From 9yo amputee to glamour bodybuilder
Kelly Warren is lying helplessly on a busy Sydney road. She can't move. She has no idea what is going on.
Crowds of people are rushing around. Everything is happening so fast. The only thing Warren is sure of is that something horrible has happened. And by her mother's howling screams of desperation, Warren is now afraid that the something horrible might have happened to her.
Her mum, Ruth, is hysterically sobbing and clutching her child tightly, hoping she'll be OK.
It's early morning, May 1, 2009, and a then nine-year-old Warren had only moments before been standing at a set of traffic lights next to her mum.
The Brisbane mother and daughter are one day into their girls' weekend away, having left behind dad, Paul, and older brothers, Ashley, 23, and Jo, 21, at their Albany Creek home.
While she waits for the lights to change, Warren daydreams of becoming a professional ballerina one day and beams over at the nearby Opera House. She's looking forward to seeing her idols in the Australian Ballet perform at the famous landmark that night. But as she's preparing to cross the road, Warren's left foot is run over by a passing bus.
Warren can't feel or hear anything besides her mum's piercing shrieks. She's trying to cry but she can't. There's no pain, just the urge to fall asleep.
But her mum is frantically trying to keep her awake because if she closes her eyes, she fears her daughter might never wakeup.
"I knew something was wrong with me but I didn't know what was going on," recalls Warren, 19, of the horrifying moment her life was to change forever.
"All I remember is Mum screaming and that's it … it's the only thing I've been able to remember about my accident for years."
Warren spent the next 12 hours in emergency surgery where doctors tried desperately to save her severely damaged foot. But it was too late.
Her next memory was three days later when her dad told her she was going to lose her foot. "They had no idea how to explain it to me," says Warren, who was in hospital for three weeks before returning to her then home in Brisbane's north. "My dad stayed up all night trying to figure out the right words to say and in the end, he realised there were no right words because nothing was going to sound good about losing a body part.
"He told me they were going to have to remove my foot because the operation didn't work.
"The first thing I remember asking my dad was, 'am I going to be able to dance again?' "
The accident still haunts Ruth, 49, who remembers it as "the worst day of my life".
"What was meant to be such a nice weekend for us to share together turned into our biggest nightmare," she says.
"One minute Kelly was standing next to me and the next minute she was on the floor screaming. I looked down and her boot wasn't on her foot anymore … I knew it was bad so I put myself in a position so she couldn't see it. She had no skin on her foot and the bones were all damaged."
As Warren tells her story, sitting in a coffee shop in Coomera, she paints a heartbreaking portrait of what it feels like to have your dreams pulled from underneath you.
She pauses while the enormity of what has happened to her sinks in. Then she smiles, shrugs and softly says, "now, here I am".
Warren's foot was amputated through her ankle bones, and despite most of her left leg remaining, she says it's of no use. "It's like skin and bone," says Warren, with her leg suffering from nerve damage and muscle deterioration.
It's been a long journey for Warren since that day nine years ago and it's taken most of those years to deal with the trauma it left behind. Depression had its hand in her past as she struggled to cope, culminating in three suicide attempts and being admitted into mental health clinics multiple times.
But as she talks to U on Sunday, Warren is nothing but a picture of health. She's no longer in denial and fighting her disability but at peace with who she is.
The bodybuilding stage is the last place Warren thought she would find her solace.
As someone who had to learn to walk again on a prosthetic leg, physical activity was always a challenge.
Besides returning to dance for a few years in primary school and showing promise as a runner, it all became too difficult for Warren and she eventually gave up on everything. The gym was the last place she wanted to be, and if she did end up there, Warren says it "was probably just for the photo".
So to find herself becoming the first amputee to win an able-bodied bodybuilding competition, Warren says, was an unbelievable feeling.
Warren was named the world champion in the Sports Model Open Class 1 and Sports Model Novice at the iCompete Natural WorldChampionships on the Gold Coast last month.
She also placed second in the World Fitness Model Open Class 1 and third in the World Fitness Model Novice.
She became the first amputee to be named a professional bodybuilder, or earn her "pro card", in an able-bodied division.
ICN Australian Vice President Jason Woodforth says Warren is the first amputee in the world to win at that level in their bodybuilding federation.
"In a sport where you need to be balanced to do well, let alone win … her balance as an amputee is amazing," he says.
Warren's success followed wins in local competitions at the Queensland Tropix Championships in Townsville in September and the ICN Queensland State Championships in Brisbane where she scooped up a string of first and second places. Watching from the crowd were her proud supporters, including her boyfriend of 12 months Jackson Breuer, 22, and her mum Ruth.
