Profile: Nadya Vessey

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Nadya Vessey is keen to get into the water and begin her swim. She comes to the steps which lead her down to the sea. First she removes her left leg, then her right. She places them beside her - careful not to get any sand or water on them. Before she begins her descent into the water she notices a little boy standing behind her.

He is staring at her stump. "Where are the rest of your legs?" he asks.

Vessey looks at him with a twinkle in her eye. Rather than get into the logistics of amputation with a four-year-old she says: "Have you heard of the little mermaid?"

"Yes," he says, his eyes widening.

"Well, I'm a mermaid," she says.

"Wow," says the awe struck child. "That's cool."


This was back in 2005, when the idea of being a mermaid was a complete fantasy - and a way to avoid explaining the depth of her situation to a child. Now, in just a few weeks, that fantasy will become a reality for Vessey. Since the beginning of the year Weta Workshop has been designing her a tail. Soon this woman, with a double amputation and a love for swimming, will become New Zealand's one and only mermaid.

The words "double amputee" give an impression of a cripple - but this is not Vessey. She busies herself around her tidy, one-levelled house making a cup of tea. Her outfit is simple and her slim build and short stylish hair makes Vessey an attractive woman in her fifties. When she sits down, legs crossed, her relaxed manner and positive attitude make it easy to forget that those legs are artificial.

Vessey isn't one to dive into the past. She likes to focus on the future, and all it could have in store for her. She briefly and unemotionally touches on her childhood and how she lost her legs. Vessey's right leg was removed when she was seven years old. She was born with a condition that meant her lower legs would never develop properly. Later on, at the age of 16, she made the decision to have her left leg removed.

"It would never have gotten better," she says. "I would have always had to have surgically made shoes or boots."

The teenager Nadya could also see the bright side of this situation.

"If I had my second leg off, I could be taller," she says.

"And to a 16-year-old, that is hugely important.

"Talk about extreme makeover!"

Vessey's strong-willed and decisive nature also had an impact on her decision to get herself a tail. Her amputations mean she has always been disadvantaged when it comes to her great love - swimming. But rather than tolerating her situation, Vessey thought, why not do something about it?

This whole journey kicked off one night early this year. Vessey was having a quiet night at home and was surfing the web. She landed on the Weta Workshop website and was curious to see that they had a prosthetics department. She though she would go out on a limb and email them her idea about a tail "just to put the idea out there".

Much to her surprise, they answered immediately.

WETA offered to donate their time and expertise to make the tail and asked Vessey to cover the cost of the materials. She applied for a grant from the Kerr-Taylor Trust and received $2500 for the materials. What began as a flippant idea was suddenly turning into a reality.

"I began to feel a bit embarrassed about it," says Vessey.

"But then everybody else got so excited so I thought, 'Oh I'll just go with it and see what happens.'"

The tail will be moulded onto a pair of wetsuit shorts to make it easy to put on and take off. Vessey will then be propelled through the water with the up and down movement of the tail. Vessey says she told Weta that while the tail has to be practical, and not just for show, she also wants it to be beautiful.

They told me not to worry - that they would even put scales on it, says Vessey.

"So I really have no idea what to expect - but it's going to be fun."

Vessey's passion for swimming is deeply rooted into her. She began swimming not long after her first leg was removed. The initial year after the amputation she lived in the Wilson Home for Crippled Children in Takapuna. As a part of the therapy at the home, the children were taught how to swim. As she couldn't play other sports, she kept on swimming, and even went on to train and swim competitively at high school.

Her competitive streak boasts of one race at high school she is particular proud of.

"There were only three of us in the race and I came second," she says.

She explains that as she can't dive in or push off the wall to turn back, she loses a lot of ground in a race.

"The girl that I beat was absolutely astounded.

"She looked at me and said, 'You beat me!'

"And I said, 'Yeah, yeah I did.'

"I felt pretty chuffed about that."

