With Jan Mela on how his physical disability did not end his physical activity, and how to overcome the limitations that are in your head talks Paulina Glińska.
Extreme eight-kilometer obstacle race – Hero Run – was for Jan Mela a great challenge. Also, as he said in one of the interviews, another proof that you can turn you weakness into strength, and that it’s worth to fight for the fullness of your life.
When you were barely 13, you had your arm and leg amputated after electric shock accident. Do you remember your thoughts at the time?
At first, it was exactly as it usually is when a personal tragedy happens to you: my family and friends wanted to help me, motivate me. But when a healthy person would tell me: “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right”, these were empty words to me. It’s not enough to close your eyes to understand a blind person. People would tell me they once had their broken leg in a plaster cast, and they knew well how I felt. The thing is that they had counted their time to take it off, and then were able to do all the things they had done before. When you have no leg, you need to deal with it all your life, and amputation means no coming back to your previous lifestyle. Which of course doesn’t mean that your future will be worse. But there was a time I didn’t know that. Then, being a teenager, I was convinced that disability means the end of my activity and positive life, ambitions, passions and dreams.
However, you started rehabilitation and were gradually getting used to your new daily reality. Today you use shin artificial limb, and you are physically active. Where did you find this motivation and will to fight for your normal life?
Meeting Marek Kamiński, Polish polar explorer, gave me a lot. He appeared in my life in a very difficult moment, and he proposed to take me on one of his polar expeditions. He believed in me, gave me a chance and motivation to do something with my life. My rehabilitation, which so far had been an arduous way to come back to my normal functioning, soon became an inspiring challenge and the beginning to prepare for the expedition. With such a goal, I was also better motivated for work. And so I started, step by step. The first expedition was to the North Pole, the second one – to the South Pole. In the following years, I climbed Kilimanjaro, and another mountain tops, I ran a marathon and a triathlon. While doing all that I realized that a great deal of limitations related to my disability were actually in my head. I wondered what had once helped me to get rid of them, and realized that these were all the people whom I had met and who would inspire me to lead a life I’m living now. I owe it to those who showed me I could do it.
Are you saying that for people with disability it is important what kind of people they meet soon after the accident?
I think this is the most crucial in such situations. When you become physically disabled, it seems that going back to normal is extremal, something that will never happen. I thought so, too. But I was fortunate to meet people who became an inspiration for me. These were my peers in the same situation as mine, or disabled sportsmen who opened my eyes and proved me that you can have only one leg and still be the best in long jump. I realized that all my excuses related to my health condition are nonsense, and my disability does not justify my indolence. I felt greater responsibility for my own life and understood I was to manage it myself.
The performance of Paralympians, who despite their many disabilities still score great results and win medals, could embarrass many healthy people.
When a healthy person decides to go for sports, they usually have some goals in their head: a great football match, medals, and top place at the podium. The goal of a person who has become disabled due to an accident or a disease is coming back to their normal functioning, sort of their Level 0. On one hand, it’s a weak motivation, because it’s easy to give up without a force that drives you. On the other hand, it happens that such people want to prove something, show they are worth something, and in effect their motivation is much greater. The fact that they have to fight with their disability every single day makes them take new challenges more easily. I know many people who were motivated to do sports by their accident. Before, they had never felt the need for active sport life, and today they cross many limits. They design “bicycle wheelchairs” and organize mountain hiking trips, or go skiing or running when they have no legs. On top of that, they accept themselves just as they are – having an artificial limb, sitting on a wheelchair, being blind.
Does your Beyond The Horizons Foundation, which helps people with amputated limbs and their families, originated from your desire to share your own experiences with others?
Obviously so, but most of all I wanted to pay back for what I myself got 15 years ago. My goal was to provide help to those who are not always able to return to their previous life activity, for example for financial reasons. I know today that what happens, happens for a reason – and the work in my foundation gives a new meaning to my most arduous experiences. It’s easier for me to understand people with amputated limbs, because I have gone through this kind of experience, and I can embarrass some of them. Once in a while, I show them my artificial leg and say that’s not the end of the world, and it’s worth pulling yourself together.
Is it easy to convince them to go beyond the horizons and become physically active?
Sport is a genius invention, it releases your endorphins, and it acts as several chocolate candies without an effect of unnecessary kilograms. I know from my own experience that it can be very helpful in adapting to life after amputation, but not only in such situations. When I ride my bicycle, swim, hike in the mountains, I feel I’m alive. That’s why in our foundation we want to motivate people to do such activities. They don’t have to do extreme sports, it’s more about finding the courage to reach for the things that seem unreachable. Sometimes, it’s mountain hiking, sometimes it’s a loaded march or a several-day survival camp. We regularly do WalkCamps for learning how to walk, and ForestJump adventure raids. Often one such event is the beginning of something much bigger for a person. I remember one guy who is very much into sports today, and engages others. I like it very much. Of course, not everybody is encouraged all at once. We once paid a visit to a boy after amputation. We told him about foundation, we showed him our trip videos, our prostheses. He wouldn’t even talk to us about all of that, but we knew our words were like seeds we had sown. It’s very often that those who seemed to hear nothing of what we would tell them, come back to us to do all these activities. They need time to mature, move their limits and change the perception of their own limitations.
In 2002, at the age of 13, he had a serious accident. He survived an electric shock (15,000 V), but his arm and leg were amputated. He has a shin artificial lim. Two years after the accident, he and Marek Kamiński, a Polish polar explorer, went for an expedition to the North Pole, and later to the South Pole. On the list of his achievements, there are also: climbing Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains, and an over 1,000-meter El Capitan rock in California, USA. He also finished the New York City Marathon, the Ironman competition in Gdynia, and an extreme eight-kilometer obstacle race – Hero Run.
autor zdjęć: Arch. Jaśka Meli/ Radosław Kamiński