Hamish McCallum was an active 20-year-old university student before he suffered a severe brain injury in a mountain bike crash. After a difficult period of rehabilitation, he decided to get back on the bike. In the 21 years since the accident, he has defied the odds and now he is representing New Zealand at the Para Cycling World Cup in Belgium. Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan chats to the Oamaru cyclist.
It was a normal Saturday morning for Hamish McCallum.
After a week of university lectures, he went out for one of his regular rides with the University of Otago mountain biking club.
Little did he know this ride would change his life forever.
Cycling along the Government Track above the Waipori River, he raced ahead of the pack.
When the other riders caught him, they found him crashed off his bike, bloodied and unconscious on the side of the track.
He recalls nothing of the crash which left him with a traumatic brain injury.
“I don’t know what happened,” McCallum said.
“I suspect, though, it was a stupid mistake on my part, to make my bike look cooler.”
The impact left him in a coma for six weeks and now he has a condition called hemiparesis, which affects feeling and mobility on his left side.
In the 21 years since the accident, McCallum has had to adapt to a very different life, but he has defied the odds through a lot of hard work, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
“I definitely did not want this – I just wanted life back to normal,” he said.
“[But] I had to get used to a new way of life, life with a disability.
“My main thing, I guess, was I always had a drive to do the best I can.”
Despite being told he would not be able to, he returned to university and completed his bachelor of arts degree in geography – and was invited back to do honours. But after his experiences, he decided to change paths and study occupational therapy.
“Four years later I graduated and became a registered occupational therapist,” he said.
He got his first job at Burwood Hospital, in the orthopaedic ward, where he spent a year and a-half before moving to England.
“I worked as a locum occupational therapist at six hospitals around Essex and Oxfordshire,” he said.
He struggled with fatigue a lot – especially when working more than four days a week.
“Things got easier, though, when I discovered benefits of stuff like fish oil, which increases circulation though the brain and helps me to think faster.”
Outside of work, he liked to travel and, undeterred from his crash, go mountain biking.
“I took my mountain bike over to Europe and cycled from Budapest in Hungary, through Slovakia, to Krakow in Poland – a trip of about 500km,” he said.
But after fracturing his right arm – his “good arm” – biking in Essex, he was forced to return to New Zealand to recover.
He found work as a disabilities co-ordinator at Northtec in Whangarei, before moving to Auckland and working as a needs assessor at Greenlane Hospital for five years.
He continued cycling, but made the switch to road cycling.
“I cycled three Taupo cycle challenge races – 160km around the lake – and two tours of New Zealand with Team Tearfund – 700km in seven days,” he said.
In 2015, he was dealt a double blow – first fracturing his collar bone when he was hit by a car while cycling, then being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“An entirely incidental finding from a scan of the collar bone was that I had thyroid cancer,” he said.
“I had surgery to remove the thyroid, and am on thyroxine for the rest of my life.”
In 2017, he decided to move to Oamaru to be closer to family.
“Just before I moved down though, my flatmate saw me have a seizure .. [and] I was diagnosed as having epilepsy,” he said.
He could not drive for six months, and after another cycling accident, he decided to give up the sport altogether.
“A friend from my church in Auckland kindly drove me and my car, crammed full of all my possessions, down to Oamaru,” he said.
He started work at Oamaru Hospital as a needs assessor and, after noticing how quiet the roads were compared to Auckland, he could not resist getting back on the bike.
Cycling is his release – and he has been accident-free since moving to Oamaru.
“It’s time out there just to burn my energy and do something I enjoy,” he said.
He knows people often double-take when they see him out cycling, as he has to wear an ankle foot orthotic brace to control calf muscle spasms.
But it does not stop him.
Last year, he met Adair Craik who connected him with Cycling South Canterbury and he started competing in its winter race series.
“Adair also suggested that I get paralympic classification, so that I could compete at high level as a cyclist with a disability,” he said.
He won the first two Paralympics New Zealand para cycling series events he entered and came third in the next two, up against some of the country’s best para cyclists.
After the third race in Hamilton, he was invited to compete in the UCI Para Cycling World Cup in Belgium and has been cycling about 200km to 300km a week in training.
He left for Belgium yesterday and competes from May 16 to 18 in a time trial and road race.
If he does well, he hopes to be invited to the Paralympics New Zealand high performance unit.
“Then, the goal from this would be to get invited to do the Para Cycling World Champs which is in September in the Netherlands,” he said.
At present, his classification is C3 but that will be reviewed in Belgium.
Competing at an international level does not come cheap, but the Oamaru community has got right behind him, raising $9350 for his trip.
He is also grateful for the ongoing support from his family, girlfriend and church community.
“I’ve got a decent time trial bike and a good road bike and Adair herself has paid for coaching and helped a lot with fundraising,” he said.
“I am very grateful to be supported towards this goal.
“Because of the support of those around me, I am able to make the allowances I need to achieve at a high level.
“It’s nice – it’s all happening for me at the moment.”