UPDATE: Liam won Silver at the Paralymics in the 100m event and Gold in the 200m event as at 13 September 2016 *grinning emoji and medal emoji*
“I’m 22 and all I do is run around in circles and read books” Liam Malone laughs, half joking but completely serious.
After all, a typical day for Liam is waking up around 5:30am, studying and doing assignments and going to training. “At some point during that I eat” he groans. This sounds typical of a university student keeping up with sport - but there’s a catch (or three). Not only is Liam working towards the Rio Olympics coming up in September 2016 but this Wellingtonian will be competing on blades (he has no legs below the knee due to a condition from birth). Liam literally has science at his feet. Despite the day to day grind, Liam Malone is hands down the most determined and probably most grateful person I have ever had the privilege to meet.
We meet up at Aro Cafe on a bright and crisp Saturday morning in March. He is waiting outside for me in a brown leather jacket, jeans and that James Dean style swept back hair. I shake his hand and offer buy us coffees. He insists on coming and buying his own. As we wait for our order of matching long blacks Liam explains that not only is he studying full time (he’s taking five papers at Vic) but he is flying between Auckland and Wellington so he can train properly. As we talk however it soon becomes clear that for Liam this is just another of life hurdles that he manages with grace.
“I had the great fortune of drawing a Lotto ticket and being born in Nelson” Liam starts explaining as we nurse our coffees outside on the street at a little rickety table on Aro Street. “But I moved up to Wellington in 2014 and I have been living here ever since.” He grew up in a small neighbourhood called Stoke, close to the beach. Liam was born with the congenital condition called 'Fibular Hemimelia' - the absence of the Fibular bones. This meant while learning to walk Liam’s ankles kept breaking so his parents decided to amputate. “Nelson was a great place to grow up. I had a huge amount of involvement in the outdoors. My parents pushed for me to explore everywhere.”
Liam counts himself lucky for having been born in New Zealand. He spent a lot of time in the lakes, the Abel Tasman and going out hunting as a kid and was a multi-passionate kid. He loved everything from bugs to drama and sports. “Even as an amputee as a child I loved sports. I’ve always been fascinated by learning and life in general.” He credits his parents with pushing him to do every sport. “When I did my first cross country race, the boys started first and the girls started second and I started at the front of the boys and by the end everyone of the girls had passed me. It was very tough having kids laugh at me as I ran. But I really thrived in the challenge. My dad always said to me ‘One day they will create a product that will allow you to run faster than your friends.’ That’s happened now. I’ve seen that transition and I have a very explicit relationship with technology. The value of my life is defined by it.”
Liam has never really considered himself disabled because, he believes, disability is relative. For example, someone who is short next to someone who is tall in a game of basketball cannot be called disabled but is arguably such in that context. “There is a million different ways you could say someone is disadvantaged in something. I don’t consider myself disadvantaged at all in anything” Liam explains “It’s probably just my competitive nature. I think being born with Fibular Hemimelia has been a hugely positive aspect in my life because I have had to face adversity but still had the support to get through it really well and learn from it.”
“Even as an amputee as a child I loved sports. I’ve always been fascinated by learning and life in general.”
Challenges are created by the mind, in Liam’s eyes. His parents pushed him hard physically and mentally as a kid, developing his mindset that he is in no way disadvantaged compared to others. They never treated him differently or gave him excuses not to do things. They always told him technology would improve and forced him to go a test his limits, whether it was skiing, snowboarding or hiking. They also travelled to less affluent places in the world - from Tonga to poorer parts of the states. “I would see amputees in Mexico and they really had nothing” Liam explains. “They had no limbs, they were walking on their hands, crawling. So I was really fortunate. I was really fortunate for my parents - they didn’t wrap me up in cotton wool.” Liam also has a strong supportive friend group from his days in Nelson. “They are more like family than anything. They’re great.”
"I think being born with Fibular Hemimelia has been a hugely positive aspect in my life because I have had to face adversity but still had the support to get through it really well and learn from it.”
