Real Life

I did a 10km ocean swim with no arms!

I don’t let anything hold me back, least of all my disability
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Kerry-Lee Gockel, 39, from Queensland, shares her story:

The little girl’s eyes bulged and her mother pulled her in closer as we walked past them in the parking lot.

“What happened to her?” the woman said to my mum quietly, referring to me.

“Kerry-Lee can talk,” Mum bristled. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”

I smiled up at the lady.

“I was born without arms,” I said, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

Because for me, aged five back in 1988, it was.

My mum, Jennifer, and dad, Peter, bought me a full-length mirror when I was a baby so I’d get comfortable with the way I looked.

They never let my disability hold me back, and it never did.

Before I started school, they helped me experiment with holding a pencil in my mouth, but I preferred to use my left foot.

Determined to live life to the fullest (Image: supplied)

At school, I used a desk my granddad had adapted for me.

It was lower so I could write with my feet.

The other kids quickly got used to me and I made lots of friends.

In high school, when all my mates started getting boyfriends, I felt disheartened and mentioned it to Dad.

“You’ll find your person in time,” he told me.

I was more of a book nerd but in Year 11 I swam in the interhouse carnival and the new coach encouraged me to join his squad.

It sparked a passion in me for swimming, which I kept up when I went to uni to study business and law.

At one point, a man called Paul came to watch the disability events I was competing in.

He worked for Queensland Swimming as their disability officer.

Paul had been a Paralympian swimmer from 1992 to 1996 and was partially paralysed from the waist down due to spina bifida.

He could walk but had mobility issues.

With Paul (Image: supplied)

It was inspiring for us young athletes to meet him.

Years passed and I found a job at a law firm.

By then, I still lived with my parents, but I did most things on my own.

I drove a car with my right foot on the steering wheel and cooked meals using my feet.

One day in 2011, when I was 28, I was walking in Brisbane and spotted a man with a gait I knew.

“Paul!” I called out. “Remember me?”

We went for a coffee and hit it off.

I’d always thought it would be tricky to date a man who also had a disability but it was so easy and lovely with Paul, 46.

We knew what it was like to live with our various challenges.

After a few successful dates, Paul suggested I come to his house so he could cook me dinner.

I started fretting about having to ask him to cut up my meal for me.

“If he finds that an issue, he’s not for you,” Mum said.

With Paul; happy together (Image: supplied)

That night, the moment we sat down, Paul offered to cut up my apricot chicken and I knew I’d found my soul mate.

Three years later, we were on holiday in Cradle Mountain, Tas.

We’d been for a walk and were having a glass of wine by the fire at our accommodation, when Paul suddenly knelt down.

“I’ve been carrying this around in my backpack because I’d like you to marry me,” he said, and gave me a gold toe ring.

At our wedding, Dad made a speech.

“Didn’t I always tell you that you’d find your person?” he said to me, grinning.

Paul and I did everything together as a team, relying mostly on his strong arms and my highly capable legs, and lived independently.

A few years ago, Paul had to go to hospital for an operation.

NDIS support came to help me cook, clean and dress.

It was invaluable so even when Paul got home from hospital we continued using the service.

It meant we could do fun things on the weekend like going to the beach or to music concerts, rather than chores.

NDIS support also helped me adapt my car so I could steer using a foot pedal.

Swimming in the ocean (Image: Kate Taylor)

“It’s so much better,” I told Paul. “Being all bent like a pretzel for every drive was starting to hurt my hips.”

Early in our relationship, Paul and I started doing ocean swims together and I got the bug, doing bigger swims.

This culminated in me completing a 10km swim around Old Woman Island, Qld, in April 2022.

I swam freestyle with fins and rolled to breathe.

I had an amazing support crew but it was seriously tough going.

When my feet touched the sand again five hours and 11 minutes later, Paul ran to hug me and we both cried.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said. I was, too.

The swim raised $13,000 for special schools on the Sunshine Coast, Qld.

In action (Image: supplied)

If it goes some way to enable kids with a disability to feel how I felt after that swim, then every metre, every kick was worth it.

I’m set to do it again this year!

Paul and I decided having kids wasn’t for us.

Instead, we focus on living life to the full.

We’ve recently bought a caravan and plan to travel the NSW coastline, swimming in all 60 ocean pools along the way.

My disability has never defined me.

I have a wonderful life, a job I enjoy and a gorgeous husband.

I just happen to have been born without arms.

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