03] Often when I sit here and I record podcasts, I'm blown away by how smart the person is that I'm speaking to and how many things that they've achieved in their life. And you're certainly no exception. Like I was reading your bio and I'm like, Oh my goodness, I feel so insignificant. Like you have achieved so many things. So not only are you a Paralympian, you're also a lawyer, and you're a lawyer in Germany, I presume, often having to speak bilingual, law level German. What is it like living in Germany as a disabled person versus Australia? Are there any societal differences that you really can see?
Amelia [00:15:50] And that's a very good question. I mean, I've been here for eight years now, and I recently moved here to to ride. The goal was Germany is the best in the world when it comes to horse sport. The goal was to to move to Germany, to train with the best and get to Paralympics. And one thing led to another and I ended up staying. And now I work for a German company. And I have to say that they've been really supportive. It was it was quite funny. I did the job interview with them. And in the job interview, they they said, you know, anything we should know? And then I went through five job interviews, all in German. I had to tell them I really appreciate the job, but there's a chance of going to Tokyo for the Paralympics, and I'll find out next week. I think they thought I was joking because they laughed it off and said, That's so cool. That no worries. And about five days into the first week on the job, they asked me, you know, have you heard anything? And I was like, Oh, well, yes, so, actually, I'm going to Tokyo. And by the way, I'll be gone for six weeks and I don't have any holidays because I just started. They were great. So they they thought it was really cool. And the first one is it's a very big company. So we have 15,000 employees approximately. And from a revenue perspective, turnover, €4 billion every year. It's a very big company and I work for a subsidiary that specialises in mergers and acquisitions. They're buying and selling companies in the same industry. From a personal experience point of view with my particular company over here, they've been amazing. They really don't mind that I take time to go to qualifying competitions and that I need to train everyday. So my day starts at quarter to five in the morning and I train before work. Perceptions in Germany of disabled people are very open. They're very open to it. They have no no problems. I've certainly never experienced anything negative. I think they're very inclusive and very helpful, and the government is also very helpful.
Peta [00:18:00] I would love to understand your why. Like, why do you keep wanting to ride professionally or at a elite level? What what keeps you going in having that connection with the sport?
Amelia [00:18:17] I always wanted to write at an elite level, but I was very realistic about the fact that it just doesn't pay well. It's very hard to be a professional rider, and it's even harder in Australia due to the distance and lack of facilities. I mean, Australia is not a horsey country. If you think about Australia at the Olympics, what are we good at? We're good at swimming, we're good at athletics, we're good at beach volleyball. You know, we're good at all the summer sports because that's our country. But I think I've just been very ambitious my entire life, and riding was something that I had a passion for early on, and I just wanted to do it. I loved my sport and nothing came. Further in the priority list. And then my riding, you know, it was the first thing I thought of when I woke up. It was the last thing I thought about when I went to bed. And I realised that riding at an elite level and not having a supportive career to fund it was going to be a problem. I also have a very big love for things that are fast and planes are one of those things. And so I really wanted to become a pilot and I wanted to join the Air Force and fly the fast jets. And that type of lifestyle was not going to be something that would work with having the horses. So I realised that once I left school and joined the military, at that point it was the horses were going to end. But I would, I would miss them and maybe later in life I would go back to it. And then, of course, my my car accident came and and changed the direction of my life completely. And even though I really wanted to fly and I did, I got my I got my pilot's license when I was 15. I that was something I was really passionate about. But I realised at that point it was not going to work. And so that's why I stayed, stayed with riding because it was a driving force during my recovery to get me back, back on track. And then somehow, you know, the idea of the Paralympics came around and that was an ambitious goal that I could focus on and something I really wanted to do. And the thought of, you know, competing for Australia and representing, you know, being one of four people in the whole country to represent your country at the top level was something really appealing to me. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of tears and I hate my life at quarter to five in the morning when I'm driving to the stable, especially in winter. But it's something, you know, obviously I love it deep down, otherwise I wouldn't keep going like this.
Peta [00:20:47] And will we get the opportunity to cheer you on in Paris?
Amelia [00:20:52] I hope so. That's that's the goal. So we're currently in the middle of selection and and we find out in June next year whether or not we're successful.
Peta [00:21:03] What do you hope for the future for people with disabilities, either in Germany or Australia or just overall?
Amelia [00:21:11] It's something that always stuck with me after my accident was one of the doctors said to me that he finds people who have catastrophic injuries and life changing moments will often go on to achieve more than people who don't because you have to work that much harder. And that that has always stuck with me. And I think the one thing I really want to see is less segregation. So you have the Olympics and you have the Paralympics and there's just a mental attitude that the Paralympics somehow mean less than the Olympics. And I think that has to change because we still compete, we still train, we still ride to the same level as anyone in the Olympic Games, in fact, it's probably harder for us. And we work hard because we we need to. And yet the feeling I have is that it somehow means less that you've been to the Paralympics than if you went to an Olympic Games. And I would really like to see that change. I would like to see people recognise the Paralympic symbol as readily and as easily as what people recognise. The Olympic rings. That's something that I really hope changes because. Sometimes it has a tendency to make your achievements feel a little bit less than someone who went to the Olympic Games and that shouldn't be the case. Just because we're a bit different doesn't mean that we're not on the same level as everybody else.
Peta [00:22:41] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I encourage you to leave a writing interview on where the listening to this podcast. I know we have 63 on Apple Podcasts and I would love to grow that. Share the episode with a friend, share the episode on social media. It all helps more people find the podcast. If you have a suggestion of a guest or a suggestion of a topic you'd like me to explore, please get in contact. My email address is I can send podcasts at Gitmo dot com. As always, you can follow me on Instagram. My handle is Peta Hooke, but until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye. I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the pioneering people where this podcast was recorded.