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She was told she would never walk properly again. Now she's a World Champion.

Andrea with her teacher, SGM Cacoy Canete

By NATALIA HAWK

Andrea Wheatley is a 37-year-old osteopath from Victoria. She’s also a world champion in Filipino stick-fighting.

Yes, you read that correctly. During the day, Andrea works at a clinic; in the mornings, and in the evenings, she trains in the traditional martial art of the Philippines, which emphasises weapon-based fighting with sticks, grappling and hand-to-hand combat.

Inspired by the Karate Kid and other Bruce Lee movies as a child (yes, really), Andrea has been practicing martial arts for 24 years.

In June of this year, Andrea managed to win four medals – three gold, one silver – at the Australasian Stick-fighting Titles, held in Adelaide. More recently, she took part in the CDP Stick-fighting World Championships where she won gold, silver and bronze.

But what makes Andrea’s story so remarkable is that she hasn’t been able to compete in martial arts for the last five years. In fact, she’s had to spend 35 months in rehabilitation, after an illness caused nerve damage to the three most important nerves of her leg. For those of you who know anything about nerves, Andrea’s sciatic, femoral and obturator nerves at the level of the lumbar plexus were damaged.

She walked with a pronounced limp. “I would walk into shops and people would think I was drunk because I was stumbling,” is the way Andrea explains it. She was told by experts that she would never walk properly again.

But now? Not only is Andrea walking properly – she’s also fighting properly.

It was, by no means, an easy journey – it took extensive effort, training and rehabilitation. But now Andrea is back on the world stage, winning medals.

Here’s the story that she shared with me. It’s remarkable.

Natalia: How did you get into Filipino stick-fighting?

Andrea: I’ve been practicing martial arts for 24 years. I just love martial arts – I love the choreography.

I was a really active kid, loved running and sport. Martial arts is how I express myself. Some people do dancing – but my dancing’s in the ring!

Stick-fighting.

Ten years ago, I met my teacher – the Supreme Grand Master, Cacoy Canete, who is 95 years of age. He is one of the world’s first mixed martial artists, having trained in other martial arts such as jiu-jitsu, boxing, judo, freestyle wrestling, Shorin-ryu karate and aikido.  He is highly ranked in all of these styles (12th degree Black belt in Eskrima and Eskrido, 10th Dan in Pangamot, 8th degree Black Belt in Judo, 8th degree Black belt in Jujitsu, 6th degree black belt in Karate, and he is a 6th degree black belt in Aikido).

Cacoy is beautiful. Without him, I’m nothing.

What do you love most about martial arts?

I love the fact that it uses both sides of the brain – it’s left and right, it’s coordinating and using all of you. I’m ambidextrous so it’s great as an art that uses my whole body. There’s a real discipline to it. It’s a lifestyle choice, not just a sport – for me, the way that I eat affects the way that I train. I don’t drink alcohol, I get good sleep – all those things are part of the process.

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What’s your training like?

If I’m leading up to a serious competition, I train one to two hours every morning, six days per week, usually closer for two hours. A lot of that is rehabilitation – an hour of rehab, an hour of fight training. The combat training is very intense. When I do full-contact sparring, my sparring partners are men who are 85 – 95 kg. It’s good! I love it. I also do a lot of swimming and biking to be as fit as possible.

There’s not a whole lot of women in martial arts, it’s not a female-dominated sport in any sense. Do you get a lot of surprised reactions that you are so into it?

Yeah I do, especially from patients. They see a different side to me. In the clinic, I treat a lot of children, and people judge by appearance, so they are constantly surprised!

You were told that you would never walk properly again – so how did you recover?

I was told I wouldn’t walk without a limp. I was swinging my leg out to the side once I was in recovery, and had no sensation on the sole of my foot. I just kept searching for answers.

My neurologist is an amazing man at Melbourne Private Hospital, Professor John King.  He was capable of thinking outside of the square when the first Neurologist I saw had no idea what the diagnosis was.  Professor King looked carefully at the clinical picture and he has a huge amount of experience. Having a diagnosis helped me to understand what was wrong and meant I had something I could work with and try to beat.

Osteopathy has helped me to recover by having regular treatments and assisting blood flow, neurotrophic flow (nutritious fluid that bathes the nerves of the leg), keeping my pelvis and spine aligned throughout the phases of rehabilitation as my leg got stronger and removing secondary compensations for my poor gait prior (dragging my leg around and limping for such a long time). It was all about biomechanics.

Rehab from my Physio helped me to strengthen the weakened areas from my torso, hip/buttock muscles, to my thigh, calf and foot.

Andrea with her medals

Vivobarefoot shoes also really helped me to recover and perform at my best. I only wear their shoes now in both my work and social environment as well as training. As an Osteopath I’m aware that most of our brain’s information about our position in space comes from nerves on the soles of our feet, and for me the sole of my foot was numb for 22 months, so these shoes helped me to recover function of my leg and balance and now they aid me in optimal performance as a martial artist and full contact fighter.

I also did a lot of work in the pool and as my nerves started to talk to my muscles, I could do a little bit more, a little bit more. It was a huge journey – it was two hours a day, every day for 35 months.

As soon as I could walk again, I wanted to fight. Fighting again would prove that I was better – because you can’t do what I do unless you’re 100%. For that reason it was my greatest goal.

I basically had no use of my leg back in June 2011 and gradually, after doing rehab 2 hours per day, 6 days per week for 35 months, plus 6 months of hard training, I won the medals at the championships. It was a great result after the long haul of rehab and hard training, but for me, the greatest victory was just to be able to move my body again, doing what I love, expressing myself as a martial artist and full-contact fighter.  I was told by many specialists and doctors that I would never fight again, so just to be back in the ring felt like a huge victory in itself.  I could barely take the smile off my face!

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Did you ever want to give up?

There was a lot of frustration. I had to learn to become friends with myself. I had to learn to be graceful with the fact that I had an illness. I walked SO badly, and I had to learn to accept that it was going to be like that for a long time. I had to change my thought patterns. It was really hard to make friends with the situation! But I had to accept it, and I had to change my mindset – I had to focus on what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t do. So I bought a cute little scooter when I could. I bought a soccer ball. I just did things to wake up different parts of my leg.

What advice would you give to those who are battling with injuries?

Don’t ever give up. There will be someone out there who can help you – but you have to keep looking. You might go through heaps of practitioners before you find the right one for you.

And in other sports news from the week…

– It’s not quite women’s sport, but how can we skip over the fact that there are some huge footy finals happening this weekend. The AFL grand final – Sydney Swans vs Hawthorn – is on Saturday, with live coverage starting from 1:30pm. We’ve also had Roosters vs Souths on Friday night, and Panthers vs Bulldogs are set to play on Sunday for a spot in the NRL grand final. Who are you cheering for?

– The FIBA World Championship for Women is kicking off this weekend. The basketball tournament, hosted in the Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul, will feature 16 different teams – including Australia. Our Aussie girls will be hard-pressed to beat the USA, however; the US team is currently boasting a run of 25 unbeaten games through Olympic and World Championship tournaments. Sadly, our Liz Cambage won’t be there to help – she suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon during a game in Paris last week.

– Our female soccer team, the Matildas, have announced their new head coach. Alen Stajcic will be the one to guide them through next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, as well as the the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Congratulations, Stajcic.

– Want to win some tickets to the Real Insurance International Netball Test Series 2014? There are tickets available to the games in Melbourne, Sydney, Bendigo or Canberra – go here for your chance to win.

Have you seen anything in the sporting world that you’d like to talk about?

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