Seven months ago, Sharon ‘Shaz’ Dagg faced a double conundrum in her plan to do her first Coast to Coast.
First, she’d never been in a kayak before. And second, she didn’t have the right prosthetic arm to tackle the job.
But it took some good old Kiwi ingenuity and a handful of plumbing supplies to get the Para athlete down the 70km kayak stint on the Waimakariri River last weekend, on her way to becoming the first female amputee to complete New Zealand’s toughest multisport race.
For safety reasons, the 54-year-old had to paddle with Brett Garrett, a four-time Coast to Coast competitor and the person who taught her how to kayak last year. “They wouldn’t really allow me to do it by myself because I’m attached to the paddle at all times,” Dagg explains.
Garrett works for a plumbing company and together they had a good think about overcoming the issue of how Dagg – an above-the-elbow amputee – would hold the paddle with her prosthetic arm.
“He came back with a bit of PVC syphon, some rubber O-rings and a clamp,” says Dagg, whose team logo is ‘Limb-it-less Shaz Dagg’. “And then the Limb Centre made the sockets and everything. A little bit of Kiwi ingenuity.”
But even with some smart thinking, Dagg still found the kayak stage extremely painful. She managed to get through the pain barriers by thinking about the next steps of the gruelling two-day event, which she completed in just under 18-and-a-half hours.
The NZ Artificial Limb Service are looking at designing a new prosthetic to help her kayak more comfortably in the future. “But that one got us through the day, so that’s the main thing,” she says.
“To be honest, all I could think about was ‘every stroke is one stroke further ahead’. I would just try to focus on the next section of the course – which was the 70km bike ride. And how I would work out how to be comfortable.
“It’s very – should I say – Kiwi of us. You know, if we’re going to do something we just get stuck in, boots and all.”
The paddle was the part of the 243km race, from the South Island’s West Coast of to Christchurch in the east, that captured Dagg’s attention in the first place, when she was looking for another challenge.
Dagg, who usually competes in triathlons around the world, wasn’t going to let the minor detail of not knowing how to kayak get in the way of giving it a good go.
“The first time sitting in a kayak I thought ‘Shit, is this old tart gonna rock over and be unbalanced and fall out?’,” laughs Dagg.
In 2016, Dagg’s left arm was crushed by a gate while she was working on a goat farm. After multiple complications, and nine surgeries, the arm was amputated above her elbow.
Prior to her farm accident, Dagg represented New Zealand at the 2014 ITU world duathlon championships in Spain and raced in a number of Ironman events.
She also competed as an age-grade triathlete and decided to come back to the sport after her accident. By 2018 she had qualified to represent New Zealand at the triathlon world champs on the Gold Coast, becoming the country’s first Para triathlete. Dagg finished sixth.
What keeps driving her to seek out new challenges – and the reason she got through the Coast to Coast – is the idea of wanting to try and motivate others: “Whether they are amputees or whatever”.
“So hopefully we’ve achieved a bit of that. My saying to myself is, ‘just because you’ve only got half a wing, Shaz, doesn’t mean you can’t f***ing fly’,” she laughs.
“There’s no excuse really. I’ve had a lot of bloody good laughs and a lot of fun. A lot of sweat and tears have gone into it. And a lot of pain.”
The Coast to Coast run was also extremely difficult for Dagg, but for different reasons. “It’s over the Goat Pass, so there were some massive boulders there that I had to try and manoeuvre and work myself around,” she says.
“I’d see people in front of me clamoring across with two arms and being able to hold on to that rock and this rock and lean on them. Whereas I was like ‘Ok, how the hell am I’m going to do this?’
“So the run was quite slow because there was a lot of pausing, stopping, thinking and working out scenarios. But it was absolutely bloody awesome.”
Dagg has always been into sport but her dogged determination kicked up a notch after the accident. “That just made me more determined. It was just like ‘Why the hell should I not be able to compete against, or be like, able-bodied’,” says Dagg. “There’s nothing wrong with my brain, it’s only my body that looks different.
