The scars on Monique Murphy’s body are almost unrecognisable as she sits in a cafe in Brisbane’s south on an overcast morning.
Her bubbly nature and big smile are hard to miss.
One might look first at the rainbow-dyed strands under her blonde hair, or her brightly coloured prosthetic leg, before she lifts her chin to show the traces of a life-changing accident.
She’s what she calls a “frequent flyer” in hospital, this week undergoing her 25th surgery.
It’s another number added to a string of figures the Paralympian pins to her name.
Silver medallist in the 400 metres S10 freestyle at the Paralympics in Rio, Brazil, in 2016.
A member of five Australian swim teams.
Three attempts at different degrees. Two universities.
And nine years to graduate from her bachelor degree.
But Murphy says the thrill of hearing her name called last month at her graduation ceremony was almost the same as grasping her silver medal in Brazil.
Those final steps – taken with an expensive prosthetic leg Murphy fights hard for – onto the graduation stage were precious. They represented the end of a years-long journey the 28-year-old never expected.
“It’s quite funny. Everything in sport is about doing everything as fast as you can, until it comes to your degree, there’s a competition for who takes the longest,” Murphy jokes.
Higher education is one thing athletes are happy to take their time on, she says.
She now holds a bachelor of business, majoring in marketing – a degree that cost more than her prosthetic leg.
Murphy has no recollection of the incident that led to the amputation of her right leg.
In 2014, she woke from a coma, a week after being at a university party.
Always a competitive swimmer, the young social-work student was told she had fallen from a fifth-floor balcony and landed on a glass roof. Her parents were told she had tried to kill herself.
But the accident was the result of a spiked drink.
Her injuries were extensive – her leg actually one of the lesser, Murphy says.
“I cut my neck open, I missed the windpipe,” she says, adding doctors were worried about removing the significant amount of glass from her neck.
Her jaw was broken, her left shoulder wrecked. Bones were fractured and the damage to her right foot required amputation.
“I’ve got a load [of scars]. I’ve got scars all over my chest from all the glass. There’s quite a lot there,” she says, pulling at her top.
“I woke up, they didn’t do stitches, they did staples. I had staples everywhere. I felt like Frankenstein.
“Everyone was saying to me, ‘you’re going to be a Paralympian!’ and I’m in a hospital bed going, ‘it’s going to be 10 times harder’.
“I had jaw surgery, so my face was so big. The scars got quite bubbly, they had to do injections, they weren’t very fun…[the doctors were saying] ‘we’ll make you look pretty’ and I was just thinking, I don’t actually care, I’m alive, that’s good enough.”
Murphy tells of how she failed a university course because her ability to recall new information is not what it was before the fall.
On her good days, Murphy would be in the water at 5.30am, followed by class, a gym session, rest and training again in the afternoon.
Some days, when she was recovering from surgery and in a wheelchair, she wouldn’t even attend the campus because it wasn’t accessible enough.
Then, at age 26, an endometriosis diagnosis.
“With my accident I learnt to be very flexible with my goals,” she says.
“One month I’m aiming for a Paralympic medal, the next month I’m recovering, trying to get to the toilet.
“If the goals changed, it’s not a reflection on me. Finishing uni, you know, in my family it’s the longest anyone has taken to finish a degree. It was really important for my parents.
“It took a bit longer … I’m 28, looking for my first full-time job, but at the same time I’ve got a lot of life experience when it comes to people with a disability, advocating for minorities.”
She says a huge challenge for her and others with disabilities is finding full-time work, especially when employers are often hesitant to hire people who might need additional requirements, such as suitable parking spaces.
And the cost has been considerable. Murphy, who has paid for more than half her surgeries, says more support is needed through employers and the NDIS.
“When I had my accident, everything was covered. But as soon as I left, everything … is considered elective.
“Endometriosis is considered elective. That’s the most expensive surgery I’ve had. It’s frustrating.
“Twenty per cent of people in Australia have a disability and only 1 per cent are employed [full time]. I can’t find someone who will employ [full time] … at the moment, I can’t have a full-time job just because of my health.”
Murphy is balancing work at Minerva Network, Paralympics Australia and Sporting Wheelies and talks regularly at schools to raise awareness and educate kids about living with disabilities.
She says educating children at an early stage, before stigma has set in, will change how people with disabilities are viewed.
Murphy is no stranger to disdainful treatment: people swore at her when she asked for a seat on public transport, people stared when she parked in a disabilities spot because “she’s young”.
She says Brisbane is the least accessible city she has lived in, compared with her former home in Melbourne, and hopes things will change before the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics.
“God, I hope I’m not competing by then,” she laughs. “But having a hand in shaping that would be amazing. It’s got to be accessible.”
Disparity still exists in the professional swimming sphere, Murphy says, with considerable pay differences in Olympian and Paralympic medals, not to mention the lack of broadcast priority for athletes with disabilities.
But Murphy says while her Paralympic colleagues tell her equality between Paralympians and Olympians has come a long way, there’s more to do.
There are hardly any female coaches also, Murphy says.
“Growing up watching the Olympics, it’s not about the attention or the media, you see the impact swimming has on people,” she says, recalling how Paralympians will often not be interviewed after their races, competing before smaller crowds.
“Why is what I do less? I lost my leg, why do I get punished?
“That’s why the Paralympics are really special because that’s the first time I’ve raced in front of a full crowd.
“When I made my first team, and we got our medals, everyone had left because the able-bods were [finished racing] … my family were still there and in tears.
“No para swimmer is sponsored by Speedo.”
It still baffles Murphy why athletes with disabilities have such under-representation in the media, and when they do, it’s “all about a pity story”.
“We’re athletes first and foremost, people with a disability second,” she says.
She hopes after her second knee reconstruction this week to make a full recovery and aim for the Paris Paralympics in 2024.
“If I’m in any pain or training gets too much, I’m very grateful for what my body has gone through,” she says.
“I’ve been on the team for six years. I’ve held world records. I’ve won a Paralympian medal. If that’s it, I’m very grateful. I can’t keep pushing me through more surgeries.
“I’ll always be in the water. But I want to continue to be an advocate, and being an able-bod then a para, you see both sides.
“The disparity is really obvious for me … it’s good because you need to be grateful but continually pushing for change. I’d really love to be able to get on any kind of development team for 2032.
“As long as I’m somewhere helping people, I’ll be happy.”