Caitlin De Wit - A life changing moment
CCGS alumni Caitlin De Wit graduated from CCGS in 2004. At the time she thought she had it all figured out. She wanted to work hard, get an ATAR of 99.9, complete a Vet Science degree at Sydney University and then work in England, while spending weekends travelling around Europe. That was the plan.
Life, however, had other plans for Caitlin and presented her with some unexpected challenges along the way. Caitlin adapted to those challenges, changed her plans and set her path on a new course. This was the important lesson she shared with our Year 12 students when she was the guest speaker at the Year 12 Colloquium Dinner.
Caitlin didn’t get the ATAR of 99.9% she was aiming for. After CCGS she did not set off for Vet Science at Sydney University but instead her second preference of a Bachelor of Applied Science Equine Studies at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga. At the age of 17, Caitlin found herself seven hours away from the beach and the beautiful Central Coast. She describes this as “one of the best decisions I ever made”. She learned how to be independent, made lifelong friends and met the man that would become her husband.
A life changing accident
At the end of her first year Caitlin was horse riding with friends on the university cross country course. As she went over a jump her horse sped up past her friends and Caitlin was unable to slow him down. The next thing she remembers is being on the ground and the paramedics taking her to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital.
From there Caitlin was air lifted to the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, unaware of the seriousness of her injury. Caitlin thought she had broken her legs and would be back at uni the next day. Instead, she was taken for an operation, then to the ICU and then to the spinal unit. Caitlin doesn’t have a story to recount of how it felt the moment doctors told her she would never be able to walk again. Instead she describes “the period in hospital was all about regaining my independence rather than focusing on the ability to walk again. These two things are not one and the same. Many people in hospital said they knew they would leave when they could ‘walk out’ of there. For me I knew I would be happy to leave when I learned to be a fully functioning 18-year-old again that required no assistance.”
Caitlin spent three months in hospital and then three months in rehab learning how to adapt to life in a wheelchair, relearning how to dress herself, go to the toilet and shower by herself, cook for herself and drive. Before she knew it, she was back at university in Wagga Wagga living with her friends.
Life resumes and dreams are chased
Caitlin finished her Equine Studies degree at the end of 2007. With no firm plans of what she was going to do next she got a last-minute university placement at Star Thoroughbreds, a racehorse syndication company that at the time worked with Gai Waterhouse Racing. The placement resulted in a full-time job. Caitlin describes this role as “a great job which taught me lots of life skills”, however after two years Caitlin realised this was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life and found herself at a crossroads.
After some encouragement from her Dad, Caitlin applied for the Vet Science degree she had always wanted to do. She found herself at Sydney University, five years after leaving school. Caitlin describes getting into the course as “the easy bit”. It was the long hours, study, and stress that presented new challenges as well as people doubting her ability (especially in her practical placements) and judging her based on the stereotype of her disability. However, Caitlin describes ”stubbornness” as one of her most valuable traits and credits those doubters with spurring her on and driving her further in her efforts to prove them wrong and be just like the rest of her Veterinary colleagues.
Caitlin graduated in 2014 and has been working as a veterinarian ever since, she enjoys how every day is different and that there is always a problem to solve.
Whilst at university Caitlin took up wheelchair basketball and after a couple of months of local competition she was asked to join the Sydney University Flames national league team. For four years she was what she describes as “absolutely terrible”, spending most her time on the bench and any time on the court with “absolutely no idea what I was doing”.
In 2011 Caitlin learned that there was going to be a Women’s Under 25 World Championships in Canada. She set her mind to training hard. This hard work resulted in not only making the team but also the starting five. The team won a silver medal.
Next Caitlin made the Australian Senior Team with her goal being to make the 2016 Paralympics. After a lot of sacrifice in time and energy, Caitlin started full time work in 2015. She realised that she no longer had the passion or drive for wheelchair basketball and decided to leave the team.
While many people may look upon that decision as a failure, Caitlin believes that “if your heart is not truly in something you shouldn’t continue to sacrifice or work your butt off just because it was a goal or something you aimed to do once upon a time. You gave it your all and it didn’t work out. Goals change and motivations change”.
Travelling the world with just a backpack and a wheelchair
At the end of 2016 Caitlin decided that there was one last goal she really wanted to tick off, and that was to go travelling, to do the quintessential backpacking trip around Europe by herself and see if she could do it.
Caitlin travelled for three months and covered most of Europe, carrying her pack on her back and travelling mostly by train and bus. While she had bad days, like missing her plane or losing her bank card, she says that those sorts of things happen to every traveller, not just those with disabilities. And, while there were times where she would be a bit frustrated if there was an attraction or place that wasn’t accessible for her, Caitlin displayed once again a positive and determined attitude, saying “but the world is so big, there was always another place I could go”.
Caitlin’s greatest achievement
Despite overcoming the physical adversities disability can present, completing a Vet Science degree, joining a National basketball team and travelling Europe solo, Caitlin’s biggest achievement has been her family and her children. “It wasn’t something that I wanted or something that I had written into my plan or on my to-do list, but it is the thing that gives me the most joy and has made me the happiest I’ve ever been. This is the quietest I have been in a long time. I am not chasing goals or trying to prove anything, I am really just content”.
Advice to our Year 12 students
Caitlin recently addressed Year 12 students at the Year 12 Colloquium Dinner, sharing her story as well as some valuable advice for students as they approach the end of their school life. “No matter what you have planned, life is always going to have other plans and it’s how you persevere through that to achieve your goals that matters. When I was in high school I had such a clear ten year plan - and none of that worked out, but I still got everything I was aiming for. So don’t stress if things don’t work out how you thought, there is always another way. The opportunities that arise (that you never even had on your radar) and what you do with those opportunities is what will count most in your life.”
Head Prefects, Olivia Stewart and Jack Quinlan shared how Caitlin's speech impacted them.
"I was really inspired by Caitlin's resilience and determination to pursue her dreams and goals after such adversity," said Olivia.
Jack added, "Listening to Caitlin speak I had an awakening, the realisation that you can't prepare for everything...that you should keep your options open and broad as the future really can take you anywhere."