A year after winning the fight for his life, Josh Hanlon is busy living it

LOOKING AHEAD: Josh Hanlon at the park with Lulu on Thursday. He'll turn 22 this week, just before Lulu turns one. It's been some year. Picture: Les Smith
LOOKING AHEAD: Josh Hanlon at the park with Lulu on Thursday. He'll turn 22 this week, just before Lulu turns one. It's been some year. Picture: Les Smith

Josh Hanlon has a chook roasting in the oven, and a dog itching for a run out the back. His bright-faced border collie, Lulu, has eyes only for the ball in his right hand.

The man they call 'Chooka' is not long back from a weekend at the snow, when he lit up the slopes at Thredbo on a sit-ski. And he's just been to Albury for a day's work with his old boss, and the prospect of more to come.

There's basketball on Wednesday nights. And football finals approaching. In coming weeks, the former ruckman is likely to be found helping out with the bench at Tullibigeal, where younger brother Ky is playing.

But the last six weeks have been particularly busy for the boy from Weethalle.

"It has been a pretty big couple of months - a Sydney trip, a couple of Canberra trips, and we did a Sydney-and-Canberra trip where we got my hand, my new ute and my new legs all in one go," Hanlon says.

As you might have gathered, Josh Hanlon has quite a tale to tell.

The thing is, most of it is yet to be written.

Next year could open a whole new world of possibility. He's been accepted into the University of Canberra, to study exercise and sports science and is weighing up a move.

"It's right in Bruce. The bloke who makes my legs is just across the road and, hopefully if all is going well with my legs and running, the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) is nearby as well," he says.

And so far? So far it's a story of hope and inspiration, of gratitude, dreams and determination.

He's never, ever once lay in bed and thought, 'Why is this me? Why has this happened?' He just gets up and goes. He'll never be any different, I don't think.

DAY OUT: Josh and his mum Leanne at the second semi-final last September. It was his first trip out of hospital, three months after going in.

DAY OUT: Josh and his mum Leanne at the second semi-final last September. It was his first trip out of hospital, three months after going in.

"We're so proud. He's just amazing. He blows us away every day with how he's handled himself, and continues to handle himself. It's very inspiring. He's amazing," Josh's mum Leanne says.

"He's never, ever once lay in bed and thought, 'Why is this me? Why has this happened?' He just gets up and goes. He'll never be any different, I don't think.

"I do worry about him sometimes, but he just seems to get on with it.

"He will go on to do big things, I don't doubt that at all. He'll stand on his prosthetic feet and make something of his life."

Josh has time yet to decide on Canberra, but testing himself out on the track is clearly tempting.

"Definitely. I'm keen. I wish I'd had these legs earlier to give it a go already. But in the next few months I'll have a crack on these legs and then when they're good, I'll hopefully get a set of blades made and get right into the running."

His new prosthetics feature blades and a foot making them suitable for casual running as well as everyday use. Maybe even football training.

"They're really good. Hopefully I'll be able to do a bit of footy training next year, have a bit of a muck around," he says.

"I'll be able to keep up, do a few drills, bump into a few of them. I've been going to the gym flat out. I'll try to get big enough to knock a few of them over."

It'd be a big risk to doubt him.

Josh and Lulu

Josh and Lulu

Lulu came into Josh's life not long after he came out of hospital last September.

"She's my best little mate. She keeps me going and keeps me busy, that's for sure."

His pup turns one next Saturday, and barely knows life without him.

Nor does the Hanlon family, although it was a close run thing last winter.

He had gone into hospital on the June long weekend, feeling unwell just two days after a best-on-ground effort for North Wagga.

To say a nightmare unfolded next is to understate it. Hanlon's organs shut down due to an attack by a common bacteria. In the efforts to save his life, he suffered blood clots which led to the amputation of his right hand and both legs below the knee.

For eight weeks, it was touch-and-go.

"I never thought he was out of the woods," Josh's mum Leanne says. "I suppose being a mother... it's not until I got him home that I thought, we're right. You know what I mean? Even when he was in rehab, it was awful. But that's just the rollercoaster."

The day to go home was the Farrer League grand final, after producing the most courageous moment of the season. He walked out and tossed the coin, and joined his Saints teammates in the middle after less than two weeks learning to walk on new legs.

"That was definitely that goal. We really hoped they'd make the grand final and then caught wind that I might be able to flip the coin if I wanted to. So that was the mission, to be able to walk out without crutches, on the grass, which is a bit more unstable," Hanlon says.

"I had my little walking stick but I'd got off the crutches in a week. It was a pretty big challenge to walk all the way out, stay out there for a few minutes and walk all the way back.

