Paralympians An Inspiration for All

 By Mary Pianta 

We are only halfway through the Tokyo Paralympic Games and I have watched some of the most talented athletes and heard the most incredible stories. These dedicated athletes refuse to be defined by anything other than talent and will. They are inspiring examples of athletes showing, resilience, courage and skill.

The future of Paralympics in Australia is in very good hands, seeing how our athletes have developed since the last Games. I have witnessed a wide range of ages within the different sports, many making their debut and learning from the veterans.
Although one fifth of Australians have a disability, Paralympic sports receive less than 20 per cent of the overall funding given to sport, so every extra dollar helps to keep the Paralympic movement alive.

Our Paralympic team has less than half the number of Olympic competitors, but the athletes seem to regularly win twice as many medals, and their backstories are uplifting and motivating. There are generations of Paralympians who have not received the recognition they deserve.

There are so many athletes with so many different disabilities – I have not managed to understand the classifications, gradings or factorised times – but they are all there doing their best on a physical level as they try to break down stigmas and change perceptions while entertaining us.

Of course, it is not just about winning medals at the Games, but also the pride in representing your country. All competitors are inspiring examples of athletes showing courage and skill, despite physical challenges.

The Tokyo Paralympics opened last Tuesday in a blaze of colour and pageantry, with a ceremony that followed the premise of ‘moving forward’ under the theme “We have Wings”, symbolising the struggle and resilience of everyone with a disability. As representatives from 163 teams marched into a mostly empty stadium that had been built to accommodate 68,000 spectators, it was difficult for the Australian team to watch the ceremony from the Village. Only the flag-bearers, Danni Di Toro and Ryley Batt represented the team with chef de mission, Kate McLoughlin, after the Australian team had organised a Guard of Honour for them before they left the Village.

It was very sad to see the Afghanistan flag being carried by a volunteer because none of that country’s athletes was able to get to Japan after the Taliban had seized control of their homeland. The Australians came 30th in the order, which followed the Japanese alphabet.

It has been tough on families – parents and partners – who are so proud, and know better than anyone how much has gone into training and preparation for the Games. Naturally, they wanted to keep supporting the athletes but, because of COVID, they have had to let them go it alone for these Games.

Each athlete also has a whole support team, working behind the scenes and assisting them on that journey to the Games. They all realise that sport gives purpose and meaning to their lives and I heard many of the athletes showing gratitude to family, coaches and their support networks.

Their dreams become reality when they are on the podium and their emotions bubble over. I watched journalists doing interviews getting very emotional (me too), as they struggled to ask great questions so the athletes had a chance to explain their feelings.

COVID is universal and has affected all athletes across the world. In Australia, the state border closures and lockdowns have caused endless problems with the team’s preparations, trying to get athletes across borders and the cost of flying everyone to Japan. Dozens of athletes were left scrambling for exemptions just to be allowed to continue their preparations at home because they were not supposed to leave their homes. Many moved quickly to Queensland to prepare and acclimatise their bodies because the Games are out of season with our summer. During interviews, there have been many comments from athletes and journalists about the oppressive heat and humidity in the stadium and velodrome. With long-distance events coming up, this will be another challenge to face, beyond the normal.

We are only halfway through the Tokyo Paralympic Games and I have watched some of the most talented athletes and heard the most incredible stories. These dedicated athletes refuse to be defined by anything other than talent and will. Already I have learned so much about unusual sports and their requirements.

In Boccia I watched a mother and daughter team working together to set up for each turn. Following rules, the mother had her back to the game for the entire time as she took instructions from her daughter, who then used a mouthpiece to set the red ball in motion down the chute and, hopefully, nearest to the jack.

The slow-scoring game of Goalball was also fascinating as three ‘blind’ people per team felt their way around while trying to prevent the ball going into the net stretched across the width of the court at each end. All athletes wore eye shades which, if dislodged, needed to be adjusted by officials to prevent ‘peeping’. There was plenty of body blocking and silence as athletes listened for the coming ball. Back in Australia, I believe some children have put bells in balloons, covered their eyes with blindfolds and are playing their version of Goalball in the family room.

Yesterday I think I saw the happiest man in the world – with the biggest smile and a Silver medal. Sherman Guity Guity had won the first-ever Paralympic medal for his country – Costa Rica.
The mateship among the athletes, but also with assistants, is very obvious among the very large Paralympian family. While saying thank-you to coaches and trainers for pushing them to their best efforts, awash with medals and emotions, the athletes all look comfortable within their ‘new’ family.

Quite a few of them mentioned that they had been in a ‘bad place’ and thought their lives were over before they were introduced to a Paralympian sport. Thanks must go to their great supportive families for allowing and assisting them to follow their dreams. Young people with a disability watching the Games can find a sport they enjoy which might then take over their lives. Our current athletes are committed to changing perceptions by sharing their stories and setting examples of what can be done if you commit to training and set goals for yourself.

With restrictions still in place, we will be able to watch our best athletes competing, showing off their eliteness and bringing tears, or a smile to our faces. We can draw inspiration and pride from their performances and the way they present on the world stage. The Paralympian family is working together, taking on the world.

The Australian team is expected to win up to 100 medals in total and finish in the top five countries in the world.

I will finish by saying that I am so proud to be driving a Toyota, after seeing and hearing about the support that company continues to give our Paralympian athletes by creating mobility for all, not just as the main sponsor on Channel 7.

Don’t miss the closing ceremony after the final events on Sunday, September 5.

Mary Pianta, Disability Contact Cordinator.