Runner Zac Leow: From Spinal Cord Injury Patient to National Athlete

In the days following a devastating spinal cord accident, Zac Leow had been told that he would never walk again, let alone run.

Yet today, Zac, 30, is not only walking and running again, but has also recently represented Singapore at last year’s ASEAN Para Games (APG), winning a silver medal in the Men’s 1,500m T37 race.

National para-athlete Zac Leow was once told that he would never walk again.

National para-athlete Zac Leow was once told that he would never walk again.

Said Zac, a PhD student in Sports Science at the University of Western Australia, “I hope that what I have achieved is an inspiration, but I just try to do the best that I can all the time. I believe in working hard, and even if I do not see a result immediately, I always believe that one day my hard work will pay off. That is how I approach every single day.”

Met with a cycling accident in Perth, Australia

On a fateful day on the 6th of November 2013, Zac had met with a cycling accident in Perth, Australia, where he was studying – and this had left him fully paralysed, after having sustained severe spinal cord injuries.

His bike’s front wheel had caught in a drain on a cycling path at Shenton Park, Subiaco – 4km west of the Perth Central Business District, and flipping Zac on his head. Zac had broken the first bone in his neck at the base of his skull – this is considered as the worst spinal fracture.

Zac at the hospital soon after his injury. Memories of that fateful day still remain fresh in his mind.

Zac at the hospital soon after his injury. Memories of that fateful day still remain fresh in his mind.

Said Zac, “The whole accident was fresh in my mind, because I was conscious at that point. I recall the crash and how my head hit the ground, and being sent to the hospital, realising that I was not able to move at all.”

Being a Sports Science student, Zac also added that he had self-diagnosed himself and guessed that it was a spinal cord injury. He added, “When the doctors told me, that I would not be able to walk again and that I would be really lucky if I could, I had guessed that would be the diagnosis, but actually hearing it from them was quite hard.”

Continued Zac “But at the same time, I knew that I could not give up on myself. My parents were old and I did not want to be a liability to my family and my then girlfriend, now my wife-to-be. Basically I did not want to be a burden to anyone and I could not foresee myself being paralysed for the rest of my years. So I had to think positive thoughts and move on from there.”

Zac at the hospital, hooked up to plenty of machines.

Zac at the hospital, hooked up to plenty of machines and tubes.

Had harboured dreams of becoming a national marathon runner

Prior to his accident, Zac had always been into sports – in fact, he had harboured dreams of becoming a national marathon runner with the aim of representing Singapore on home soil in the 2015 South East Asian Games.

Said Zac, “I did my first marathon at the Sundown Marathon in 4 hours and 10 minutes – it had been a challenge from my classmates in uni. But because I did not crack the 4 hour mark, I tried again at the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore the same year and that was when I did a 3 hour 58 minute marathon.”

That had been when Zac realised that he had talent in the sport of marathon running. He said “I have a high level of determination and I just love the pain that this race gives me.”

By the later half of 2012, Zac had successfully cut his marathon timing down to 2 hours and 59 minutes, which was at the Kobe Marathon in Japan. However this was to be the last marathon that he would run prior to his horrific accident.

Refused to accept that he would be paralysed

But following his accident, Zac refused to give up on life though and refused to accept that he would be paralysed. He said, “I was trying to move my fingers even from the first day after the accident. It took me one week before I could finally wriggle my thumb. Then I focused on trying to wriggle my toes, and that took me another few days. It was not full control though – but if I tried really hard then maybe I could wriggle my toes five times in one day.”

This was despite the fact that he had to learn everything again just like a baby – ranging from sitting up and eating, to walking and running.

He added, “But it was still progress though, and I told myself that it was similar to weights training – For example, if I could wriggle my toes 5 times today then I could try to go for 6 times tomorrow. I also alternated between my thumbs and my toes and maybe the index finger. The recovery was slow and gradual.”

When he started walking again too, Zac added that it was horrible. He explained, “I could not move my body at all and the physio had to actually move it for me, in an attempt to make my body remember what it is like to move in a walking pattern again.”

Zac refused to give up on walking and running after his accident.

Zac refused to give up on walking and running after his accident. Here he is defying his physio’s advice, by taking part in the Perth Marathon.

Said Zac, “But my mindset definitely played a part in my recovery. The physio told me that she had never seen a spinal cord patient work so hard – in fact, when I had been given time on the cycling rehabilitation bike and I was supposed to do a 20-minute warmup. I had always requested for a longer session.”

Continued Zac, “In fact I rode the bike so hard that on three occasions, I blacked out and the physio had to tend to me, send me back to my ward and put me back in bed. I was never the most popular patient in the physio room because I was always creating trouble for everyone with my desire to keep on pushing myself.”

Took part in the Perth Marathon, six months after his accident

In fact, against his physio’s advice, Zac also took part in the Perth Marathon – just six months after his accident. Said Zac, “After I was discharged, my physio asked me what my goals were. I told her, oh I want to run a marathon. So she asked me how I was going to train, and I said there was a small gym 200m away from my house where I could do so. So she asked me to walk to the gym with her – it took me 20 minutes that day and I was huffing and puffing.”