“So you find ways, you adapt to the situation and I think that’s made me an even stronger, more determined, more pig-headed, stupid old tart.”
It’s also why she got back into triathlons.
“I hated swimming with a passion so that was my challenge – to try and swim with one wing basically,” she says. “It all just sort of started from there. I like a challenge all the time.”
Dagg was New Zealand’s Para triathlon champion from 2017 to 2019 across the PTS4 and 5 categories.
In between preparing for her challenges, Dagg works at Parafed Manawatu as a sport development advisor. She took up the role about two years ago after she was feeling better from her operations.
“I was so lucky to get that position. I work with the most extremely amazing kids that just love sport. What more can I ask for? I reckon I’ve got the best job in the world,” Dagg says.
“I encourage them into sport and their main goal is to go to the Halberg Games every year, which are coming up in April. So I have the awesome job of getting them up and ready for the games so they can compete because that’s the Olympics for them.”
Dagg isn’t bitter about her accident and she wouldn’t turn back the clock. “It’s been the best journey of my life these last two-and-a-half, three years. I wouldn’t have had opportunities like this,” she says.
“Every time I’ve done something and it starts getting hard, I say ‘Shaz, don’t give in, it comes from within’. And when I say that it comes from within, I mean it comes from in your heart. If you really want something, you’ll do it.”
Dagg understands her motivations are hers but she is always willing to share her experiences. “The main thing is, this is my journey but it’s also not just my journey,” she says. “It’s my husband’s journey and my friends’ journey too.”
Her husband, Owen, is her biggest supporter. Unfortunately he couldn’t be there to see her finish the Coast to Coast, says Dagg, who pauses over the phone to still her trembling voice.
“Without his support there’s no way I would be able to achieve any of these goals,” she says. “Whether it had been the triathlon, travelling halfway around the friggin’ world doing silly things, I just wouldn’t be able to do it without him. I do it for him as well – to make him proud too.”
When we speak over the phone, 30 minutes after getting back to her home in Feilding from her weekend adventure, Dagg says completing the race hasn’t really sunk in yet.
“I’ll probably sit down tonight and go ‘wow, it’s over, I’ve done it’,” she laughs. “It’s a real surreal moment but to have the support crew that I had, was just unbelievable. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
She was originally paired up with Paralympic silver medallist Kate Horan in the two-person team category – together they would have been the first amputee team to compete in the Coast to Coast. But when Horgan withdrew, it left Dagg thinking on her feet again.
“I thought it would’ve been so cool for a leg amputee and an arm amputee to do it. So I was disappointed. But I could see she had her reasoning; I totally understand that and back her,” she says.
“It just made me more determined. I thought ‘right, bring it on. If it has to be by one wing, we’re doing it’.”
Dagg is no longer going for the postponed Paralympics in Tokyo, even though she qualified for the triathlon. She decided it was too risky with Covid-19 and the cost was too high.
“It’s just so expensive travelling all around the world like I have done,” Dagg says. “It’s all self-funded and I just couldn’t afford to keep on going. And then when Covid hit, that was like a sign: ‘Ok, that’s it’.
“I know it would be an honour and it would be a pinnacle in a lot of athletes’ lives and careers. But for me personally, I do not want to put myself in that situation with Covid.”
But that doesn’t mean it stops there for Dagg. She wants to achieve whatever she puts her mind to next in the future.
“Life is too short,” she says. “We say that all the time but things can change in a heartbeat. And until something does, you never ever believe that saying.
“So from here, I don’t know where I’m going to go or what I’m going to do, but I’m sure I’ll find something. And you know what, maybe Coast to Coast will let me go in the kayak solo or even if someone is in another boat going down behind me.
“But don’t worry – new challenges are always coming up. I’m still ticking away there.”
For now, Dagg will take a break from planning, but she won’t stop training.
“I’ll keep moving. You can’t stop – it’s like a drug I suppose,” she says. “Once you start feeling healthy, you want to stay healthy. And if the brain is healthy and clear, the rest of you is.
“I just want to live my life to the best I can. I want people to look back and go, ‘Yep she gave it her all. She lived her life to the best’.”