Three years ago, Alexa Leary’s parents said goodbye to their daughter. The 19-year-old triathlete – a silver medallist at the 2019 world junior titles – had fallen off her bike while training at about 70km/h and landed on her head.

Her father Russ, who was also on the Saturday morning ride just outside Noosa, hardly recognised his unconscious daughter. Along with broken ribs, skull and scapula, she also had a punctured lung and shattered leg.

She was airlifted to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and immediately sent for emergency surgery. Part of her skull had to be removed or death would have been unavoidable. So Russ and his wife Belinda waited and endured, not knowing if Leary would ever come back to them.

She did – more than once. During her stay in the intensive care unit, the teenager almost died another eight times. At one point, she was told she had said aloud that she wanted to go to the Paralympics. It might have been a dream. A subconscious thought. An unexpected early adjustment to her new life.

For six months, Leary stayed in hospital, alive but living with permanent brain damage and forced to relearn how to walk and talk and brush her teeth. That was in mid-2021. In April 2023, she qualified for her first Australian para-swimming team and contested the Para Swimming World Championships in Manchester.

Alexa Leary celebrated her win in Brisbane.

Alexa Leary celebrated her win in Brisbane.Credit: Getty Images

Little more than one year after that, she has secured a place at her first Paralympics, having won the women’s multi-class 50m freestyle at the Paris 2024 trials.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Russ. through tears after watching the race with Belinda from the stands at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre. “To think that we had six months in hospital, never [thought she would] walk or talk again, and she is off to the Olympics.”

Leary touched the wall in 27.89 seconds on Tuesday night, and then delivered a sassy, emotional interview that drew applause and more tears.