13 Oct 2023

The Kiwi triathlete proving 'somebody with MS can still be active'

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 13 October 2023

When Prue Young was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 18 months ago, people assumed she'd have to give up work and sport.

This week, the 33-year-old Nelson paramedic is in Hawaii to compete in the 2023 VinFast IRONMAN World Championship.

New Zealand triathlete and paramedic Prue Young

New Zealand triathlete and paramedic Prue Young Photo: Ironman New Zealand

Young, who works as a heli medic, completed her first-ever triathlon alongside four workmates back in 2017.

The next year, she completed a full Ironman, got the bug, and did the same in 2019. As Young was preparing for the 2021 event – the 2020 event was cancelled due to Covid – she received the MS diagnosis.

"One morning just before that competition I woke up and thought that I had sciatica in my leg. I'd been training really hard, being bent over on the bike, [I thought] I've pinched a nerve in my lower back."

Over the next four or five days, Young's symptoms changed and intensified.

"I lost the feeling of hot and cold and my leg, and then it crept up the right leg up into my abdomen area, and I lost the sensation there as well so we knew something was going on."

Before she knew what she was dealing with, Young decided to keep moving safely with aqua jogging and biking indoors on her wind trainer.

Eventually, a neurologist confirmed Young had multiple sclerosis – a condition in which nerve damage disrupts communication between the brain and the body.

At first, many people assumed the diagnosis meant she wouldn't be able to do exercise or work at all.

"I had people tell me 'look, it will be alright, even if you're in a wheelchair in three or five years' time, you'll still have a good quality of life ... we'll just make sure that you're still doing things that you enjoy and you love."

Yet when Young told her neurologist that she wanted to keep up her training for the December 2022 Ironman, she was super supportive.

"She was just like 'No, you can continue doing all the training that you want. Exercise is fantastic for MS, keep going."

Although the diagnosis didn't stop Young's training, she says it completely changed her motivation for doing the event.

"I was doing it for all my brothers and sisters that have MS, to prove that somebody with MS can still be active."

In the end, she had an "amazing day" at the Taupō event and unexpectedly qualified for the world championships in her age group. 

"The win for me was making it to the start line. And I knew that if I made it to the finish, then that was for everybody else."

Prue Young finishes the 2022 Ironman NZ wearing a butterfly cape

Prue Young finishes the 2022 Ironman NZ wearing a butterfly cape Photo: Cameron McKenzie

As a full-time shift worker, fatigue is always a consideration, Young says. Combined with sports training and a health condition like MS, managing it is a daily "balancing act".

Taking into account her specific challenges, and the variability of what she can do in a day or a week, her "wonderful" performance coach Richard Greer designed a flexible training programme.

"It comes down to a day-by-day thing, you know, what can I actually achieve today ... if my shift at work has been so crazy-busy that I actually just need to have a day off. If I'm tired, I can't do either - I can't work, I can't train. I can't be a friend or family member for anybody. So that's been the main thing.

Over the last year, Young says she's developed a deep sense of gratitude – for herself, her body, her friends, her family, her partner and the women she trains with.

"I hold down my job, I've managed to keep my job. I've managed to keep training … It's all just about gratitude."

While she says she's not sure whether triathlon training has a positive or negative effect on the MS, she feels like it's a positive thing in her life.

"It's kept me moving and kept me motivated and going. And if I can get just one person with me as a bit of hope that they can move and can go aqua jogging or can get out walking or biking or some form of exercise that works for them, then that's a win."

At this year's Hawaii Ironman, which entails a 3.9-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike ride and a full marathon, Young says her biggest goal is to enjoy the day and the atmosphere.

"It's an incredibly special place, the home of Ironman, it's also a woman's-only event. So that's something incredibly special."

The high temperatures – up to 32C outside, 28C in the ocean and 80% humidity – make it completely different to competing in New Zealand, she says.

As heat can exacerbate MS symptoms, Young will be very careful about trying to keep cool, keep fluids up and keep eating.

"If I make it to the finish, again, that's for everybody in New Zealand, everybody with MS, all my brothers and sisters who have MS, for everybody that supported me along the way, in the journey, it's massive.

"I'll just go out, have fun, enjoy the experience and be grateful and do it for everybody else."

After the event, depending on "how the body is", Young may walk the Te Ara trail this summer or get into the mountains with the Christchurch charitable trust Mastering Mountains.

"Watch the space. I don't know exactly what's going to come … we'll see how I pull through this event."

Prue Young is one of over 60 Kiwi female athletes competing at the 2023 Vinfast Ironman World Championship, which you can watch online here. (Prue's bib number is 823)