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Vanessa Low’s journey from a life-changing injury to Paralympic gold is an inspiring tale of determination, self-belief and vision. Now, she’s bringing that commitment to the FIA’s #3500LIVES campaign to reduce road fatalities, with the message that in a world full of distractions, focus is everything

Why do you believe that a campaign such as this, which seeks to bring simple road safety messages to a global audience via available billboard space, is important ?
It’s so easy to get caught up in routines, performing tasks on autopilot, that we lose awareness for the world around us, which can be very dangerous in the world of traffic. I believe the billboards have the power to catch our attention and remind us of those simple rules that may save the life of the people around us as well as our own.

The message you promote as a #3500LIVES ambassador is for drivers to ‘Always pay attention’. Is this message more relevant than ever due to mobile phones, increasing levels of distraction in cars and the greater numbers of pedestrian and vulnerable road users ?
A significant portion of our lives happens on the phone these days. We all seem to be getting busier and having a hard time keeping up with our workload, appointments and deadlines. The thing lots of people forget is that no email or phone call could ever be more important than a life, which we put at risk when we get distracted while driving. When we get stuck in traffic jams and feel the urge to access this seemingly wasted time we need to remember that paying attention to the task of driving is essential to making sure we arrive safely. And that is always more important than anything that may currently be happening on the phone, on an email account or on social media.

Athletes are used to finding intense focus during events, developing an ability to concentrate on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else. Are there techniques you could apply to driving or is it simply a case of minimising outside influences ?

Being mindful and in the moment is essential to compete at my best. When I line up for my next jump, often in front of a huge crowd and surrounded by noise, I have to be able to detach myself from anything that happened in the past, like past injuries and past failures, and anything that may happen in the future, such as missing out on a medal, losing funding and all the consequences that failure or success bring. Being mindful is something that needs to be trained just like any muscle in our body. I participate in yoga and meditation classes where I learn to focus on my breathing, turn off the noise in my head and be in the moment. It’s truly amazing to see how the world changes when you learn to be in the moment, and not just in sport. We get to experience life at a far deeper level. I learned to structure my day more efficiently so that I no longer have the need to multi-task, but rather put my full attention towards one task at a time.

Have you had personal experience of the other safety issues outlined by the campaign – Belt up, Respect the highway code, Wear a helmet, Obey the speed limit, Drive sober, Always pay attention, Protect my children, Stop when tired, etc ?

When I was young I almost lost my father in a severe car accident. He had pulled over with a technical issue in his car and a tired truck driver left his lane and crashed into my family’s car with my dad lying underneath it trying to fix the issue. This accident could have left my mom, my sister and I without a dad, and that shows the extreme danger of driving while tired.

You suffered a life-changing train accident when you were just 15. Are there parallels between what happened to you and what happens to the victims of road traffic accidents in terms of the effect such severe injuries can have on the lives of those hurt and those close to them?
I lost my legs through an accident that could have been prevented if people had paid attention. The accident not only had a huge effect on my own life but everyone around me, such as family and friends. While I had to suffer the physical consequences on my own, those around me had to adjust their lives to support me while dealing with their own emotional pain. Road safety and obeying simple rules means giving everyone the best chance of returning home safely to their loved ones.

What gave you the desire to take up athletics, how difficult was it to undertake that process and what were the major challenges you faced along the way?
For me, sport has always been a major part of my life, it has always been about being healthy, physically and mentally. After losing my legs and spending months in hospital my biggest desire was to return to normal life, participate in society again and become a healthy me. I had to find my way there step by step, finding belief in myself and my own abilities again, and sport turned out to be an amazing tool to not only gain physical strength, but also confidence and a healthy relationship with my new body. Athletics gave my life a direction and a purpose, something to work for and it was something I was good at. The biggest challenge has always been – and still is sometimes – access to the technology that is necessary to not only run at a competitive level, but which is essential to participate in everyday life. Prosthetic legs are still very expensive and often not covered by insurance, even in most western countries.

Can you describe what it was like to win the gold medal in the long jump at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio?

To win a gold medal in Rio was truly special in so many ways. When I picked up running after my accident, nobody truly believed it was ever an option for me with the great physical impairment I had, let alone being competitive in a field of athletes who are all missing a leg less than me. I went through a lot of losses along the way, both on the track and in private, and made the life-changing decision to move to the USA to be a full-time athlete. I had to live off my savings for several years, crowd-fund my running legs, and surround myself with a group of people who believed in me and my vision as much as I did.
This step wasn’t just life-changing for me as an athlete, but changed my life in so many ways. I learned to believe in myself as a person and to trust my own decisions. Winning gold after all the sacrifices I had made was truly amazing and shows how important it is to be the author of your own book, allowing yourself to move beyond perceived limitations, stand up for what you believe in and reach for your full potential. I always say that my story has never been about my adversities and circumstances but the choices I made along the way. My gold medal in Rio is a symbol for that.

You also won long jump gold at the previous year’s World Championships in Doha and scored silver in the 100 metres in Rio and Doha. Which event is your favourite – long jump or 100m?

Both events have their positives. I love the thrill of the 100 metres – one chance to show everything that you’ve been training for in less then 15 seconds – but I also love the mental resilience and strong mind you have to show throughout a long jump competition – refocusing after every jump, whether you’re leading or are currently dead last. My love really lays in the sport as a whole. The Paralympic Games is unique. Every single person there has a story of great adversity but even greater courage. It truly shows the power of sport of any kind, bringing people together beyond language barriers, political and religious differences and different abilities.

You chose to miss out on the World Para Athletics Championship in London in 2017 in order to focus on the Olympicsin Tokyo in 2020. How are your preparations going?

After Rio, I knew that in order to keep going in my career I had to do a proper rehab on a stress fracture in my lower back. The problem had built up over many years and therefore I took a full year to change my walking and running patterns and build muscles in different areas to achieve a balanced system that supports my back. After my rehab I can finally enjoy running and training again, being pain-free. I had the chance to build a solid foundation and gain back a healthy body that will carry me to Tokyo 2020, but also through the rest of my life, post-sport. It was great having a year to get my body right and make progress in my training while not having to worry about competition.
I now feel in the best space I’ve ever been in, both mentally and physically, and really can’t wait to go out there to show what I am capable of, and push some limits. Next year’s World Championship in Dubai will be a good trial
for me on the way to Tokyo 2020, after being away from major competitions for a while, and I’m ready for it.

There is an emphasis on creating greater accessibility for disabled drivers in motor sport and the FIA recently established a Disability and Accessibility Commission. What advice would you give with regards to empowering disabled competitors who may be struggling to be accepted in their chosen sport?

I believe communication is crucial in situations where people with different abilities aim to work together. Being open about your individual needs, difficulties and current limitations lay the foundation for a satisfying relationship on both sides. It’s important to keep in mind that everybody involved wants the same thing, a challenging but fair competition. After all, sport is there to bring people together, no matter what individual abilities they have.