Two years ago, Gabriel ‘Gabe’ McKenna-Lieschke woke up from an induced coma and through the haze of very strong painkillers realised his right arm was gone.
The bodybuilder was lifting weights at a gym in the northern Adelaide suburb of Gepps Cross in November 2020, just as he’d done hundreds of times before.
But one moment changed his life when lifting a 50kg barbell caused his tendon to be torn from the bicep of his arm.
‘What should have been routine surgery to repair the tear followed by rehab turned into a nightmare which almost cost Gabe his life,’ his friend Edward Noble wrote on a GoFundMe page to help McKenna-Lieschke realise his Paralympics goal.
Gabriel McKenna-Lieschke (pictured on his bike) is determined to win gold for Australia at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris
Three days after the operation in November 2020, McKenna-Lieschke, 29, had to be rushed to Adelaide’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
His arm was swollen after contracting a fast spreading ‘flesh-eating’ infection called necrotising fasciitis, caused by bacteria releasing toxins in the body.
McKenna-Lieschke was in an induced coma for 10 days and had 11 operations, but surgeons had to amputate his right arm above the elbow to save his life.
‘I was on lots of drugs and didn’t realise what had happened for a couple of days, until I looked in the mirror and my arm was missing,’ he told the Advertiser.
He had a passion for being strong and had been training hard since he was a teenager.
Before the accident, McKenna-Lieschke was just two weeks away from finishing a civil engineering degree.
What is necrotising fasciitis?
It is a rare bacterial infection that spreads quickly in the body and can cause death.
Accurate diagnosis, rapid antibiotic treatment and prompt surgery are important to stopping this infection.
See a doctor right away if your skin becomes red, warm, swollen, or very painful soon after an injury or surgery.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Family and friends were told his chances of waking up from the coma were slim.
But Mr Noble said his friend is a fighter.
‘When Gabe regained consciousness the first thing he said to me was “I just have to eat this” shortly followed by “I think I want to do track cycling!”‘ he said.
McKenna-Lieschke is now a very strong contender for a cycle spot at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
‘I plan to win a gold medal,’ he said.
It’s a massive change from his life just over two years ago. Before his accident he rode mountain bikes but never a road bike.
He had been boxing as well as bodybuilding up to the injury but realised they were now both somewhat impractical – but he wanted to compete.
‘I accepted my arm was not going to grow back and decided to get on with my life and was trying to think of what I could best compete in,’ he said.
Family friend and local media personality Jane Reilly got him in touch with state MP Matt Cowdrey, who with 23 medals is Australia’s most successful Paralympian.
Mr Cowdrey put McKenna-Lieschke in touch with cycling officials and a path towards competing in the Paralympics developed from there.
After initially pursuing endurance cycling the national coach suggested he may be better at sprinting.
The coach was right. ‘Sprinting and weightlifting training gave me a big piece of my identity back,’ McKenna-Lieschke said.
Gabriel ‘Gabe’ McKenna-Lieschke (pictured) woke up from an induced coma and through the haze of very strong painkillers realised his right arm was missing
His first goal was to make the Australian team for the world championships in Glasgow next August, followed by Paris in 2024, competing in the 1km time trial and the team sprint.
One major barrier to his plans, though, is the expense.
The prosthetic he uses in training can’t be used at the Paralympics and getting the correct carbon fibre one doesn’t come cheap.
This is why friends, including Mr Noble, started the GoFundMe page to raise funds for the prosthetic, equipment, travel and other expenses.
‘I think my story of resilience is something that can really help and inspire others doing it tough,’ McKenna-Lieschke said.
Gabe McKenna-Lieschke (pictured) is training hard and determined to win gold at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris