Paraplegic circus aerialist Lauren Watson might have already conquered flying, but she still dreams of the day she could walk again.
“It would be wonderful not to have to get my wheelchair out,” says the performer, 36, soon to be soaring over Gold Coast crowds in The Rising, a "physical theatre" performance which is part of the city's 2018 Festival for the Commonwealth Games.
“To walk on crutches 10m to a cafe with my friends, to be tall again would be amazing. My philosophy is anything is possible, you just have to find a way.”
In 2001 Watson was a 19-year-old graphic designer travelling in the back seat of a car along a rocky dirt road in the Shoalhaven, south of Sydney, when it skidded out of control and hit a tree.
“I thought I had just broken my legs but when I tried to move them, they wouldn’t budge. It was an incredibly overwhelming feeling of fear and panic and I was actually in quite a lot of pain,” says Watson, who was airlifted to Sydney where an MRI confirmed she had broken her back.
After two steel rods were inserted in her spine she spent nearly two years in hospital and rehab.
“There were times I just didn’t want to be here at all,” she admits.
Yet in her darkest hours, a new version of herself emerged when a psychiatrist helped her come to terms with life as a partial paraplegic.
“I wanted to try and challenge myself,” she explains. “I became quite competitive with a couple of other guys in wheelchairs—we would race each other around an obstacle course. So when it was time to leave hospital and become independent ... I just threw myself into coping with it all and I’m so glad I did because if I hadn’t done that I would probably still be quite afraid of the world.”
And then she found Industry Aerial Arts, a Gold Coast circus school run by Tammy Zarb, who helped her learn how to be an adaptive aerialist—and overcome her fear of heights.
“The first attraction was the challenge and now it’s the feel of it all, it feels amazing to fly, there’s nothing better than it,” says Watson, who took six months just to learn how to lift herself off the mat.
Up in the air, says Watson, who lives by herself on the Gold Coast and works as a freelance designer, “I forget I can’t walk because I’m so wrapped up in the performance.”
Her role in The Rising has been created for her.
“I’d love to see other people with disabilities up in the air and being creative because it can be really beneficial,” she says.
“I didn’t want to live a resentful life. I wanted to live a good life. I’m not saying that it was easy to do. But I wanted my nieces and nephews to see if I can do it, they can do anything.”
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