"It was good to be out there with the boys. But it was hard, emotionally, I guess. Kind of wishing I was still out there. But it was good to be a part of it."

INSPIRATION: The Saints get around their teammate before last year's Farrer League grand final. Picture: Les Smith

INSPIRATION: The Saints get around their teammate before last year's Farrer League grand final. Picture: Les Smith

North Wagga went down on the day, but no-one will forget what they witnessed.

"He's an absolute inspiration to all his friends and family and even people who don't really know him. He's someone to look up to," North Wagga coach Kirk Hamblin says.

"I was next to Ned (Mortimer) and we'd both had a bit to do with 'Chook'. It was very emotional but at the same time I was so proud of 'Chook' the way he took the challenge on to walk out there after he said he would.

"It really warms your heart after seeing him at his worst in June to see him now where he's at - he's back to where he was before he got sick, and that's the 'Chooka' that we all know. I'm really proud of him."

Hanlon said the goal of seeing the Saints play helped him focus on his rehabilitation.

After the grand final, the aim was to be well enough to attend 'Chookhana', a major fundraiser on AFL grand final day, organised by North Wagga, Ganmain-Grong Grong-Matong and Tullibigeal.

He wanted to be able to sit up in a normal chair, and develop the strength to sit all day without a break. The fundraiser at McPherson Oval raised $80,000 and capped months of support and public assistance.

"I was just focused on Josh and for the first month or probably six weeks, I really had no idea what was going on, and no comprehension of the support," Leanne says.

"It was just amazing. Not only the footy clubs, just anyone and everyone."

Even now, Josh finds it hard to think of how he could thank all those who helped.

"I don't know how to say it. It's hard to put into words how much you do want to thank everyone," he says.

"I guess that's all you can say: Thank you."

Best mates

Best mates

Once home, even the four-wheeler helped with rehabilitation, as Josh made some adaptations and teamed up with his younger brother for roo-shooting expeditions.

"The brake's already on the left-hand side on the four-wheeler," he says.

"I put the thumb throttle on the left-hand side and went for a few rides. A couple of weeks later, Ky jumped on the back and away we went."

Then there was walking, swimming and learning to play wheelchair basketball for a Wednesday night competition.

Getting his licence back in February was another big step. He drives with a spinning knob on the steering wheel and the new ute's a winner, fitting in everything from golf clubs and his dog, to crutches and a wheelchair, not to mention still having room for people.

The gratitude for support - from strangers he'll never know, to tight-knit communities, football clubs and close friends - won't ever wane. Not to mention family.

Nor will a good sense of humour.

Josh will turn 22 this week. He can't help but think of his 21st, spent in a Sydney hospital after complications during what was meant to be a relatively straightforward operation on his lung. His mum, as always, had accompanied him, but not everyone this time.

"That was the (expected) three- or four-hour surgery that turned into 10 or 12. I was pretty much, well, not dead, but as fast as they were pumping blood into me, it was coming out," Josh says.

"That's when Dad, Kels and Ky got a charter plane to Sydney. They thought I wasn't going to make it. But I just did.

"When I woke up, I said, 'What are you all doing here? Did you think I was going to die?'

"I think they just all laughed. I was still half out of it, but they thought it was pretty funny.

"My lung collapsed after the surgery. It only collapsed once. They said if it collapsed again, they'd have to take the rest of the lung, but it stayed up and I was right."

SNOW WORRIES: Hanlon in Thredbo last weekend

SNOW WORRIES: Hanlon in Thredbo last weekend

The possibilities and opportunities of the future are what motivate Josh. He's not trying to wipe the past but he doesn't dwell heavily on the challenges life threw up.

"I do think about it. Usually at the end of the day, when I have a shower, or whatever. But not too much. I just put it behind me," he says.

There are diary notes he kept on a phone and, if he wants, he looks those up and marries them with his memories.

He recalls his overwhelming feeling from the start was to get moving.

"I was stuck in the bed for near enough to three months. I felt almost claustrophobic, just so trapped in a bed, I wanted to get up and get out. From the time I got my legs, it was only two weeks and I was up and out of the hospital and home," he says.

"Once I was home, I was a bit happier. But I needed a good month or two to just eat well and try and get healthy again."

He's barely stopped since.

Not that his mum was surprised.

"When we first found out that he was to lose his legs and hand and all that, I can remember as plain as day, through the fog, saying to him, 'This is not going to stop you from doing anything. You can do anything you set your mind to'.

"And he will. He'll do anything he sets his mind to."