I started playing wheelchair rugby at 14 in 1995. My accident happened back in 1993 while out bushwalking in Ballarat. I slipped and fell down a cliff, across a road and down another embankment, breaking 3 vertebrae in my neck and damaging my spinal cord. I was lucky that it was winter – I landed face first into water and although I had to hold my breath until my friends could turn me over, the icy cold water stopped the swelling in my neck. I was also fortunate that my friends rolled my whole body over and didn’t try turning my neck, which saved me again.
While doing rehab in the hospital, I saw the wheelchair rugby national championships. My family then moved from Victoria back to Sydney and I was keen to get back into sport. Rugby was appealing to me because I enjoyed the team and contact elements, such as I had with speedway, tennis and football pre-accident. I’d always been very active, playing any sport I could.
I started playing domestically in Australia, in the open competition against adults. It was only relatively new in Australia at the time, so there wasn’t a great deal of numbers. There’s still not great depth of numbers compared to countries like the USA and UK, but we’re very lucky to have the athletes that we do. The first World Championships were only in 1995, so as a sport, it is still quite new. When it first began in Canada, it was called Murderball, which was changed to bring it into the Paralympics. It is now wheelchair ‘rugby’ more due to the physical nature of the sport, rather than any other factor, given it is played on a basketball court with a volleyball. Over time, the sport has become more professional, faster and more physical. There are more chairs getting broken now! Even the men in the chairs are bigger and stronger.
After a couple of years, I was a reserve for the Atlanta Paralympic team in 1996, then had a season in the USA before contesting with the Australian team at the World Championships in 1998. As an athlete, I went on to play both the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Paralympics.
I took on the Head Coach role for the Australian team at the end of 2006, after being a player/Assistant Coach through shoulder injuries in 2005, and it has been a great ride since then. Rio will be my 5th Paralympic Games and we have a great support team around us. Personally, I find coaching more rewarding despite being more time-consuming and stressful! It’s great when you see athletes and their families come along and you know you’ve had an impact on their lives, or the feeling you get putting together a great team of staff. It’s definitely inspiring. Only one of our athletes was born with a limb deficiency while all the others either had accidents or a form of cancer that led to amputations.
We don’t seem to compete for athletes with the Wheelchair Basketball squads, as they tend to have more paraplegics and leg amputees, whereas ours are 3 or 4 limb defective. Often there are athletes out there trying other sports who don’t realise they could play rugby, and the trick for us is to find and transfer them.
THE TECH SPECS: PLAYERS AND CHAIRS
In Wheelchair Rugby, you have 4 players on the court at any time, adding up to a total of 8 points, with a total team of 12 athletes available to play. Your higher functioning athletes are worth 3.5 points, which ranges down to lesser functioning athletes of 0.5 points in 0.5-point increments. The combination on the court could be 3, 2, 2, 1 (4 players, 8 points total), which also ensures varying disability levels on the court at once. A player is classified 3 times over a 3-year period (domestic and international), which then becomes permanent classification. Players do not generally move classification. While classification is meant to even out the competition, athletes will work on their weaknesses to become as strong as they can. The sport was originally meant for quadriplegics, but now we’re getting a lot of quadriplegic amputees, or even different disability types which is exciting but also means that the classification system will be adapted as the sport changes. Classification systems are separate for each sport.
Our 12 team athletes have specialised custom chairs for which we have to take spare parts to Rio as they get broken. Every team has a mechanic who will run out on court to change tyres or weld chairs back together off-court. Chair types are also evolving as the sport gets faster and more physical. Like car racing, chairs must be fitted with legal parts, be certain heights, have certain guards to meet requirements. Athletes will often get knocked out of their chairs as heavy chair contact is allowed but not athlete contact. Sometimes athletes do get injured, but they are usually from over-use.
STRONG CHANCE FOR THE GOLD
Our Rio preparation began even before London. While we have a core of athletes who have competed for 10 years or more, including some old teammates of mine, we needed to look at our newer athletes who would be around in 2016 and whether we had to find more, considering retirements. We’re already starting to prepare for Tokyo 2024. The team’s selection has been internally known and trained since late 2015, but not officially selected until the APC announcement in 2016. Performances still could have improved or had an upset, but it’s generally important to have some stability, to go through camps and be able to train as a team, without competing for positions last-minute. We would rather the athletes working together for a common cause than competing against each other for a spot in our lead-up training. Some athletes who missed out on Rio selection will be in the mix for the Tokyo team. Obviously they are disappointed, but the World Championships in 2018 will come up quite quickly and will be held in Australia.
We won gold at the London 2012 Paralympics, and we feel capable of doing so again. We certainly have some strong opponents but if we perform to our own expectations and at the level we know we can play, we’ll be the team to beat. It’s important not to run off too much energy early through excitement, but we tend to balance each other between the newbies and old hands. We have two training camps prior to leaving – one on the Gold Coast, and one in Darwin. We then leave on the 6th September to have 8 days of training prior to our first game.
STAY AHEAD OF THE COMPETITION
I’m always working on my evolution as a coach. If you think you know it all, you might as well stop. It’s part of the excitement to continue to learn, whether it’s in communication or tactics or otherwise. It’s good to look at different coaches and sports to see how they do things is very important, so having a good network of coaches is key, especially in seeking advice. For example, we train in the same facility as the Bombers [Essendon AFL team] and because we have some similar tactics, it helps to watch their training and coach interaction/communication with a view to improvising and innovating in our own game. Part of any sport is trying to predict the future and trying to get there before anyone else! If you always copy others, you’ll always be behind them. If you’re at the forefront, then your opponents are the ones trying to catch up.
You can learn so much from other athletes as well as coaches. You can’t be as selfish as a coach because you’re trying to build up a team. Even now, I’m coaching some of the people who were also my teammates, and the whole team has a really good relationship. The biggest thing in transitioning to coaching was that, as an athlete, you didn’t have to think too much about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of performing. As a coach, you have to communicate this to the athletes, what to look for, how to perform, which was tricky to start with. I’ve had some great people around me. Part of being a coach is understanding your weaknesses and having the right people around you to compliment that. My assistant coach, Greg Smith, is big on strength and conditioning, and can train any athlete in the world to peak fitness for the job. I have great confidence in him, which then allows me to concentrate on coaching, as does the support from the APC. It means we can get the best out of each other, as well as the team.
Know your strengths and weakness, and build a team around you that compliments these. This will give you a better shot at being successful overall.
ONES TO WATCH
The last Paralympics and World Championships have been battles between ourselves and Canada. The USA are very strong and have a great history with us, and Japan and the UK are coming up as well as very competitive teams.
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