Having had her right leg amputated, seven-time world champion swimmer is eager to make a comeback at this summer’s Commonwealth Games
In the days leading up to her hospital appointment last month, Alice Tai could not help but wonder if she was making the right decision. For years the British swimmer had considered the possibility of having her right leg amputated, liberating her from the condition of club foot that had forced 14 corrective surgeries before she was even 12 years old, and hampering her mobility for as long as she could remember.
But in those final moments, the smallest of tasks became heightened reminders of what she might be losing. It was as though she was preparing to say goodbye to an old friend.
“There were a lot of ‘lasts’ before the surgery,” says the 23-year-old from Poole. “There was the last time I brushed my teeth… the last time I had a shower before I got my leg off… I was hyper aware of everything,” she says.
“On the morning of the surgery, I had pancakes with sugar and lemon for breakfast. That was my last proper meal before I had my leg off.”
On the journey to the hospital, on January 13, accompanied by her boyfriend, Matt, she observed her final time sitting in a car with both of her legs. “I was so emotional,” recalls Tai, her voice softening at the memory, in her first interview as an amputee. “I was crying. Part of me was scared. It was just the whole fact that it was so irreversible, that really got to me. What if it was the wrong decision? Matt was great. He was like, ‘We’ve gone over this so many times’. But as soon as I got back in the ward after surgery, it was fine. I have no regrets.”
The seven-time world champion, who has broken countless records as an S10 swimmer, will soon be able to say goodbye to her crutches – devices not designed for permanent use, and ones that have caused her endless problems.
The crutches, her main mobility aid, began to take a brutal toll on her body last summer, causing long-term nerve damage in both of her elbows which required surgery and meant missing the Tokyo Paralympic Games. It was a huge blow for the swimmer tipped to be Britain’s Paralympic poster girl.
Tai had been hoping to improve on her Rio 2016 success, where she took gold in the 4×100 metre medley and bronze in the 100m backstroke, following a runaway World Championships in 2019 when she pulled in an incredible haul of six world titles in a single competition. But by the time the Games rolled around, she was already contemplating something more finite: she wanted her leg off.
“It got to a point where I was eating breakfast with my mates and just the motion of bringing food to my mouth was really painful,” recalls Tai, who now sports a big scar across each elbow joint – a reminder of the period in which the only way she was able to leave her home was by using a mobility scooter or wheelchair.
The possibility was one she first explored aged 13, but surgeons were reluctant to perform such an operation while her body had yet to reach maturity for fear that her shin bone could end up growing through the stump.
Around that time, her father gifted her a notebook so she could start keeping track of her race times at swimming meets. It was only a matter of years before she achieved her dream of holding British, European and world records, but it was the lows, not the highs, that made her constantly question – what if?
“It’s literally stayed in the back of my mind since then,” says Tai. “Sometimes, it’s been at the forefront of my mind when I really can’t do something and I knew if I was an amputee with a prosthetic, then I could. It was honestly just waiting for the right time.”
She is, however, aware that not everyone will understand her decision. When she first called her coach. David Heathcock, to let him know, “he thought I was crazy”, she admits.
“He just sat in silence for a bit and was like, ‘What?’ A lot of people thought I was insane, until I explained why. The only people that knew before I looked into it a bit more were my family because they were there during the whole process when I was younger. It’s a big thing to drop on someone.”
Not least if you are the coach of a para-athlete who was practically unbeaten in the pool. Tai is yet to discover how her new identity as an amputee will impact her classification, but insists reclassification never even entered her head when weighing up the possibility of amputation, which, she says, was “completely elective”.
Reclassification in parasport can be a source of huge anxiety – Tai admits she was initially hesitant about sharing news of her amputation publicly – but was quickly overwhelmed by kindness from the para-swimming community.
“There was a lot of ‘Welcome to the club’ comments and ‘See you poolside!’ So, that was really nice,” she says. “I was a bit scared about it because it was such a significant change and I don’t know who I’m going to be racing, so I didn’t know if people would get weary about it.”
In Tai’s case, there is the fascinating prospect that one limb down, she could actually swim even faster. “I think my swim speed might be better because I don’t have to drag my right leg,” says Tai. “My right foot was at 90 degrees and I couldn’t use it to propel myself. I’ve gained an imbalance and I’m not sure how much that’s going to affect me in the pool. The starts and turns are going to be affected because I’ve lost my push-off foot. I don’t know how that will balance out. I genuinely want to go back to the pool because I’m intrigued.
“My left foot is still affected with club feet. I have to get used to saying club foot and not club feet! So, they’ll have to take that into consideration. My left foot has fared way better with the surgeries I’ve had on it over the years, although it did get really arthritic.”
Should she be moved to a different category, such circumstances would not be unfamiliar territory for Tai, who used to compete as an S8 swimmer after being classed down from the S10 in which she made her Paralympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games, when she won 100m backstroke bronze.
It was in that same class that she stormed to seven individual titles at London’s Para-swimming World Championships in 2019, cementing her status as Britain’s breakout para-swimming star.
Eager to make a comeback at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Tai pressed ahead and a date for her operation was set last month. She was forced to avoid the family home after her brother tested positive for Covid, so she rented a holiday house with her boyfriend for 10 days to complete her self-isolation before being admitted to hospital.
Her prosthetic leg will arrive in a matter of weeks, and as she entertains this thought, she reels off the things to do on her bucket list. “I can’t wait to walk with a coffee, through a park. Just really simple things – I’m excited to just go over the road to the local shop and be able to carry stuff in my hands and not have to shove it in my backpack.”
She pauses, before experiencing a light-bulb moment. “Oh, and one of the things I really want to do is go to silent discos around London. That wasn’t something I could really do properly – you can’t dance on crutches.”
You can bet Tai has probably given it a good go. Rather than focus on her disability, she has always been one for broadening her horizons through creative outlets outside of her sport – last year the talented guitar player even released her first single, Hypnotise, with her band, Blush.
Soon, she will be able to walk unaided, without the use of her crutches – a liberty she has not known for as long as she can remember. She is equally ecstatic about getting back into the pool. Owing to the pandemic and her injury struggles, she cannot physically remember the last time she stepped into a swimming costume.
Like most amputees, she will require several recastings of her prosthetic because the distribution of swelling and tissue around her stump is expected to change – but she wants it to be black, as opposed to one that matches her skin tone.
“I’m proud that I had my leg amputated,” says Tai, at peace with her new identity. “It’s opened up so many doors for me. So, it’s not something that I want to try and conceal or to try and make look more normal. I’m happy for people to see how it is because it’s a good thing.
“I’ve realised that a lot of people originally have pity on me, they start saying that they’re sorry – they don’t realise it’s a good thing. I think it’d be cool if people could come and ask. I’m not scared or shy about it, I’m proud. I’m just excited to get a life, to be honest.”
She is targeting a return to training within weeks, providing there is no risk of infection to her stump and her consultant gives her the all-clear. And there is a feeling that, whenever she returns, she will do so in style.
“A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer, that’s what my coach says. I’ve never been really happier with how I can live.”
She pauses, as if trying to imagine her first day back in the pool. “It’ll kind of be like learning to swim again,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.