"I was so proud of her … I know the hard work she's put into it," says Ruth, who lives in Brisbane.
"She looked like she belonged up there, she was beaming and it was so lovely to watch."
Warren, who is studying to become a personal trainer, was introduced to bodybuilding earlier this year after meeting personal trainer and bodybuilding coach, Sophie Forkgen, last year at a photo shoot.
Warren signed up to her first competition under one condition; she would compete against everybody else.
"They do have a category for the physically challenged but I didn't want to compete in that," says Warren, who trains in the gym twice a day. "I wanted to be up against everybody else. I wanted to be judged equally and I said from the beginning, I don't want to be judged out of sympathy."
One of the biggest hurdles for Warren wasn't the discipline or sacrifice, but having to walk in heels.
"When I started my prep for the competition, I didn't think I could do the fitness category because you had to wear heels," she says through a smile.
"But I begged my prosthetist to make me one … they screw a foot with a heel already inside it on to the end of my socket. My weight is really off so it is quite painful."
The pain was a small price to pay to be back on the stage performing, something she loved as a young girl who danced five times a week.
Through the fitness, glamour and showbiz of it all, Warren found a sense of calmness and joy. She finally found where she belonged. A feeling she's longed for as she's struggled to cope with her injury for almost a decade.
In 2012, nearly three years after her accident, her life took a turn for the worst.
Warren finished primary school, where she left her supportive friends and teachers, and started at a new high school where nobody knew her story. The questions began.
"What happened to your leg? What happened to your leg? What happened to your leg?" Warren says, impersonating probing kids. "I'd never had to deal with that before because everyone in primary school just knew.
"I started to realise I was different and I was in an environment where I didn't have that support around me."
She was also getting left behind in dance, after picking it back up months after her accident, when the rest of the class were learning to walk in pointe shoes.
"I tried to do pointe with one foot but I realised I just couldn't do it … I couldn't do what everyone else was doing," says Warren. "That was a realisation that I was never going to be a ballerina. I didn't cope with that and for the next three years, I fell into a really bad mental health space."
The girl who reached nationals for sprinting in high school and had her sights set on the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016 had disappeared.
Warren went into self-destruct mode. Quitting dance and running fed her battle with depression. Alcohol, drugs and parties took over. She hated her family, her friends and especially hated sympathy.
She fought thoughts about her future, her weight, her self-esteem, her family, her disability, her life. Warren attempted suicide three times; the worst was at the start of Year 11 on the sixth anniversary of her accident. "I wanted to die," she recalls. "When I was 14 or 15, I never thought I'd make by 18th birthday, let alone my 16th."
"I was living my life to be known for something other than my leg," says Warren, who left school in Year 11.
"I would do anything and everything just to be known as anything other than Kelly with one leg. I was in a really bad self-destruct mode and I was causing most of it myself because of all the anger I had inside of me."
Things started to change in 2016.
Warren went to an AMP CAMP in New South Wales, a camp for Australian kids, aged between 12 and 18, who have lost a limb or have limb difference.
I'd been encouraging her to go for a couple of years and as soon as she did, she realised she wasn't the only one out there struggling," says Ruth. "She had the chance to tell her story to people that understood and when she came back, that's when things started to change."
It coincided with Warren starting to go the gym after an ex-partner suggested she go with him.
"I slowly started to go a bit more and then a bit more and now I can't imagine my life without it," says Warren.
"I realised I could do everything that other people could do … it was a turning point for me."
Warren picked up bodybuilding a year later.
"The anger went away when I learnt I don't have time to waste and when I realised I should focus on what I can do and not focus on the things I can't."
As Warren takes a sip of coffee and lifts her left arm, she shows off a sleeve of tattoos.
"It's a tiger's eye," she muses, pointing down to her forearm, adding, "and half a woman's eye, it looks powerful."
The ink buries the pain of her past with the tattoos covering self-harm scars. But they are also a reminder of what she's overcome.
Written above angel wings and between decorative art, a phrase covers her bicep, which reads: "you have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be climbed."
But the most poignant is a small word tattooed on her right wrist in her mum's handwriting: "Always."
"Mum and I have been through a lot of stuff but now we're best friends, I love her to pieces," says Warren.
Ruth echoes her daughter admiration, saying the pair have been to "hell and back", but she "couldn't be prouder" of the woman she's become.
"She's strong, confident, happy in herself and finally happy with who she is," Ruth says. "She doesn't have to fit anyone else's ideals anymore and lives for herself and for those people who care about her."
After forging an unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter, inked on Ruth's wrist is a matching tattoo in Kelly's handwriting: "Always."
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