Spinal surgery no barrier for junior paddler

Local kayaker Natalia-Drew Cole has enjoyed great success on the water despite having recent spinal surgery.

Yarrawonga Mulwala Canoe Club junior paddler Natalia-Drew Cole has proved that nothing can stop her when it comes to her love of paddling.

More than months after having spinal fusion surgery Natalia-Drew has competed at two Canoeing National Champions winning two.

Natalia-Drew won junior para gold medals at the Marathon Championships in the Gold Coast and two silver open women's para silver medal at the National Sprint Championships in Adelaide as there was no junior para class in sprint racing.

Natalia-Drew has been a member of the Yarrawonga Mulwala Canoe Club for several years racing against fully able body paddlers but has only been classified as a para class athlete this year after the club has been working with Paddle Victoria to establish a para class for juniors.

Natalia-Drew Cole in action at the National Sprint Championships in Adelaide.

Once the club was able to resume paddling after the multiple covid lock downs Natalia-Drew was one of the first juniors to be back on the water even if it was only for a few minutes.

She worked hard throughout the summer with a goal to get to the National Championships. This paid off Natalia-Drew winning gold in the junior para class at the Marathon championship in the short and long course events last month.

But this was not enough and soon after travelled to Adelaide, not an easy task for a person with back issues, to compete in the National Sprints, racing against open women she was able to finish second against older and stronger ladies in the 200 and 500 metre events.

Natalia-Drew was found to have a stable spinal defect of the L5 at the age of 9 which presented itself similar to scoliosis/lordosis. Although stable it did cause some problems while growing up where she was limited to non-impact sports, so finding kayaking at the start of year 7 was great.

At the start of March 2021, she slipped which caused the L5 vertebrae to slip and crush the spine and nerves, leaving her a walking paraplegic, numb from the waist down, but in a tremendous amount of pain. It took some planning and surgery was organised where they fused L5-S1 and were able to release the pressure from the spine and nerves.

They had her up and walking within 12 hours leaving recovery and things were looking good and she was discharged. Unfortunately, there have several setbacks and some complications, but she persisted along with the support of her surgeon who was pleased that she was a paddler, being one himself. The surgeon said she had great core strength, which he put down to helping save her from a more severe injury.

Once Natali-Drew was on the mend, recovery instructions were, to get her back paddling, first on land with a machine and then once it was deemed safe to do so on the water, sometimes these sessions may have only lasted minutes, sometimes longer.

Her successful recovery has come down to her continuing to do what she loves, using muscle memory to start with when there was no feeling and even now as feeling is starting to come back in some areas but not all, as there are still damaged nerve pathways that may never heal.

Her official diagnosis now is called spondylosis (a painful condition of the spine resulting from the degeneration of the intervertebral discs.

Yarrawonga Mulwala Canoe Club Coach Tim Roadley said Natalia-Drew is a true inspiration.

“Each week she would turn up, some days her condition made too hard to even stand and get on the water, other days she would only have enough energy to do a short paddle,” Tim said.

“It all came down to getting her technique right, this was an extreme hard challenge to work out how to paddle without using your lower back which is cyclical part of paddling.

“I had to learn myself how to paddle without rotating my back, so we worked on her strength of power and using the time on the water as best we could.

“The work we have done has also been noticed by Paddle Vic and they have identified our club as a club to run their all-abilities paddling information session, which successfully occurred last Sunday,” Tim said.