Hannah Macdougall, 27
Lives: Melbourne, Australia
Hannah Macdougall is an elite Para athlete, dual Paralympian and motivational speaker who knows a thing or two about perseverance.
The 27-year-old kicked off her sporting career in swimming before transitioning to cycling and has since captained the Australian Paralympic team.
When we speak she’s training 20-30 hours a week to qualify for the World Championships in cycling and knee-deep in a PhD in athlete well-being.
The pressure of being an elite athlete and figuring out how to live the life she wants with just one leg has given her ample time to consider things like: What does she want to be remembered for? What’s the best way to cope with pain? And what do you really need to live a meaningful life?
Here’s what she’s learnt so far.
As a Paralympian and motivational speaker, what are the main philosophies that underpin the work you do?
For me, using your skills and talents to help other people is really really important. Also, working towards something is great but you can get so caught up in something that you can forget to live now. So it’s about being mindful. I think of it like a page in a book: if we don’t have mindfulness, then it would be like having a page in a book without full stops and commas. Whereas if we add mindfulness into it, it gives us pauses, the day flows and it makes more sense.
If we don’t have mindfulness, it would be like having a page in a book without full stops and commas.
Through your research, what have you discovered about maintaining or improving your well-being?
It comes down to the individual, but there are scientific things you need to be happy. There’s meditation, sleep, how close you live to work, diet and exercise.
Then you also have support networks. Research tells us that the happiest people in the world, without exception, all have some kind of social support networks. And for statistics to hold something up like that is pretty impressive!
Research tells us that the happiest people in the world, without exception, all have some kind of social support networks.
Who do you consider to be your biggest supporters?
My mum has been the superwoman in my life. She was a single mum for about 5 years when I was really little, juggling two kids under 5, a full-time job, an MBA, and making really tough decisions about whether to sell the house or car.
She got us through that, but at the same time, in terms of my sporting career dreams, she has always supported me and not cotton-wooled me.
She married my stepdad when I was about ten, and the next year I started having to get up at twelve minutes past four every single morning for swim training. John, my stepdad, literally drove me from the time I was 11 until I was 18. I couldn’t have done what I did without him.
The other major person is my mentor, Donnie. I told mum I wanted to be a Paralymian and so she tracked me down a Paralympic coach. Donnie entered my life when I was nine and helped shape that dream of becoming a Paralympian into a goal. He is still a massive part of my life today.
What are the most important pieces of advice that Donnie and your mum have given you?
I love Donnie’s one of if you want something badly enough in life, then get off your butt and do something about it. You’ve got to take action. There’s a magic to it when you create that momentum.
I’ve had to have a few surgeries and when I was really little my grandpa gave me this gold medal that said, ‘For a courageous little girl’. Mum kind of drew on that and told me to dig deep inside and find that courage she knew was in me. Then there’s also the physical strength you get from a hug.
You’ve got to take action. There’s a magic to it when you create that momentum.
I really like Donnie’s advice to just take action. Has there ever been a time in your life where you felt like you couldn’t take action?
When I absolutely screwed up Beijing I would say I was depressed for a little while there. And then there are other times when I’ve had surgeries and have become frustrated because I haven’t been able to do what I want to do.
Getting through those times has come down to a couple of things. Firstly, you need someone. For me, Donnie is that person because he’s out of my bubble.
Also, if you work towards something for so long, such as the Paralympic games, or buying a house and then make it, you feel really lost afterwards. So we know that during that phase it’s important to set new goals; to have multiple facets to life.
We’re all human. We all need to breathe, we all need to go to the bathroom, we all have bad hair days.
What kind of misconceptions do you think people have about you?
Through social media I suppose you do create the happified version of yourself. It doesn’t capture the days that you feel like crap and all of the pain you go through. So I try to put up some posts where I’m like, ‘Guys I have just fallen flat on my face.’ or ‘I have been in pain.’
Life isn’t all roses and nor should it be. How else would we learn? We’re all human. We all need to breathe, we all need to go to the bathroom, we all have bad hair days. We share a lot in common and we need to remember and cherish that.
What do you wish we spoke more about?
Generally, most of our conversations are within that upper level space of ‘Hey how you’re going?’ or, ‘What’s your day been like?’. That kind of general chit chat can be good but I think we need to keep talking about the important stuff. What are your strengths? What are your values? What do you want to achieve in your life? We spend too much time writing and talking about our CVs and we don’t spend enough time fulfilling our eulogies.
How do we have those more meaningful conversations?
One tip is to have a conversation with someone sitting side by side. So riding a bike, or sitting in a car having a conversation. If you don’t feel the confidence to start that conversation face-to-face, or if you need to have a courageous conversation with a person, that’s a good way to do that.
That shift when something that perhaps seemed impossible and now seems possible to them. That’s really special.
So what do you feel is your biggest accomplishment so far?
Can I cheat and give you more than one?
Sure you can.
The first is the medal that I got from Spain in 2014 from the World Cup in the road race. It took me 4 years, 7 months and 28 days to get that medal. I had to cycle over 33,000 kilometres and have 2.5 years of rehab. It was a whole lot of resilience, perseverance, and literally blood sweat and tears. The medal is just a physical representation of that.
The others are a collection of memories. So the reason I do motivational speaking is that connection you can have with an audience; that shift when something that perhaps seemed impossible and now seems possible to them. That’s really special.
To wrap up, if there was one thing you would tell yourself in your teens, what would you say retrospectively?
Breathe! If you’re breathing, there’s still more going right with you than wrong. I wish I could have learnt to breathe more when I was going through school to combat all that pressure. And also stop those thoughts of, Oh people are staring at me again because I have one leg. And, Do I look funny in this outfit? If you breathe it’s like, Okay, this is a point in time. But is it really important? So breathe! Nice and simple.
Find out more about Hannah over at www.hannahmacdougall.com.au