My greatest tragedy turned into something remarkable

My greatest tragedy turned into something remarkable

'Three strangers lay on the ground alongside me ... gently telling me I could go be with God'

By Michelle Salt for CBC Sports
December 12, 2018

"I'm going to become a Paralympian someday."

Without skipping a beat, those were the words that came out of my mouth when I found out I was now an above-the-knee amputee. Only eight days prior, I was living a very normal life — one with certainty and structure. A fulfilled dream for any 26-year-old. A great career, a new sports bike, a fourth-place finish in my first fitness competition. I was on the top of my game with so much to look forward to.

A motorcycle accident left Michelle Salt fighting for her life. (Submitted by Michelle Salt) A motorcycle accident left Michelle Salt fighting for her life. (Submitted by Michelle Salt)

It took a split second for all of that to change. I was heading up a hill, doing 120 km/h, and I hit a guardrail. The impact: broke numerous bones in my leg, broke my hip, pelvis, back, right clavicle, bruised my spleen, punctured a lung, and when my right femur broke in two places, it severed my femoral artery. Most people bleed to death within minutes when this artery has been severed. But because my heart was strong and my body was healthy, I lived 23 minutes while completely bleeding out.

Three strangers lay on the ground alongside me, holding my hand and gently telling me I could go be with God because truth is, no one thought I would make it. It was every motorcycle rider’s nightmare, and the outcome? An even harder reality. I had to learn to live life as an amputee now, with a prosthetic knee joint and my body put back together with pins and plates.


The quest to figure out how to live life in my new state was frustrating at times. Yes, I could easily hop on the internet and see that many amputees were accomplishing great things. But I knew it would take time to get back to that level of fitness. Seven days on life support, five surgeries, 28 units of blood, 14 days without solid food,  my weight down to 83 pounds. I had my work cut out for me, especially if I wanted to become a high-performance athlete.

Sometimes my family thought it was the medication talking, but I knew what needed to be done. I had to suck it up and become a stronger version of myself. That didn't come easily to me. I have a history of failing to see my own capabilities. This time, I needed a plan and I was going to do whatever it took to stick to that plan.


Starting small

My journey to the Paralympics started small. My first day being lifted in a full body wheelchair and going outside was beautiful, yet so confusing. As I sat in my chair, one leg gone, the other in a splint, my mind raced. Was I going to run again? What kind of knee would I need to get back on my snowboard? What if I can't do the things I love, like going to the gym and riding my dirt bike? Would someone love me, covered in scars, missing a leg? As I asked myself these questions, I started thinking back to the amputees I've seen in commercials and on social media and I said out loud, "I got this. I will do it all again plus more."

My physiotherapists would come in every day, access my limited range of movement, and we would sit back to back. At first it was only 15 seconds that I could manage like that. But it progressed to a minute. Eventually, I would use my monkey bar to pull myself up independently. Then I moved to an inpatient rehab facility where I was challenged to try and do things that were once so easy but now seem impossible. I struggled hard to do arm raises with three-pound weights when I used to curl 30 pounds no problem. Ten minutes of cardio left me exhausted. This was just my warmup before the crash. Recovery wasn't easy. At times I wanted to stay in bed and give up, but thanks to a promise I made to myself, I had to keep going.


After three months in the wheelchair, thanks to technology, a very patient prosthetist, and my own determination, I was able to stand on two feet again. I had been telling myself that walking with a prosthetic leg was going to be a piece of cake, and I would run right out of that place. Boy was I in for a rude awakening. I took hard falls, I couldn't wear my leg for more than five minutes due to the pain it caused, and I had this new knee I knew nothing about. I was humbled by the realization of how much I had taken for granted. My new normal was much harder than I envisioned.

Watch Michelle Salt discuss her passion.

Hard lesson

Two hundred and 40 days after hitting that stubborn guardrail, I went against my surgeon’s recommendations (don't try this at home kids) and I stepped right back in to my snowboard bindings. I learned quickly that my new sports knee with its Fox mountain bike shock was going to need a lot of tinkering and practise. Over time, I started trusting this new body part, which in return led to carves on the mountain. One day and one ski hill run at a time, I was becoming a snowboarder again.

Salt is a stalwart on the World Cup circuit. (Submitted by Michelle Salt) Salt is a stalwart on the World Cup circuit. (Submitted by Michelle Salt)

I also decided that I wasn't going to take my second life for granted and with that, I was going to try and master it all. I started dirt biking, wakeboarding, wall climbing, dancing, golfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, snowmobiling, surfing, horseback riding, hiking, lifting weights and cycling. Since finding out about my leg, deep down I've known that I was more than capable I just had to find a new way to do the things I love.

In March 2014, I became Canada's first female Paralympic snowboarder, finishing ninth in the world. The following year, I went on to reach my first podium at home in Big White, and I have since brought home 14 World Cup medals. This has led me into the most incredible experience of my life, my second Paralympic Games, where I finished fourth. Along with those amputees that I watched every day in the hospital, I have pioneered the sport of para-snowboarding, and I have witnessed first-hand the progression of so many incredible athletes.


If only I knew, back in that hospital bed seven years ago, how much weight those words would carry. "I'm going to become a Paralympian someday," has led me to a beautiful life filled with incredible opportunities. I write this while I am in Rome, sitting next to my best friend and fellow competitor, Nicole Roundy, and I am reminded of how we all have it in us to turn our greatest tragedy into something remarkable.

(Large photos submitted by Michelle Salt)

The Michelle Salt edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Tuesdays With Morrie.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: Serial.

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: When you feel the worst and you try the hardest, you gain the most.

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: Born to be wild.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: It is what it is.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: I wish I could sing well.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I used to be a welder and a DJ.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: Oprah, Ellen Degeneres, Elon Musk, Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Tiger Woods.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Soldiers coming home to their families after a long tour.

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.