Siren Collaborator Mary Konstantopoulos speaks to para-canoe athlete AJ Jennings about her incredible journey that will see her head to Tokyo to go for gold.
CW: This article includes mention of suicide and drug addiction
After living with chronic pain, depression and an addiction to prescription medication for two decades, AJ Jennings made a brave decision to amputate her right leg through the knee. It wasn’t too long after making this decision that Jennings discovered para-canoe; and now she is set to represent Australia in her second Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Making the decision to amputate her leg was a life or death situation for Jennings. Her reality had been two decades confined to a wheelchair, housebound and an addiction to prescription painkillers. She was at the point where she was considering taking her own life.
“I felt like my husband deserved a wife that could be a wife and that my boys deserved a mum that could actually be a mum,” said Jennings.
“I didn’t want them looking after me all the time and I thought without me in the picture anymore, they could move on with their lives.
“I felt like a drain on society.”
Jennings sent her family away for the weekend and had made the decision to end her life. But a friend called her, realised something was going on and came and spent the weekend with Jennings. They drank a lot that weekend and cried together. But her friend’s parting advice to Jennings was ‘give it one more fight’.
That was when Jennings went and saw her doctor and told him that they were dealing with a life or death situation.
“I told him that I was just surviving, I wasn’t living,” said Jennings. “I want to live. If I can’t live, I might as well not be here.”
With the assistance of her doctor, Jennings made the decision to amputate her leg. It took several months of physical and mental preparation to be in a position to be ready for the operation.
One the day of the surgery, her doctor told her that this was the easy part. All she had to do was shut her eyes and he would be there for her on the other side. “The minute I woke up, I felt a real burden lifted,” said Jennings.
“I knew I could get on with it.”
It took a little bit of time for Jennings to find para-canoe. In the decades prior where she had been housebound, the amount of physical activity she was doing was extremely limited.
But then a friend challenged her and bet her that she wouldn’t be able to complete the Murray Marathon; a five day 404 kilometre event. Both Jennings and her friend completed the event together, with Jennings wanting to end the friendship after the first day where they paddled 78 kilometres.
It’s also fair to say that Jennings and her friend Amanda could have taken preparation more seriously. Their version of preparation was paddling the two and half kilometre water stretch near where they lived and going for hot chocolates and donuts afterward.
It was on one of those training paddles that Jennings met her coach. He asked whether she had ever heard of para-canoe. Jennings had not and he encouraged her to give it a go.
That was in late 2013. In 2014, Jennings was competing in her first Nationals and by May that same year, she was making her international debut, competing at the International Canoe Federation Canoe Sprint World Championships where she won a bronze medal in the women’s kayak LTA.
“It was a real whirlwind entry into the sport,” said Jennings. “I had been confined to a wheelchair in the decades prior so I hadn’t done any sport or anything.
“After the amputation things took off. I wouldn’t be standing on the world stage if I hadn’t made the decision to amputate my leg.”
Since then, Jennings has had a remarkable career. Jennings won her first world title in 2015 and secured a place on the Australian Paralympic Team for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. After qualifying fastest for the women’s kayak KL3 Paralympic final, Jennings pushed two-time world champion Anne Dickins to the end for a photo finish and won a silver medal before winning another world title in 2017.
Now Jennings has her sights set on Tokyo. After a difficult qualification for the Games, where Jennings essentially had to qualify twice due to the pandemic, she is taking every day as it comes.
“I am getting older now and some of the athletes that I compete against are almost 20 years younger than me,” said Jennings.
“But my training shows I am still growing as an athlete. I can still do this and if this is my last Paralympic Games, then I’m going to take it day by day.
“I’m going to put on my grandma undies and just keep working.”