• Lifestyle

How one mozzie changed avid swimmer and paralympic hopeful's life

With the 2024 Paralympic Games in her sights, open water swimming plays a crucial role in Ms Rodriguez’s training and lifestyle.

In 2019, a mosquito bite on a business trip to Africa changed Stephenie Rodriguez’s life forever.

From this one bite, Ms Rodriguez contracted cerebral malaria which saw her in a fight for her life, eventually losing both her feet.

“I was in Lagos, Nigeria, at the Hive Global Leaders Summit when I believe I got bitten three times by a mosquito on my left ankle,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“I had slathered myself in insect repellent because I was conscious of mosquito-borne diseases, but I decided not to take any anti-malarial drugs because I had had a bad reaction to one previously and couldn’t afford to be slowed down on my busy business trip.”

Ms Rodriguez was on her way home via a quick trip to the United States for a holiday with a friend when she became extremely ill, setting in motion events that would change her life.

“To start with I was feverish and tired which is unlike me and I put it down to just jetlag,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“I was on my way home from Boston with a friend when I collapsed in the airport and was rushed to hospital before going into a coma.

“They soon discovered I had contracted cerebral malaria, which has a very slim survival rate. My condition was slowly deteriorating when the doctors gave me a new malaria drug at the time, which helps to increase blood flow to the vital organs but takes it away from your feet and hands.

“The treatment remarkably worked but because of the lack of blood flow to my hands and feet I suffered severe necrosis which is the death of body tissue.

“I underwent multiple surgeries and procedures to try and save my feet but unfortunately nothing worked so after discussing all my options with world-leading orthopedic surgeon, Professor Munjed Al Muderis, we decided to amputate both my feet and have above-ankle bilateral osseointegrated implants and mechanical feet to allow me to live my life to the fullest.”

Far from being fenced in

Ms Rodriguez, who has had more than 300 days in hospital and nearly 40 surgeries, hasn’t let losing both her feet stop her from living her life to the fullest. She is CEO of a safety-tech startup, a single mum and an ambassador for The Global Fund to raise awareness of Malaria.

But, her biggest goal is to represent Australia at the upcoming 2024 Paris Paralympics in fencing.

“In 2022, I received an email from the NDIS announcing the program pilot for fencing,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“I’ve always thought fencing was a cool and kind of dignified sport so I decided to give it a shot, partly for the social connection with people facing similar challenges to me.

“I turned up to the first fencing training day and discovered that I was the only one there but decided to start training anyway.

“After three lessons my coach saw some potential in me and suggested I could represent Australia, so I took that on and set that as my audacious goal.

“Fast forward to now and we have five lovely ladies who have joined the wheelchair fencing team and two young ladies who are in our under elevens program.

“While I was the first in the program, it certainly wasn’t the last and my accomplishments have been the cornerstone of a program that will hopefully breed gold medallists for the 2032 Brisbane Paralympics.”

The road to Paralympic Games qualification

Ms Rodriguez has an intense training regime but one that will hopefully see her gain qualification for the 2024 Paralympic Games soon.

“I train four to five times a week and some weekends from 9-5 pm. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment but I love it,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“I have to do a lot of physical upper body strengthening, technical weapon training and lots and lots of bouts with other fencers to be on my game.

“I also go to a lot of camps in other countries that have more established programs and athletes to gain more experience. I take a beating from those more experienced athletes in Poland, Greece and the United States to advance my skills.

“I have two more World Cup competitions to do before I hopefully get officially selected to go to Paris and represent Australia. One in Thailand in April and one in Sao Paulo in May.”

Open water in her veins

While Ms Rodriguez has been busily training for fencing she still manages to get her much-loved open water swim in and she is swimming in the upcoming Murray Rose Malabar Magic.

“I am Puerto Rican, so the ocean runs through my veins,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“Plus, I grew up living near the beach and have been swimming in the ocean since my earliest childhood memories.

“My swimming has had to change a bit since my amputation but I now swim with shin fins, which help me to get through the water, and I found these to help me deep water snorkel in the Caribbean which I love to do regularly.

“I also use a buoyancy belt which the Rainbow Club gave me which helps me to stay afloat and also gives me a bit of reassurance that if something goes wrong with my fins, I have a plan B until I get myself sorted in the water.”

Raising funds for the Rainbow Club

Ms Rodriguez is looking forward to swimming in the Murray Rose Malabar Magic and raising much-needed funds for a cause close to her heart, all while having her son by her side.

“I am excited to raise money for something so vital – swimming,” said Ms Rodriguez.

“I believe that everyone deserves the joy that swimming provides and it’s also an essential survival skill.

“Those with disabilities deserve to get specialised training that could one day save their life through experience the water.

“To do the swim and be able to raise funds to give these kids that opportunity is great and to do it next to my son, Ayce, makes me very happy.”

Events discussed in this article

  • Recommended
  • Bay Swim

Murray Rose Malabar Magic

  • Sun, 25 Feb 2024
  • Malabar NSW
  • Written by Suzie Ryan on 13 February 2024
  • (Updated on 13 February 2024)
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