‘I dream with my legs’

2012-06-16 19:43

Chad Gifford lives his life 15 centimetres above the ground.

The 41-year-old swimmer, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Paralympics, gets around lying face down on what he calls his “skateboard” – a custom-made type of trolley with no sides.

Not having legs doesn’t stop him from driving a car, cooking his own dinner, and walking his dog.

After making two cups of coffee while on his skateboard, carrying them in one hand to the lounge while pulling himself along with the other – and not spilling a drop – Gifford says: “When I dream, I dream with my legs. I never see a wheelchair in my dreams.”

Gifford was involved in a horrific car accident in Durban just prior to his 20th birthday.

The former naval petty officer was left with three broken vertebrae, four broken ribs and a broken leg.

But that was just the start of his ordeal.

Paralysed from the waist down, two years later he developed pressure sores on his buttocks and fell into a septic coma for six weeks at Pretoria’s 1 Military Hospital.

His parents counted 37 tubes inserted all over his body.

Gifford’s heart stopped six times in a single day and his parents were told that he had a one in 10 000 chance of making it out of the hospital alive.

He heard his heart monitor flatline.

“I heard someone saying: ‘He’s gone.’ A minute or more must have gone by, who knows. My mother told me that a priest was called in to do the last rites.”

The only way to save his life was to amputate his right leg and use the remaining muscle, connective tissue and skin to cover the area damaged by his pressure sores.

Against all odds, he recovered and returned to work at Navy Headquarters in Pretoria before resigning in 2000.

The following year, he again developed pressure sores and his left leg had to be amputated.

After he finally left hospital, he moved into his parents’ home in Walkerville, south of Johannesburg.

Gifford took to swimming to rebuild his broken body.

His surgeon, Dr Joost Blok, challenged him to join him in the Midmar Mile, the world’s largest open water race. In February 2009, he swam his first – in 36 minutes, beating his doctor.

Since then, Gifford, who now earns a living as a website designer, has won numerous medals competing in national and international competitions.

He bagged two gold, three silver and three bronze medals at the National Nedbank Disabled Championships and qualified for the 2010 World Championships for the Disabled in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

He also managed to obtain his international athlete’s licence from the International Paralympic Committee – not an easy feat for someone swimming competitively for just two years.

Although he narrowly missed qualifying for the London Paralympics by not swimming “A” times in qualifying events, it’s not too late for the World Championships in 2014 and the Paralympics in 2016.

Gifford’s day begins at 5am when he drives to St Andrew’s swimming club for training.

His face lights up when he arrives at the pool.

He parks his skateboard on the paved walkway, and inches to the poolside on his hands.

“Hearing the water gush by as I swim keeps me calm and focused. It’s a feeling of freedom; I’m in my own little world away from all the daily problems,” he says.

Besides his website design business, Gifford also conducts motivational talks, and collects empty printer cartridges for recycling, which helps raise funds for him and other disabled swimmers to compete in international competitions.

He does his own household chores and cares for his dog, Ruby, who is this single man’s best friend.

He straps himself into his wheelchair to take her on walks around his townhouse complex and throws a ball around for her in his back garden.

How does someone who has been dealt such a bad hand remain so positive?

“It’s not easy. It’s not just about what goes on in your mind. It’s about what you have lost as well,” he says.

“It took me five years to accept what had happened to me. Those first five were the hardest.”

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