Losing your right forearm, half your left hand, your right eye, a large portion of your vision in your left eye, and some of your hearing while trying to diffuse an IED in Afghanistan tends to render you with two choices: 1) crumble or 2) get stronger. Of course, it’s not quite that simple; but, while Michael Lyddiard has certainly experienced many ups and downs over the past seven years, his attitude and accomplishments have silenced every person who said, “You can’t do that”, as his body and mind continue to fortify. And in just a few days he will find out whether, after a couple of years of momentous fitness achievements, he could be serving his country again – this time on the international sporting stage.
“Competing also helps me to feel equal – when I stand on the racing line, I don’t look at my impairments”
People have often commented on your determination. How have you harnessed the frustration of being told you can’t do things? I have realised it’s about education: educating the community about what is possible and educating myself about what is achievable. When I decided to get back into swimming and fitness people asked, ‘Won’t you swim in circles?’; so I told them I wanted to do the Magnetic Island to Townsville Swim to prove them wrong. One of the other main reasons I keep pushing myself is because people look at me differently. I don’t mind at times, however when I don’t have sunglasses on or I have my eye out; I feel sense of shame or embarrassment. Kids can say, ‘Oh look, he’s got no arm’, which doesn’t really bother me because kids are so innocent; but it’s more disheartening when adults try not to look and when kids point in the presence of my children. I’d rather people were upfront and made a joke about it. The reason I compete is so that my kids (Kyran, 11, and Mason, 6) can look at me and say, ‘He’s getting on with life’ and it gives them a bit more pride as well. Competing also helps me to feel equal – when I stand on the racing line, I don’t look at my impairments.
How important is exercise and keeping fit to you? Very important and difficult to explain, but it helps with my PTSD and social acceptance. When I got back to Brisbane and I was in hospital [after the accident in 2007] I was in regular contact with my men overseas. They would send me and my family messages and gifts; I’d send them messages back so I always felt like I was in contact. When I went back to work two months later my commander gave me a role where I could still support the men, so I always had something to do. Because I was at work, I’d always go out and do push-ups and sit-ups to say, ‘Hey fellas, everything’s fine’, because everything to me was still about them and I always believed that I led from the front and I wanted to keep portraying that. And then the more I did it, the more I realised people around me were saying, ‘Holy crap – if he can do it, we can do it’ and they wanted to help me. I never did it to get out there to be known; it was all about trying to build a new persona and identity after losing so much. I then started looking into swimming squads. I started at Tobruk with the goal of trying to get into the Olympic Games.
“I remember someone turning around as I was running up the beach and saying, ‘Holy fu*k, he can swim’”
So when did you start swimming? In 2010 and I did my first Maggie Swim. I was talking with someone and said, ‘I’ll try it – it can’t be that bad’… it was an eye-opener. After that I heard about the Rottnest Channel Swim in Perth [a 20km open water swim]. I thought to myself, ‘What an event and a challenge – that’s achievable’.
And you did it solo? Yep – I don’t do things in halves.
How did you prepare for it? There was a lot of training in the pool – especially in the mornings and afternoons – and then I went over to Perth two weeks earlier to acclimatise. I realised when I arrived in Perth that not many people with disabilities competed in the solo event, so it would be a great achievement and opportunity to raise money for Legacy ($43K). I originally signed up to educate myself about what I could and couldn’t do; but when I was invited onto a radio station to promote the swim they started using the word ‘inspirational’. During my morning swims in Perth (10km-13km) people would come and swim with me or give me a pat on the back. I did the swim in 8 hours 22; I didn’t come last – I was 115th out of 147 competitors – so I was happy with that. Swimming opened up a lot to me, but then my shoulder started wearing out.
Then what did you do? Around that time I started uni [Michael will finish in 2015 as a qualified occupational therapist] and I met Joel Savage from Adventurethon. I started doing all those multisport events, which worked out well as I was a single father juggling my children with my uni work and being in the defence force at the same time. So I did two Adventurethon races in Townsville, then I did On a Mission in Mission Beach and I got to go to the Mark Webber Challenge [a 350km multisport race in Tasmania] in 2012.