These days Vessey swims as often as she can. Her possie in the summer is a beach in Herne Bay, which is perfect for her as it has stairs which lead down into the sea. As her artificial legs can't get water or sand on them, Vessey needs a place far enough away from the water to keep them safe but close enough to ensure she doesn't have to crawl far. Swimming partner and close friend Maree Brand says she admires her friend's bravery in undertaking a task that most of us would take it for granted.

"To get from where she's taken her legs off to the water, she's forced to do a sort of crawling action," says Brand.

While she never complains about it, swimming is a more complicated process for Nadya, she says.

Vessey doesn't like to talk about the difficulties she faces, and she's not one to feel sorry for herself.

Luke Heales, head lifeguard at the Mt Albert pools, where Vessey swims in the winter months, says Vessey's disability is never an issue and she is a refreshing change to a lot of the people he deals with during the course of his day.

"She's just a normal person who comes to swim here - beside the fact that she doesn't complain and she says hello," says Heales.

Phil Fryer has been a friend of Vessey's for 35 years and in the summer they go swimming together four to fives times a week.

"I think she really liked the idea of being in a mermaid's tail, looking languid on the beach," says Fryer.

"I can imagine the 'come hither' look of a mermaid on her face," he says.

Vessey's friendly nature and strong anti-discrimination stance means she likes to engage with all kinds of people.

"She talks freely and almost flirts with strangers," says Fryer.

"Take her to a party and you can guarantee she'll find the most unusual person there to talk to."

Religion is also an important part of Vessey's life, and is something that gives her a great comfort.

However, says Fryer: "She can also let go of that, have a day off, and be a naughty girl too."

Whether its swimming or another exciting challenge, Vessey has not allowed her disability to restrict her from doing anything. She has been to university twice, married, had a daughter and travelled the world - on her own. Vessey achieved another of her life's goals, to work under the United Nations, when she taught English for two years in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. She currently works in the Auckland prison teaching prisoners about computers, which is "just the sort of thing Nadya would do", says Brand. Vessey would not give up on something just because it is harder for her than most. Fryer says his friend consciously hasn't allowed her disability to affect her life.

"She's a strong-willed, determined woman," he says.

"You can't really stop Nadya from doing anything she wants to do."

Vessey handles her disability so well that when she's walking about, it is barely visible. Brand says that for the first year of knowing Vessey, she was unaware she had any amputation. It's not until Vessey strips down and removes her legs that it becomes obvious there is anything different about her.

But rather than hide or be embarrassed, Vessey chooses to bare her disability to the world by doing what she loves.

Vessey, who has accepted her condition, says she has no reason to hide her disability away. "You could look at my situation and say, 'Poor you,' but I don't see it that way," she says. "I think my differences are a gift.

"It's not about what we haven't got; it's about what we have got and what we do with it." She says she makes the conscious decision not to look at other people and compare herself to what they've got.

"It's a matter of - we've got a lot to be thankful for in this country.

"The fact that I get all my prosthetics paid for by the government shows I've got a lot to be thankful for.

"Gratitude is always a good thing to fall back on."

Inspiring as Vessey may be, she does, like most people, have her down days. Several times a year, circulation problems mean she is confined to her bed for days or even weeks at a time.

"Like all humans, she gets sad and needs consoling," says Fryer. But although problems with her legs get her down sometimes - they never keeps her there.

On a down day, Vessey says: "The best thing for my mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health is to get into the sea."

Vessey is not sure where she's heading from here. One challenge overcome, she'll most likely move on to tackle another one.

She has already started to make a few plans - to complete the swimming part of a triathlon with her new tail. It will be a chance for Vessey to finally compete in a race where she won't be at a disadvantage to everybody else.

But before all that, Vessey plans on paying a visit to the source which started this exciting saga in her life. She hasn't forgotten her inspiration for this whole idea - the naivety of a four-year-old boy on that beach all those years ago.

"I'll have to turn up to that beach again sometime with my tail - just in case he's there."

Sunday Star Times