The hardest part of Nikki Ayers' recovery from a freak rugby union accident had nothing to do with the 16 operations to save her leg and repair her knee.
The hardest part wasn't even ditching her knee brace to walk the Kokoda Trail, or rowing a boat for the first time on Lake Burley Griffin to start a Paralympic dream.
"No. The hardest part was coming to grips with the scar I've got. I always used to wear pants [to hide it]," Ayers says two years after the accident that changed her life.
"I had to accept that this was my leg now. I had 15 surgeries on the dead muscle from compartment syndrome and a knee reconstruction, so 16 surgeries in nine months.
"But when I met [fellow para-rower Jed Altschwager] and heard about how he embraced who he was, that helped. I stopped wearing pants and when I had that confidence I could embrace it more.
"When you get stronger, you get more confidence to push yourself and find those new boundaries to break."
Ayers has been picked in the Australian rowing team for the first time and will fly out of Canberra on Friday to compete at the world championships in Bulgaria from September 9-16.
The 27-year-old has long harboured an ambition of representing Australia on the world stage, growing up with a women's rugby dream. But everything changed when a tackle went wrong in 2016.
Ayers dislocated her knee, severed a major artery, lost feeling in her foot and damaged nerves in a trial match for the Tuggeranong Viqueens.
She had a metal brace around her knee and pins drilled into her bones to hold it in place after 10 operations in her first 21 days in hospital.
But Ayers has never been someone to back away from a challenge. So while she's unable to join the Viqueens in the Canberra women's rugby grand final on Saturday, she'll fly to Bulgaria to take a step toward the Tokyo Paralympics.
"I have complete foot drop from the nerve damage. I can't lift my foot up at all and limited movement with my knee," Ayers said.
"Rowing sort of found me a bit. It was never about finding what I couldn't do, it was about finding what I can do now. That was the motivation to keep going, try things new and push through.
"Staying at home and sitting on the couch was never going to be the mind set I had. Yes, there were times when I was down. But I always managed to pick myself up thanks to my family and I realised there were bigger things out there.
"As shit as it was and yes it was life changing, it's just created opportunities that I would have never had before. So now it's about embracing it and making the most of it."
Ayers will be a part of the PR3 mixed coxed four alongside Ben Gibson, James Talbot, Kate Murdoch and coxswain Renae Domaschenz.
Canberra's Luke Letcher will compete in the men's single scull while Caleb Antill is part of the quadruple scull. Letcher is also a reserve for the quadruple sculls.
The world championship will be a major stepping stone toward Olympic and Paralympic goals, with the selection process about to heat up for the Games in Japan in 2020.
Ayers is the first to admit she's still learning her craft in the boat. But she has twice completed the gruelling 190 kilometre surf boat George Bass Marathon.
Her path to rowing started via a talent identification for the Paralympics. She was sent a letter offering a chance to trial in wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, cycling or rowing.
Ayers, who is a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at The Canberra Hospital, started serious training in January and went to the national championship with just 10 weeks of experience.
"I hit every buoy in every race because I was so new at it," Ayers laughed.
"But I got picked in a camp and then the Australian team so I've been training twice a day, five days a week as well as working. It's been a whirlwind.
"I never thought about not doing anything. I was in the gym with my sister when I was still on crutches. Rowing just found me, it fell in my lap. Hopefully I can break barriers and aim for the Paralympics."
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