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Valerie Hirschfield

For some people 220 km by car sounds far, for other people doing this on a SUP sounds crazy, but Valerie did it even with a handicap, she’s missing a leg. I first saw her during the 11-City SUP race in 2015. Her determination to reach the finish line impressed me, she kept on paddling, even though I saw blood coming from her leg and I wanted to know who this woman was. We’ve kept in touch ever since.

Can you first tell me something more about yourself?

I was born in France and my parents immigrated when I was 2 years old to South Africa, we lived in Johannesburg. We came back to France in 1993 because of the political situation in South Africa and the country wasn’t stable. We had 2 children that were born in South Africa when we came back. I’m living now in the South of France near Marseille.

In 2004 I suffered 3rd degree burns to my leg, which led to many surgeries and during one of these I caught an infection. I didn’t really have a choice but to amputate as septicemia set in and that was a life-threatening condition.

When did you decide to do the 11-City SUP race?

Basically it all started off as a game with myself, to see how much and what I would be able to achieve on one leg. That’s how it all started out, for example one day I would walk a kilometer, but I wouldn’t stop at a kilometer, I would do 1 and a bit extra and then think, tomorrow I would go over that and this is how I build it up. In 2014 I came across the 11-City Tour online and I thought: Well, this I would like to do and that’s how it all started really.

You have one leg and one with a prothesis, does this replace a functioning leg?

No, it doesn’t, it’s a foreign part and it’s something I put on and take off. It came with a lot of difficulty, for example when I did the first 11-City Tour, I had spent 10 years without a prosthetic leg, so for 10 years after the amputation I walked with crutches every day. And when I saw the 11-City Tour and decided I was going to do this, I taught myself how to paddle on one leg, without the prothesis, because I did not want to have one.

Obviously I was just balancing on a board and I would never have been able to do the race because I kept falling into the water. So I got my 1st prosthesis because if the 11-City Tour!

I used to get up on the paddling board and I would let the water carry me to wherever and then I would sit and paddle back. On my Facebook I got a lot of videos in my video album where you can see me learning how to paddle on one leg, before I got the prosthesis.

And you have been using this ever since or do you walk on crutches?

A bit of both. When I got my prosthetic leg, it was in July 2015 and in September 2015 I went  to do the race. I didn’t have much time to get used to this leg. When I went back in 2016 I was a bit more prepared.

Why did you drop out of the race after 4 days of the 5 of the 11-City Tour?

Because my body was half dead, I just couldn’t carry on (starts laughing). The 2015 edition, we had the most awful weather. We had all the seasons in 1 day, every day, and paddling on a canal was more complicated than paddling on the sea because on the sea, the salt carries you. Whereas on fresh water it’s more difficult, but I didn’t know that until I got there. Some of the canals weren’t deep enough, so it was like suction, it was a very complicated, very difficult experience.

It was day 3 of the race and I just couldn’t move anymore, my body was broken into pieces. It was very difficult, but I wanted to carry on, so in the end I just missed 1 day of the 5. I carried on sitting down, which was the worst thing to do, because that really gave me awful back ache. But I felt I needed to do more you know, because I know when I set my mind to something and I don’t do it, I feel terrible for months after that.

When did you decide to do the race the following year again?

I decided straight away. If I would not complete the last day, I had it already in my mind that I would have to come back the next year.

What would you advise to people who are going to do the 11-City Tour for the first time?

Never to give up and to keep pushing, because anybody can do it, if you push on. It’s very complicated mentally, sometimes you meet no one on the water and you just see the odd ducks going around. I even found myself speaking to the ducks, because there was no one else to speak to. Mentally it is very difficult, difficult to just see water and water and paddle for hours and hours. I spent some days 9 hours paddling. It seemed endless. But it is doable and if I did it, anybody can do it.

The 11-City Tour was also a great experience because of the people, there is so much friendship. I saw people who wanted to be 1st, 2nd and 3rd, yet along the way they stopped and spoke to me. I think that’s special, people were very kind amongst each other, even though they were there to win, they still had time to say encouraging words or paddle with me for 5 minutes. And not just with me, but with everyone.

What was your main food source these 5 days?

