Mike Ballard set for Paracanoe World Cup after overcoming potentially lethal infection

Abu Dhabi-based kayaker will head to Poland as United States paracanoe champion having recovered from cellulitis

Mike Ballard and his United States Paracanoe teammate Jack Wallace. Photo: Mike Ballard
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Mike Ballard hopes to be more competitive than ever when he arrives at the Paracanoe World Cup in Poland next month, after overcoming a potentially lethal condition.

The Abu Dhabi-based kayaker will head to the event in Poznan in May having raced what he deemed his “most technically sound race” to date to become the United States champion in his category.

Ballard’s long-term aim is qualification for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, in the KL2 Men’s 200m category of the paracanoe discipline.

The Michigan-born athlete played down his achievement of becoming national champion in California earlier this month. But he did say he had “accomplished everything we wanted to” in the wake of his troubled pre-season.

“I had this injury that kept me completely off water for all my pre-season,” Ballard said.

“What I am most excited about is that I hopped in an unfamiliar boat completely unfit, way too heavy, and put up a time that was a full second better than I managed in Hungary [in a Paralympic qualifying event last year].

“I raced the most technically sound race of my career. There is lots of really good stuff to build on. It could not have gone any better.”

Ballard will now head to Poznan for the World Cup from May 26 to 29. Because of the issues he faced at the turn of 2022, he is regarding that event as part of his preparation for the World Championships in Nova Scotia, then the Pan-American Games, in August.

Mike Ballard competing in California at the start of April. Photo: Mike Ballard

Last September, Ballard discovered a pressure sore while conducting a routine skin check ahead of a trip up the coast to Dubai to train with a leading Hungarian paddler.

“If you don’t manage it, it can kill you,” said Ballard, who has been paralysed below the waist since an accident suffered while playing rugby in 2014.

“It is a high stakes thing, but by being in trouble all the time with it, I am familiar with it.

“The number one killer of people with spinal-cord injuries is pressure sores. That is normal wear and tear. The longer you spend sitting, the more at risk you are for it, and I am a chronic pressure-sore patient.

“I am pretty competent at managing them, but in September, at the start of the pre-season, I had a very small break in the skin. The wrong bacteria got into the wrong spot.”

The tear developed into cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection that causes redness, swelling, and pain in the infected area of the skin. If untreated, it can spread and cause serious health problems.

Ballard cites the case of Christopher Reeve, the Hollywood actor, who died following complications related to a similar condition.

“An able-bodied person would say, ‘Ouch, I need to go and get this checked out,’ but for people with spinal-cord injuries, we don’t have that pain signal,” Ballard said.

“I had no idea I had this infection. I left it 36 hours before I went to the hospital, and it was a potentially serious, life-threatening injury if it wasn’t managed properly.”

From September 25 to mid-January, Ballard made frequent visits to a wound clinic to have the infection treated.

He was advised to stay in bed for three weeks and get wound care visits at home, which he did during December. By the middle of January, he was ready to return to the water.

“It was good timing given where it came in pre-season, and also with it being non-Olympic year, there are no ramifications for [qualifying for] Paris,” Ballard said.

“I am just happy to be back into the boat, and to put up a good time without training. It really taught me a lot about how I need to paddle.

“Hopefully I can be more competitive now than I was before.”

Updated: April 22, 2022, 3:44 AM
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