Looking at the super-fit and healthy Ironman finisher Michele Gunn, it’s hard to believe that she overcame life-threatening injuries on her journey to completing one of the most gruelling endurance challenges in sport.
Yet aged just 14, Michele was involved in a serious accident, in which the car that her mum was driving – on a trip from their family home in Wellington to see her ill grandfather in Palmerston North – mysteriously veered off the road and smashed into a fence.
The crash was life-changing for Michele, who broke half the bones in her face, including her jaw, and lost the sight in her right eye. Surgeons spent 18 hours operating on her.
Now aged 25, Michele remembers nothing of the horrific incident, but she has found the journey to recovery both physically and mentally demanding.
“The accident really knocked my confidence in terms of my looks,” explains Michele. “I was wearing an eye patch for six months and although I don’t think of myself as a vain person, I was a little bit embarrassed about the way I looked.”
Unable to eat for the first six to eight weeks because of her broken jaw, her weight dropped dramatically. Initially, she was so exhausted, she could only complete half days at school and the passionate netballer also had to change positions on the court because her lack of vision made it tough to play goal attack.
“The accident did have a big impact on me, but I had no choice but to just get on with it,” she recalls.
Over the years that followed, Michele endured 20 operations to her face. She was fortunate to find an “amazing surgeon” who found a way to make her face more symmetrical and remove the scarring.
And thanks to the support of her family and friends, her confidence grew and she went on to study finance and maths at the University of Otago.
But in 2011, Michele was to receive another huge personal blow. Her beloved mother Lucy died suddenly from a heart attack at just 54 years old.
“Mum was the most supportive, caring and loving person,” tells Michele. “She supported all three of her girls no matter what we were interested in.”
Today, working in finance for an Auckland start-up company, Michele continues to find pleasure in sport. A keen runner and swimmer, she watched her sister Nikki compete in the 2015 Ironman New Zealand in Taupo and was inspired to compete in the gruelling 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run.
“Up until that day, I thought I could never complete an Ironman because I had one eye, but some of the competing athletes that day had no vision in both eyes,” she explains. “So the very next day, I entered my first half-Ironman. From that point on, I have loved the physical and mental challenge.”
It was not an easy switch to life on the bike. Her lack of vision in her right eye makes looking over her shoulder to see passing vehicles very difficult. She has undergone “a huge adjustment”, but
things are made easier as Michele often trains with a big squad of riders who will act as her eyes on the road and warn of any traffic problems.
When cycling on her own, she is more “careful and cautious”, and over time, she has become accustomed to the realities of biking. After successfully completing the first of her three half-Ironman races in late 2015, she decided to commit to the 2017 Ironman NZ and, for the past eight months, has devoted between 20 and 25 hours a week to training under the guidance of her inspirational coach Andrew Mackay and her training group Boost Coaching.
But her preparation was made more challenging when her father Jeff, who has bone cancer, learned the disease had spread to his lymph nodes and neck. He told Michele he would be too ill to travel to Taupo for the event in March. Nonetheless, just 24 hours ahead of the race, Jeff gave Michele an unexpected lift by turning up in Taupo as a surprise.
“It was such a big boost and very exciting,” says Michele, who was supported by 25 family and friends, including sister Nikki and her boyfriend Matt.
Michele says strong winds on race day made the swim the “toughest conditions she had ever faced” and after going through some “dark moments” in the first two elements, she managed to recover for the run, her strongest discipline.
She crossed the line in an impressive 11 hours and 43 minutes – finishing seventh in her 25-29 years age group and 35th overall.
“The whole last lap of the course, we received so much support, I felt like a celebrity,” she says with a smile. “When the announcer said, ‘Michele Gunn, you are an Ironman’ at the finish, it was an amazing feeling. Then to see family and friends ... It’s something I’ll never forget.
“I am proud of finishing, but I think I am more proud of not letting the challenge of the past affect me,” explains Michele, who has future plans to continue competing in Ironman events.
“Perhaps completing the Ironman shows the importance of not setting limits on yourself. If you live your life this way, then you can achieve some pretty amazing things.”