So how do you go from adventure racing to triathlons? It wasn’t until February 2014 when I was sitting here [at Juliette’s] with Graham Pemberton [Free Radicals Family Tri Club] and Jeremy Moffat [Townsville Triathlon Club] and they said, ‘We want you to get into triathlons’. I told them that I didn’t know how to, but they said that they could get me coaches and I could train with the clubs. So that was the kick-starter. I joined, met a few people and we started working things out for me to compete. I did a few small races and realised it was hard, but it made me strive a bit more – I thought I was fit, but I realised I wasn’t fit enough. My swimming was fine, but as soon as I got out of the water and onto the bike I felt very fatigued.
“I think the army has put me in a good state of mind in the fact that it’s always been about rehearsal – physical and mental rehearsal”
How many have you done since then? Townsville Triathlon last year was my first A-Grade race and I class that as the first ‘real’ one, because all the others were tasters and club races. In total I’ve done two A-Grades – Townsville and Yungaburra – and now I’m going down to do the Oceania Paratriathlon Championships [January 10-11] in Sydney; but informally I’ve done about six. They all offer something different.
What do you enjoy the most about triathlons? Trying to compete against the fully-abled people.
Have you always been super-competitive? I’ve always expected the best of myself and aimed for the highest; but it’s funny because everyone judges the book by its cover – even people with disabilities judge people by the cover as well. So even when I go out to race, I size people up and think, ‘I’m going to try to beat you’. I think it was during the Go Troppo Triathlon I remember someone turning around as I was running up the beach and saying, ‘Holy fu*k, he can swim’. That empowered me and made me keep going. But I think out of everything that I enjoy, I really like the hardship of it. Everyone there is so supportive, so although it’s an individual race, if you break or something goes wrong, people will offer help and you really see that mateship at the end, which is empowering.
What’s next on the cards? Are you still aiming for the Olympics in 2016? I just came back from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) doing a week camp down there and it was fantastic. They gave me a few tips and I saw who the competition could be – we’ve all got different attitudes. What I found out with Rio [in the 2016 Olympics there will be the first ever paratriathlon event] is that there will only be one category – PT4. So when I go down to the Oceania competition I’ll get classified then. I’m sitting roughly on 1:14 to complete a whole race; whereas PT4s are finishing in 1:08 so obviously I need to get my time down.
“It will be a very powerful day – I’ll be striving to win my category, but having Warren there is going to be an emotional experience.”
But that’s not unattainable, is it? No, I think it’s achievable with the way I’ve been training now – I’ll be getting close to the time needed to be classed as an elite competitor within the AIS. But we’ve been discussing the categories, which is the bit that a lot of people don’t understand. A PT4 is just an amputation below the elbow or knee; but because I’ve got multiple impairments – amputation to the left hand, right arm, vision impairment, loss of right eye and hearing deficit – it changes things I think. If I’m sitting as a PT4 I’m only likely to be at the bottom of this category, so we’re hoping I am categorised as a PT3, which right now puts me in a good position. I think PT3s are doing about 1:15. As a PT3, the AIS will help athletes go to the World Championships and then the Olympics when more categories are accepted. I’ll find out my category on January 10, and then I’ll do the Oceania Paratriathlon the next day on January 11; so there’s a lot riding on this race.
How do you cope with the pressure and the mental side of competition? I’m a believer in mindfulness and visualisation. When I did the Rottnest Swim, I went down to the start of the race an hour earlier to listen to music and reflect. I also literally sat there and breathed the way I would in the water and visualised myself swimming against the current. I think the army has put me in a good state of mind in the fact that it’s always been about rehearsal – physical and mental rehearsal. On the day of a race I zone-out and start visualising and looking at people and comparing. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I don’t get that nervous before I race.
Is that thanks to your previous career history with the 3rd Reconstruction Task Force? Yes, I think after doing bomb disposal for a few years it tends to take the edge off anything else. I look at people and everyone’s excited; but I’m quite calm – I’m wound-up and ready to go, but my heart rate is not going through the roof.
How do you go with transition when you’re racing? I’ve been doing it myself, but the AIS encourages you to have a handler. So when I did Yungaburra Triathlon I had a handler and when I go down and do Oceania my handler is going to be the guy who was my ‘Number Two’ during my incident in 2007; so it will be a very powerful day – I’ll be striving to win my category, but having Warren there is going to be an emotional experience.
