Out of Your League: Hannah Macdougall on the power of sport, and building confidence as a dual Paralympian

Hannah Macdougall is a dual Paralympian, PhD student, and motivational speaker. She won gold and silver medals at the 2017 UCI Para Cycling Road World Cup and was the first female amputee to compete in the ‘able bodied’ Women’s Time Trial at this year’s Cycling Australia National Championships. Lauren caught up with Hannah to talk about the world of Paracycling, the importance of keeping in the moment, and how to “walk the talk” for younger generations today.

Lauren Muggleton: You’ve mentioned before that growing up without a leg had some positives, including having to only wax one leg and apply sunscreen to only one side. Have you always had this sense of humour and positive outlook on life?

Hannah Macdougall: [Laughing] I’ve had good role models that have helped me develop that attitude. This positivity is not always at the forefront, but I am not playing the victim. I think we can make life a little bit fun, and I’ve been in contact with people who have helped me realise that.

LM: You have previously captained the Australia swimming team at the World Championships and Paralympic Games and have represented Australia in Paracycling. What sparked your passion for swimming, cycling, and for sport in general?

HM: Sport is powerful. For me, finding disability sport and something that I was relatively good at from a young age started to build my confidence. I was encouraged by those tiny pieces of plastic [gold medals] back in the day. There are also mental and physical benefits that go with sport, and I have made pretty awesome friends. I’ve always been quite goal-orientated and enjoyed having purpose created through having goals around sport.

My passion was sparked in sport because that is where I found my feet per say [Laughing]. It has been an amazing opportunity to set goals, travel the world, and represent my country.

LM: Can you talk a little about what it’s like to be an athlete with a physical impairment? Do you believe this has ever affected your progression in the sport industry?

HM: In my sport career, I have seen a lot of change. When I first started, we were having to pay our own way and organise fundraisers whereas if you’re selected now to represent Australia, that is paid for. Sport has come a long way in that sense.

We’ve seen change in how people view Paralympians. They used to be known as ‘cripspiration’, where you are an inspiration because you have a disability. People congratulated you for going to the super market and doing food shopping.

Now, these people are recognised for being inspirational in their own right as athletes, and for their hard work in the sport.

LM: You speak fondly of your friends, family, and mentors who have supported you throughout your career. Do you believe they have played a big role in helping you get to where you are today?

HM: 100%. I have never heard of someone reaching the heights of their sport alone. My step-dad was my taxi driver every morning for swimming training. My mum taught me how to set goals. She was my shoulder to cry on when things went wrong and was always in the stands cheering me on. I couldn’t have done it without them.

I’ve recently got back from the World Cup and picked up my first gold medal at an international level for cycling. I can probably count 83 people who have been involved and who have helped me get that medal. It is a team effort.

LM: Outside of your sporting life, you are involved in motivational speaking. Can you talk a little about the programs you run and why they’re so important to you?

HM: I do motivational talking for a few different companies. One of them is Victorian Institute of Sport, where I also work. We go to primary and secondary schools and talk to students about different messages that are targeted towards their specific time period at school. For example goal setting, leadership, or communication.

I also do talks for StarAmp Global, which was started specifically to help guide amputees through that other aspect of being an elite athlete and helping them to develop speaking skills. These talks can be delivered in schools or in a corporate environment. This is really special work as I speak to a variety of people of all ages.

LM: It is so important for younger generations to have a positive role model like yourself in the sport industry. Is your motivational speaking a way for you to “walk the talk” for these younger generations?

HM: Definitely. It’s magical when you develop a connection with the audience. One talk I did in Geelong, there was a group of boys sitting at the front who I assumed weren’t paying any attention. Afterwards, I was waiting for a friend and one of the boys came up and thanked me for a great talk. He asked me to talk a little more about resilience, mindfulness, and other aspects of my presentation. I realised they were actually listening [Laughter] and so I’ve learnt to never write anyone off.

LM: What is one of the most important lessons your physical impairment has taught you? And how do you use this to better yourself in everyday life?

HM: Having a little bit missing has helped me to understand the inclusion space and just how important that is.

We need to celebrate our similarities because, at the end of the day, we are more like each other than dis-alike.

We all bleed, we are all going to die and we all have feelings and emotions. That is probably one of the biggest things that this experience has taught me.

LM: What’s up next in 2018?

HM: In the sporting world next year, we’ve got for the first time the Road National Cycling Championships where Para cyclists are being included alongside all elite men and women. That is going to kick off the year. Later in May, there are some World Cups which allow us to qualify for the World Championships that will be held in Italy later in the year.

LM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

HM: My tagline is “Ride with a Smile”. Do things that you enjoy, because life is too short. You might not feel on top of the world every single moment. When it’s pouring down rain I’m cold and not necessarily enjoying cycling, but I still know why I’m doing it. That brings me to the second part of the tagline, which is “Ride with Purpose”. Find whatever it is that gives you meaning. This will shape your life and the people who are in it, and will make it very rewarding. While we can have that meaning and purpose, it is also important to “Ride in the Moment”. Be in the here, be in the now, and enjoy the journey.


Interview conducted by Lauren Muggleton

Images with permission from Hannah Macdougall

Compiled and Edited by Emma Kate Lewis

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