Added Zac, “So she sat me down and she said to me, Zac, I hate to say this, but you are being really greedy – usually patients like yourself do not get up to walk, yet you are thinking of doing a marathon. I can assure you that you will not be doing a marathon anytime soon because you will not be able to complete it even if you walk, jog or crawl your way through it. The distance is just too far.

But hearing this had only spurred Zac on to defy his physio’s advice. And through a combination of continuously jogging for 3 minutes and walking for the next 2 minutes, he made it across the 42.195km finishing line of the Perth Marathon that year, in 6 hours and 30 minutes.

Zac crossed the finish line of the Perth Marathon in 6 hours 30 minutes.

Zac (right) crossed the finish line of the Perth Marathon in 6 hours 30 minutes.

It was a far cry from his pre-accident days.

“But considering everything I had been through, that was a good finishing time,” Zac added.

Throughout his entire ordeal, never once too, did his parents or his then-girlfriend give up on him. Said Zac, “Throughout the whole thing, they never told me not to do anything, although the prognosis was around and they were there when the doctors had delivered the devastating news to me at the beginning.”

Zac also went on to do another post-accident marathon, the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore that same year, which he had successfully completed in 5 hours and 30 minutes using the same strategy.

Won the Silver medal for Singapore in the APG

In December 2015, Zac was also selected to represent Singapore at the APG, where he won the silver medal for Singapore in the Men’s 1,500m T37 event.

Said Zac, “That was definitely one of the high points in my life. To be honest, I had no idea whom I was racing against in the APG but I knew, based on my training records, that I could do well. I was nervous leading up to the race, but when I came out onto the blocks, I saw my parents, my best friends and secondary school mates all cheering me on.”

Zac gives his all on home soil at the APG.

Zac gives his all on home soil at the APG, collapsing from exhaustion at the finish line.

He added, “I think the crowd helped me a lot. With about 300-400m left to go, I could not catch the gold medallist, but I knew I would not lose to the silver medallist. I had a choice of cruising through the race or to give my best in front of the home crowd. I chose the later and crashed at the finish line because I had given my all for the race.”

There is still room for improvement 

Yet despite having represented Singapore in a regional competition, Zac does not think that things have completely come full circle for him yet, though he has realised his dreams of running for Singapore.

Explained Zac, “I still think there is still a lot of room for improvement. It is weird for me to say this, because the doctors told me that I would never improve and that I was not supposed to be able to walk. My doctors feel that I have reached the peak of my recovery, but I feel I am getting stronger every day and my movement patterns are improving. So I think there is something else that I can yet look forward to.”

He added, “I feel that sometimes doctors should not always go by the books because there is always going to be someone who will be abnormal and will not follow the typical trend. If I were to have taken the doctors advice and prognosis really seriously at the time, I would not be where I am today, because I would have given up on myself. This is also one of the things that I share with other spinal chord patients as you never know when the body will suddenly click together again – it’s a weird feeling when it does. So I will always tell them to keep on pressing and that it is not over even when the doctors say it is.”

His injury, Zac adds, has also made him realise how much he loves walking and running. Said the runner, “Having lost the ability to run and walk, makes me realise how much I love it. So even though there is no major Games on the cards now, I am going through the training every day with my coach (Australian Grant Landers), because I want to do it and because I want to continue to outdo myself every day.”

As well, Zac is also targeting the Kobe Marathon in 2018, which is the last race that he did before his accident. Said Zac, “This is a realistic target to build some speed and endurance as my aim is to run the whole marathon. Even if it means running at a slower pace, running an entire marathon without stopping again, is going to be a personal goal for me now and I want to do it back in Japan, as I love the place.”

Zac is targeting the Kobe Marathon in 2018, with the aim of running the whole race.

Zac is targeting the Kobe Marathon in 2018, with the aim of running the whole race.

Till today though, Zac also adds that regaining his ability to walk and run could also pretty much be considered a miracle already though. Said the runner, “Till today, my friends from the spinal patient ward who had the same prognosis as me, are not moving yet. As of now they can only shrug their shoulders and they are dependent on people to feed them.”

He continued, “Whenever I see them, it hurts me a lot to see them not recovering, it also reminds me of how fortunate I am today, and that I will not take this for granted.”

Success is all down to hard work

So considering he has literally been to “hell” and back, what tips can Zac share, for athletes who are aspiring to realise their dreams?

Said the runner, “It is really all down to hard work. Most of the time when we train, we do not need to put it on Facebook or Instagram and tell everyone that we are training. That is because come race day, our hard work will be shown. Also if you do not see the improvements instantly, you may question yourself at why you are putting yourself through every training session, especially if you are wanting to vomit at the end of it and your legs are being smashed every day.”

To Zac, success all boils down to hard work.

To Zac, success all boils down to hard work.

He added “But I would like to share this with everyone who wants to be fit and lead an active lifestyle – that it is really all about setting a goal and doing your best to work towards it, and at the end of the day, if you have put in the hard work, then results are going to show. And no matter how hard it is, also make sure that you enjoy the process.”

And Zac added that there are three words that he lives by. The runner explained, “It is a Latin phrase, Nil Sine Labore – meaning nothing without labour or hard work. So you have to work to get to where you are.”

All images in this blog post were given to me by Zac Leow.

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