I managed with a lot of protein drinks and a lot of water. I had pre-mixed the protein drinks and I stopped at a few stations where they gave us soup and things like that, but I did not stop much because I knew I needed a lot of hours to paddle and I had to get to those bells. Because if you don’t ring the bell, you can’t carry on, your day doesn’t count. And I needed that medal the second time, I couldn’t keep coming back for it to get it!

What would you recommend for training for this race?

To SUP as much as possible. To train a lot and to train in all sorts of weather. And don’t underestimate the canals! I thought the first time I came that the canals would be like on the postcards from Holland, where the water is flat and it’s all easy. And that’s not the case. You have to train in all sorts of weather conditions, you never know what it will be like. In 2015 we had terrible weather every day and in 2016 I was lucky because we had very nice weather, it was like summer every day.

If you would not have lost a leg, would you still have been pushed to do the 11-City Tour?

That’s a difficult question! I don’t know what my life would have been , it’s difficult you know, when you think back to that. I really don’t know. As I said earlier, this was a test to myself, what am I going to do, what is my life going to be now? And what am I going to able to achieve? I think I was trying different things out, to see exactly what I would be able to do. And then I just got caught up in this game with myself and then people would say to me, oh why don’t you come and try flyboarding or why don’t you come and try rock climbing. If I had 2 legs, maybe I would not have had these opportunities. I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.

What motivation can you give other people with a disability to get into sports?

Anybody can do it, obviously you need to find your own way of doing it, because everybody has got a different disability. So everyone has to find a way of doing a particular sport, but with time and patience and putting in energy and the right mind set, anybody can do everything. But it’s difficult, like with my prosthetic leg, that leg is not mine. I have to bend the knee, I have to do a certain movement, it takes a lot of energy, even just to walk with a prosthetic leg, so it’s complicated, but it can be done.

What is your biggest achievement in sports?

I think it was my Tower Run which I did in 2022, I went up and down 10.000 steps. It took me 8,5 hours of just going up and down stairs. It wasn’t a very tall tower, just 231 steps, so I went up 22 times and down 22 times. I did just over 10.000 steps that day. It’s a race that I’ve put together, together with 3 fireman, to raise funds for children with cancer.

About the Stair Racing you do, where can people find more information about this?

Well, usually what happens, is that I do it all for the same charity, for the same research hospital that is near Paris. Usually I put a page up where people can participate with money, obviously! (she starts laughing again) Because I raise money for these things. I also put up a page on Facebook where people can follow the race and where people can see the photo’s and the video’s and so on. My Facebook and Instagram started as just for myself and my family and friends and has now become more open because I need people to follow me, to spread the word.

What is the reason you chose this particular charity?

My first Stair Run was in 2017 in Paris and it was for the Gustave Roussy foundation. When I came out of the metro and looked up at the tower where the race was going to be, I saw the photo of this little boy who died of cancer, it was his father who organized this race in his memory. I was captivated by this image and of course the message that was behind the photo of this little boy. Since then I’ve always helped this charity.

Last year with  all the lock downs, no more money was being raised for this foundation. So I decided to do as mall Tower Run in my town on my own, because with Covid I could not have people doing it with me. I was able to raise over €6.000 and I didn’t know at first, but the date that was chosen, would have been the 16th birthday of this little boy. So it had a special meaning. City Hall chose the date, because they had to close the monument for me and it was like a sign. This year, I did the 10.000 steps at that same tower, this time there were 4 of us doing the race. And now I’m organizing a 3rd one.

I’ve decided to carry on with this charity, they do a lot of research for pediatrics cancer, it’s the  Fondation Gustave Roussy (see link below this interview), it’s huge and it’s not only for children.

What other things or races would you still like to do?

I’ve done the 11-City Tour twice and the only other races I do are Stair Runs. I do other sports, but just for fun, like flyboarding. It’s easier when you got 2 legs, it’s a bit more difficult when you got 1 leg, but it’s fun.

Who is an inspiration for you or who do you admire?

I admire everyone, because everyone has a story. There isn’t  a person that I admire more than someone else. All the sports that I do, I do with body abled people, it’s not because we are missing a leg or because we are missing an arm that we become an inspiration. I think everybody is an inspiration for one reason or another.

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