“Everyone hurts when they go out racing or trying to get fit, but feeling that sense of accomplishment at the end will be enough reward to get out and do it again”
What’s your training schedule like now? I increased my training for my Oceania race during the Christmas holidays. I train from 5am to 7am and from about 4.30pm to 6.30pm, but I’m trying not to over-train while I maintain good nutrition. Monday mornings I do anywhere from 35km-40km on the bike and in the afternoons I swim with Peak Performance Swimming (PPS) at North Shore. Tuesday mornings I do sprints or a long-distance slow run, then a brick session [bike and run] in the afternoons. Wednesday mornings I do the CompuTrainer at Cycle De Vie, which is great as it’s really constant, and in the afternoons I’m back to PPS again swimming. Thursday I’m running again and in the afternoon more stretching; then Friday is a river swim to train in different water density; then Saturday I do a social ride (80km-100km); then it’s rest till Monday. The stuff I do around home I try to include the boys and they help me, so if I’m doing sprints they’ll be on the stopwatch, so it becomes a family thing.
Do the boys both like getting active? Yes: we went out to Porcupine Gorge to do a challenge and it was the first time that my eldest, Kyran, turned around and said he wanted to do it, and he did really well – he got fifth with no preparation.
Do you have any advice for others setting their goals for 2015 and doubting their abilities? The biggest thing to remember is it’s always easier to think negative thoughts and talk negative, but it’s harder to change that thought process to be positive; so it is about trying to promote the positive over the negative. If you think you can’t do something, you’re not the only person who’s thinking that. Everyone hurts when they go out racing or trying to get fit, but feeling that sense of accomplishment at the end will be enough reward to get out and do it again. Having the support of family and friends only empowers and encourages you more.
Do you have something, or a mantra, that you use to push through the pain? I swear at myself! I always think about why I’m doing it, and that always goes back to Afghanistan and the mate I lost and I’ll call on him to help me, and I try to fight hard.
Tough one: What’s your proudest achievement to-date? Yungaburra Soldier On Triathlon [November 22-23, 2014], but not for the reason you think. After I completed my race at Yungaburra I watched Blake Reeve – a member of the Free Radicals Tri Club – complete his first Olympic Distance tri. Blake was inspirational and showed me that everyone has that mental strength of overcoming their physical and mental limitations: he was physically hurting and challenging himself throughout his race, to the point where he was hospital afterwards from dehydration and fatigue. Blake finished, despite this, with his head high, which encouraged me and many others.
“How can we encourage people with impairments or neurological conditions to compete? I know there are plenty of people who are probably willing, but they just don’t know how to start and would like someone to encourage them”
Besides doing well at Oceania this month, what are your other goals for 2015? Finish my degree successfully, keep being competitive, and either go to the World Championships if I’m classified as a PT3, or get on-track for Rio in 2016 if I am catigorised as a PT4. But one thing I’d particularly love to do is encourage other people to do physical activity regardless of their disabilities. How can we encourage people with impairments and neurological conditions to compete? Let’s make a shorter course or something. Let’s get more people out there giving it a crack. I know there are plenty of people who are probably willing, but they just don’t know how to start and would like someone to encourage them. There’s a guy who rides up Mount Stuart with one leg – I hope I’m doing it at his age – I would love to get people like that together to train for an event and to feel that sense of accomplishment. Townsville is a great supportive community and there’s so much going for it.
Last words? All of my achievements wouldn’t have happened without the support of friends and family. I still call on friends’ support today, even if it is just someone to talk to, but everything I’ve achieved hasn’t been done alone, so I’m really appreciative of what everyone’s given me. Every time I race it’s about my men who I’ve lost, but I also feel like I don’t want to disappoint the people who have supported me.
Update after the Oceania Paratrithlon…
Michael was classified as a PT4 – the tougher racing category. He received a Personal Best by just under a minute at the Oceania Paratrithlon and crossed the line in fifth position from seven competitors in that group.
“The weather was not favourable for me as it rained during the event and overnight with the morning being overcast. I lost my confidence and aggression on the bike leg due to poor vision and the bike’s rear sliding out from under me on one of the corners,” Michael tells.
“Being honest, I am disappointed; but a lot of lessons have been learnt: pre-race, during, and post-race.
“[My result] does not qualify my for the international meet in March or Rio, but I can only continue to try and enjoy the sport of triathlon to see what the future holds.
“I wish to express my gratitude to the members and staff of Free Radicals, the Townsville Tri Club, Peak Performance Swimming, and friends and family for your support and assistance over the last year.”