“I refuse to let illness alter what I want to do in life”

Adversity in life makes you stronger. When I was told that I had six months to live, I felt like I stopped living and was just surviving, not thinking further than a few days ahead. I was a 24-year-old facing what I believed to be a life sentence, with no medication available. I didn’t know where life was taking me. But you know what they say? “Find a goal, and you will have direction.” I found sport.

I was only six or seven when I discovered my love of sport. I had asthma and so my parents took me swimming in the hopes that it would make me stronger. It soon became a passion. I ended up doing competitive swimming for most of my childhood, in addition to taking up cross-country. From there I began competing in aquathlons (correct spelling) and triathlons. The fact is, I’m not a superstar at any particular sport, I’m just equally strong at each sport, so when you put them all together, that’s where I excel. Often when you look at my results for Adventure Racing, you’ll see I came third in swim, pedal and run, yet first overall. I guess you could say I’m able to make my weaknesses my strength.

I didn’t really have an off button as a kid. Most people go slower or stop when they get physical warning signs. I didn’t have those signs, so often I would finish a race in a subconscious state; sometimes I wouldn’t finish them at all. Pushing on and doing whatever it took to complete the race helped me, but it wasn’t healthy for my body. I believe I have an abnormal response to pain. I broke my ankle and my tibia earlier this year and even though I felt something was wrong, it took over 10 days for the doctors to diagnose it. They believed that if I was still walking, a break wasn’t possible. I guess my experience of pain is just different to everyone else’s. I’ve had to learn how to read my body and when to stop.

I was never one of those kids that grew up dreaming of going to the Olympics or anything like that. Even though I made the Commonwealth Games and World Championships a couple of times, these weren’t the things the motivated me.

While I was very dedicated to my sport, I didn’t know what I was doing or where I wanted to go. All I knew is that I loved what I did. It’s funny how it takes a life-changing event to make you realise how important direction is. I was crazy about travelling and exploring the world, so I hopped from country to country until I landed up in Kenya on a one-way ticket. Have you ever heard of Africa Time? I wanted to experience Africa, a land where everything slows down, and so I began living with a family in a village, met a guy and started a relationship with him. Until I became sick. I lost 20kgs, I felt weak and I had headaches. To get the medical attention I needed, I left for London. I spent two weeks in hospital with malaria and pneumonia, but there was another fear lurking in the back of my mind all that time. I was diagnosed as HIV positive.

Being told that you may last five years, your first thoughts are, “oh my God, I won’t have kids. I won’t have another boyfriend etc.”. The worst part is that, because of the stigma, I became too scared to share my illness with anyone and lean on others for support. I moved back home and within two years, I was told that I had developed full-blown AIDS and was given six months to live. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones because HIV medication had just become available in Australia. I soon started to feel life in my body instead of death. I was recovering, getting stronger and I started to think about what my goals were. The first one was kids; I now have two – a nine-year-old and four-year-old. The second was sport.

My doctor didn’t think it was a good idea when I told him I wanted to enter an Adventure Race. All I knew was that I wanted to win it, whatever that took. While I didn’t win that first year, I did win it the next. I started training and my immune system not only doubled, but overtook that of a normal, healthy person. My body responded to exercise like it was medicine. I took it one step at a time and started feeling better, stronger, fitter. Recovery is not just about physical training; it’s about opening your mind and sharing your experiences. I decided to stop keeping my illness a secret. There was nothing to be ashamed of. The fact is, if nobody tells their story, people will never see the normal face of HIV – we’re people getting on with our lives, having children, being part of a family and accomplishing our goals.

I have completed the Tough Mudder three times now, and have been the first and second woman to cross the finish line. This is the kind of event where everyone is on an equal platform, no matter your setback or disability. I felt at home there. In sport, there’s a huge respect between people who are pushing their body to the max and giving it their all to achieve their goals. You are all just surviving. Just being human. Sport makes us raw.

While I’ve experienced amazing highs on this journey, there have also been some big lows. I recently had an abdominal hysterectomy to have a 1.6kg benign tumour removed from my gut. While the recovery time is usually months, my body did its thing and I was back on my feet in about eight weeks. But then, last year, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.  While I could have let it set me back mentally, all I thought was “I got this. Now what do I need to do to get through this?”. I was scared, but with HIV already having rocked my world once before, this wasn’t as daunting. A shift in mindset this time meant that I wasn’t at war with my body. Instead I asked what I could do to help it heal and get stronger. After my surgery, I needed to get myself back on the literal road to recovery, and so I went to Russia to run a marathon event as part of a team regarding HIV awareness. In early November I competed in the World’s Toughest Mudder in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life, and finished third.

My goal is to always be the healthiest, fittest and strongest I can be and to never give up on life. I refuse to let illness alter what I want to do or who I want to be.

Deanne Blegg / The Toughest Mudder  |  True Endurance Athlete | Superhuman

Citizens of Sport don’t stand by, they Rise Up.

Question: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on your journey, and how have you taken them in your stride?