After Liam finished high school his mother passed away. “It was a really tough time. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety which is crazy because I was the least anxious person growing up. You would never expect me to come down with mental illness.” Liam ran away to Perth and was “smoking too much weed, drinking too much - I really didn’t enjoy it one bit.” Liam decided to return to New Zealand and go University because of his love of learning. He returned to Nelson and then to Canterbury to study. Liam embraced hall life but it furthered his anxiety which hadn’t been resolve. It was two of Liam’s friends, Georgia and Alice, that set him straight and told Liam to sort his life out.
Challenge accepted: Running for Rio
Never one to take the easy route, Liam decided find an esoteric goal to reach that would challenge him beyond anything else before - but wasn’t sure what it would be. “I brainstormed a whole range of them. Start my own business immediately and drop out of university? Climb Mount Cook? Travel through Africa or something crazy like that? The Paralympics however stood out because it would provide a huge amount of personal growth in a short period of time.”
There was also an element of picking up something he had left off. “My parents always pushed for me to try for the Paralympics as a kid and I hated it” Liam remembers. “I would go to these things when I was young and there would be a lot of disabled children. The children had been negatively affected by their disability to the point where there didn’t believe they could do things. I didn’t like being in that situation so much I didn’t want to do it at all. I quit at 14 and stopped doing anything to do with athletics.”
Liam’s goal may seem audacious but he approached it from a business perspective by setting milestones and then working backwards to work out what he needed and what support networks were necessary. Liam decided to find out the times to qualify for the Rio Paralympics for 2016. From there he made a plan to move to a city with a running track (Christchurch had to rip up theirs after the 2010 earthquakes), find a coach and get blades. For the track, Wellington fitted the bill. Liam was also attracted by his friends being here and the arts and culture of the city. He found a coach - but then he needed blades. And running blades cost about $20,000.
As luck would have it, Liam had just been contacted by a magazine writer who was an ex-producer from TV3. She got in touch with a producer at TV3 and then Liam and the producer got together and made a documentary to raise money. Within 3 days Liam had raised $25,000. After that he went to the world championships for blade running and was approached by the company who makes the blades to sponsor him. Liam had always had new ‘feet’ as a child growing up as technology improved which made him adaptive. “Getting used to the blades was relatively easy” he shrugs. However, having taken money he knew he had to see the goals through. He hit the qualifying standards and is now working everyday to make sure he does everything he can. Food is a huge part of it. Raw vegetables make up the basis of his diet, nuts and fruit with a little bit of fish and red meat.
Keeping it real - and what's next for Liam
While his lifestyle may be full on it isn’t without its rewards. Liam just returned from the most recent national competition in Australia, winning the 200m race. He doesn’t feel pressure from competitions however. “People are making rockets to go into space. I put one foot in front of the other - one blade in front of the other. So if you can simplify it in those terms there is no real pressure as such.” From here, Liam and his team are going to “science the shit out of my blades.” Over the next few months they will be testing different blades and working out which ones will be best for Rio 2016.
Up next for Liam? “Acting” he says “I want to use Rio as a leverage point. It sounds fucking crazy. No one will let me on screen, people say, you have no legs. But I have always been fascinated by watching people and impersonating the way they walk and making it look natural to me.” He also believes in the power of failure. “If you are not failing, you are not innovating on yourself enough” Liam remarks. “However, people shouldn’t fail over and over and over in something. You need to pivot and try another path. Failure is important for reliance and is part of the process of learning something.” If acting doesn’t work out he would go into the workforce for a company that adds value to society. And for him, that’s tech companies. He wants to work for an innovative company, no matter what the role. “I would rather be a cleaner for a innovative company than a management consultant for a firm that retains the status quo.”
“People are making rockets to go into space. I put one foot in front of the other - one blade in front of the other"
His advice for people who want to change? Remember, everyone has the fear. “CEO’s may be on the cusp of nervous breakdowns. So it’s ok to feel fear. The next thing is working out what you are prepared to risk to get there. Would you be prepared to be homeless? Would you get a job at McDonalds if you failed? Thrive in the adversity of doing something new.” It is only as I part ways with Liam that morning, I suddenly notice that I feel like maybe, just maybe, I can ACTUALLY do anything. But, for now, I might put that run off until next week.
You can follow Liam's journey on Instagram here.
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