Tim Hodge vividly recalls fighting with all his might as a scared four-year-old to not go into the family car on the day he was scheduled to have his right foot amputated.

Hodge, a three-time Para-swimming world champion, who is the latest athlete to feature in the NSWIS Lights Up documentary series, conceded the amputation was necessary because he was born without the fibula bone in his lower right leg.

“My right ankle was unstable, and my right leg would grow at a different rate to my left because of the bend in my [tibia] bone,” revealed Hodge.

“So, doctors said the best option was amputation, as that would allow me to get a prosthesis that would fit my leg because, as I grew older, my right ankle might become more unstable and I might not be able to walk on it, and it wouldn’t be as long as my left leg – so, that would be another issue.”

Hodge recalled that his parents did everything they could to save his leg by making appointments with six specialists, searching in hope for a different diagnosis. However, it became clear there’d be no alternative to the surgery.

“[Each specialist] said amputation was the best option,” said Hodge. “It’s the least invasive, it’s the least painful. It’s the quickest in the long scheme of things and has the best chance of giving me the quality of life that I needed and deserved.”

And while Hodge was told of what was going to happen to him in the lead up to the surgery, he recalls fighting on the day of the operation in a desperate attempt to try and save his leg.

I fought tooth and nail not to go to the doctors,” he said. “All I knew was I would go on the anaesthesia and wake up with my right foot gone – and I didn’t want that to happen.”

While the operation was described as a ‘success,’ Hodge remembers the hopelessness he felt as he lay in the hospital bed.

“I said to my parents after the operation that I thought I would never be good at anything now because I was missing my right foot,” he said. “And my mum said to me ‘don’t say that, we’ll find something that you can do that will put you in a whole range of sports – everything we can think of, and we’ll find something you’re good at. You never know until you try.’

“And [my parents] kept their word and put me in a whole range of different sports. At one point I was doing a different sport every day of the week.”

While he played soccer, cricket, Tee Ball and even did karate, Hodge developed a passion for swimming when he was nine years old.

I really, really enjoyed competing and I made it through to the school State Championships where I was knocked out of the competition,” he said. “I wasn’t quite fast enough, and I remember thinking I wanted to come back next year and go even faster.

“I was a bit behind the pack with being an amputee compared to able bodied people. I thought about that and thought I don’t want to be behind the pack, I want to work twice as hard, three times as hard, so that I can be up with them – or maybe even in front of them.

And that really drove me to be better and become the best athlete I could.”

Hodge credited swimming for unleashing the determined, fighting spirit that had served him well in life.

I’ve found a huge amount of determination that I probably would never have found if I was never in a race situation,” he said.

“Things like that . . . at the end of a race . . . when you’re hurting and your arms are heavy and you’re struggling for air, to be able to still finish that race as fast as possible as hard as possible, it has shown me the sort of strength I can find when I’m in tough situations. It has helped me understand myself more and understand my limitations more.

“I definitely think what I’ve gone through as a child with my amputation and that has given me a little bit more resilience than I would have had otherwise. I’ve observed it as well in other athletes on the Paralympic team who have gone through horrific experiences and are still performing on the world stage with confidence in themselves, and sure of themselves.

“A lot of them are very happy with where they are. Whereas some people who might have experienced these issues later in life might be a little more inclined to say, ‘why me?’

I’ve definitely had my moments, occasionally . . .  particularly when I’m having a bit of a hard time whether it’s in sport or in school or something like that. But I’ve always been able to refocus and think ‘well what if I wasn’t an amputee? What if I was able bodied? Would I have gone into swimming? Yes? No? If I didn’t get into swimming, where would I be?’

“And I’d like to think that if I was given the opportunity tomorrow to take it all back and just be a regular, everybody athlete/person, that I’d say ‘no . . . I’m happy with how I am.’”

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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