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She has nearly 80,000 Instagram followers and her TED talk has been viewed online 45,000 times.

She’s known internationally as an innovator, entrepreneur and humanitarian whose work ranges from founding a company that makes safety products for travellers to being an ambassador for The Global Fund, a multi-billion dollar NGO that aims to eradicate HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Next week she will deliver a keynote speech for Microsoft in Dublin. Before that, however, Stephenie Rodriguez will represent Australia in a totally different field, competing at the IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup event in Cardiff. The Sydneysider, whose life was upended by a mosquito bite during a business trip to Nigeria in 2019, is striving to become our first Paralympic fencer since 2000 and our first female Paralympic fencer since 1968.

It’s an environment in which the 54-year-old never pictured herself, but one she is pursuing with typical fervour, the quality that may have pulled her through an almost universally fatal disease.

“The nature of my situation, surviving cerebral malaria – which kills someone every minute – there’s such a low survival rate that there’s really not a single roadmap to recovery,” Rodriguez says with a twang owing to her upbringing in the US before moving to Australia in 1997.

“It’s a never-ending journey and we keep finding new challenges. But, the fact I’m still here, I still get to live my life, I’m so lucky and thankful.”

In a cover story in 2021, Rodriguez explained her ordeal in detail. It began when she attended an international forum for entrepreneurs in Lagos and later spoke at a travel conference. That’s where she believes she received the fateful bites. The next day, she flew to India to speak at a Women In Tech event.

Days later, Rodriguez and her best friend were in Boston for a mix of work and pleasure. There were signs that something was off; the normally vivacious jet-setter was feverish and tired. At the airport about to go home, she collapsed, was rushed to hospital and went into a coma.

Confirmation Rodriguez had contracted cerebral malaria brought with it the reality that she was unlikely to survive. Doctors used a new malaria drug but, with her condition deteriorating, they administered a drug that increases blood flow to the vital organs – and away from the feet and hands.

Remarkably, the treatment worked and nearly a month after being bitten Rodriguez emerged from her coma to the great relief of loved ones who had joined her bedside, including her teenage son. But the effects of the nightmare were extreme.

Back in Australia, in 2020, Rodriguez underwent multiple surgeries and procedures to try to save her feet which, due to lack of blood flow, had suffered severe necrosis, the death of body tissue. Finally, after discussing options with world-leading orthopaedic surgeon Professor Munjed Al Muderis, the decision was taken to amputate both feet and have titanium rods inserted into her shins to join the prostheses to the bone, an innovative process known as osseointegration. Rodriguez has kept the tally: so far she’s spent 445 nights in hospital and had 45 procedures.

“Lower limb loss so late in life is a massive change,” she says. “It was like night and day – what I could do, now I couldn’t. There are two ways you deal with it, you either stay down or you pick yourself up. We make choices about how we will see our lives when something major like that happens.”

One choice Rodriguez made was to take up an offer in an NDIS newsletter to attend a new Para-fencing program.

“None of my friends are amputees or in a wheelchair, so I thought ‘Why not?’ There was an email address for ‘Alex at NSW Fencing’ and I thought Alex might be cute, this might be fun. I’ll meet people, go mingle and meet some of my new tribe.”

It turned out Rodriguez was the only attendee. Nevertheless, she began training with coach Alex Andre who by the third session put forward a tempting proposition.

“She said ‘You’re really good at this. Would you consider representing your country?’ I said to her, ‘If you believe I’ve got the talent, I’ll put in the time’.

“After so much loss physically, socially, spiritually, I just needed something to find joy in. I went along and, with Alex’s belief that I had it in me, I accepted the challenge. I started training and attended my first satellite competition representing Australia in May last year in France.”

It was an eye-opening experience.

“It was like something out of Monsters Inc.,” she says. “Everybody had something different. It was the biggest room of disabled people I’d been in. And, they were so welcoming.

“I realised that these people were very committed athletes who’d spent years learning their craft, yet they were all so happy to give me, a complete newbie, tips about weapons and posture and all sorts of things. For these people, Para-fencing is their identity, being a Para-athlete is what they do. It was just such an honour to be welcomed by them. They were so happy to see Australia there and it meant I could come back and say ‘Guys, they really want us!’”

Rodriguez is giving everything she has to make it to the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. But it’s a tricky and demanding pathway and the chase for rankings points requires travel far and wide. Over the past year or so she has fenced at competitions in Korea, Italy, France, Thailand and now Wales.

“Getting to where we are now in the sport is something I’ve driven and funded,” she says. “I train with my coach but I also seek out and train in Poland and Greece with the best fencers and coaches I can find.

“It’s been a great education and there’s a great spirit of friendship in the Para-fencing community. People help each other and it’s a warm community. It was intimidating being the only Australian. But, in that wider diaspora, I certainly found the community I was looking for when I walked into NSW Fencing.”

Domestically, too, Rodriguez is creating a fencing community.

“I reached out to my prosthetist – the woman who makes my feet for me – because I knew she had access to other amputees, and we now have four women and one gentleman and a couple of younger kids who are training in the Para-fencing program.

“We have the seedings of a team and a squad that could win gold medals for Australia in 2032. It may not be me, but I’ll be the one cheering our athletes on, very proud to know what was my role in that journey.”

Rodriguez says she is “the only one who’s got on a plane, turned up at competitions and told the world that yes, Australia fences”, but she hopes there will be more.

“Fencing has given me a chance to tap into my inner warrior,” she says. “It’s a combat sport that requires discipline, a lot of patience and fitness. It’s hard work.

“To be able to represent Australia in a way I never thought possible, it just gives me great joy to see Australia’s flag flying in places it hadn’t been before.”

By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 11 January 2024
Imagery: Wheelchair Fencing and Stephenie Rodriguez