By Anna Redman
As a farm kid who was encouraged to try her hand at all kinds of sports, Michelle Salt is no stranger to a healthy lifestyle. This childhood lover of running and basketball discovered her first true passion, snowboarding, at the age of 12, before recognizing her second more than 10 years later: fitness competitions.
After several unsuccessful relationships, Michelle decided it was time to focus on herself and set two personal goals: to be more selfless and to be more healthy. To conquer goal number one, she headed to Haiti after the earthquake; for goal number two, she hit the gym.
“I saw this woman preparing for a competition, and she just looked amazing,” Michelle reminisces. “I thought ‘Wow, that’s something I want to do.’” So she hired a trainer, signed up with a nutritionist, and threw herself into 16 gruelling weeks of dieting and twice-a-day training. “It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Michelle admits. “I definitely learned how much dedication goes into a life/fitness balance.”
In May 2011, all her hard work paid off and Michelle entered her first fitness competition, placing fourth out of 23 contenders. “[Before taking the stage] I knew that I looked good, but I didn’t know what my competition looked like, so my goal was to be in the top five,” Michelle reveals. “I was so thrilled to achieve that goal that I decided to buy myself something I had always wanted: a motorcycle.”
On June 27, 2011, Michelle, who had been a proud bike owner for only 10 days, took her new ride out for a spin. “I had this feeling in my gut that day that something wasn’t right,” she says looking back. Going up the hill, she and her fellow bikers stuck together, but heading down, everything fell apart. “For some reason the guys decided to start speeding,” Michelle recalls. “I tried to keep up with them, but they were pretty much gone, and I was stuck behind this car. When I went around it and opened up my throttle, everything went wrong.”
The RCMP suspects that she hit her back break, causing the bike to pin her down while still going 120 km/hour. Michelle travelled across an entire lane of traffic before hitting the guardrail headfirst while still pinned under her bike. The collision caused the motorcycle to fly backwards while Michelle did several metres of air cartwheels before hitting the guardrail a second time and breaking a shocking number of bones: her pelvis, hips, L4 and L5 vertebrae, and clavicle all shattered. She punctured a lung, bruised her spleen, and was left with her torso and lower body going in different directions, due to her broken pelvis and hips. Her right femur severed an artery, and suddenly the panic grew — Michelle was bleeding to death.
“Some complete strangers stopped and called 911,” Michelle explains. “They didn’t even know if I was male or female because my body was so mangled.”
One of the group, a former nurse, knew how precarious Michelle’s survival was and told the 911 operator she needed an air ambulance, if she stood any chance at all. The paramedics arrived eight minutes later, and as they were putting Michelle onto a stretcher, they lost her vitals.
“It was then that I had my out-of-body experience,” Michelle notes. “I actually saw myself being put on the stretcher. It was completely gut-wrenching. I looked down at myself, and I made the conscious decision that I was going to fight for my life.”
As she was being rushed through the hospital doors, Michelle’s entire body shut down, having lost more than 50 per cent of its blood. The severity of her injuries led to seven days on life support and five surgeries, one of which was the amputation of her right leg, eight inches above the knee. Michelle has been told that if it hadn’t been for her superb physical condition before the accident, she wouldn’t have survived.
“My heart was really strong from all my fitness training and it kept me alive,” Michelle notes. “The muscle I had functioned as a body armour, and if I hadn’t been competition-ready, I probably would have severed my spine and been paralyzed.” She considers her story an example of why it’s so important to stay in shape and to be healthy. “It saved my life for sure, 100 per cent, and I’m grateful for that!” she says.
Even though she was still healing, within days of learning about her amputated leg the ever-ambitious Michelle decided she wanted to overcome her injuries and become a Paralympian. “Everyone else was focused on my recovery,” she acknowledges. “I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t do anything — I essentially had to learn to do everything all over again, but I knew what I wanted.”
Having spent five months in the hospital, exercising was a top priority when Michelle was released, and within a week of being home she was already in the gym, determined to be healthy, regardless of whether she competed again — although that had always been her plan.
In March of 2012, nine months after the accident, Michelle had successfully achieved her Paralympic goal and headed to Sochi for a snowboarding competition on a global scale. “In 2012, they announced that snowboarding would be included in the Paralympics for the first time ever, and I was the only Canadian female who went,” Michelle notes.
Before her accident, Michelle had intended to go for her Pro card. She returned home from the hospital the weekend before the show she had intended to be in, clearly unable to participate. She was presented with an honourary award, acknowledging her love of fitness, her recent challenges, and her overwhelming desire to compete again. “I walked the stage again, obviously not competing, but they recognized that I was going to go for it, but couldn’t,” Michelle says.
But her accident was only a temporary hurdle. Michelle recently participated in a Calgary fitness competition, snagging an impressive ninth place out of 19 fellow bikini contestants. For Michelle, the crash left more than an amputation. It was a new beginning, giving her more drive, more focus, and more determination than ever before.