Tokyo Paralympics a Game-Changer

Paralympics 4 350The Tokyo Paralympics have come and gone and, despite some misgivings in the lead-up, I thoroughly enjoyed the competition. That the Games went ahead is a credit to all those involved; so much more was needed in preparation for events with special equipment and grading of athletes. While Tokyo was fighting off a COVID-19 curse of more than 5000 infections a day, we were watching the energy and wonderful achievements of our Paralympians, the spirit of 179 athletes competing in 18 sports in the Paralympic bubble.

The standard of competition was very high, with world records regularly smashed in the pool, on the athletics and cycling tracks, and on the water. Australian audiences have been fascinated by the stories of trauma, grit and hard work behind all medal winners.

Most athletes had minimal financial support, so were relying on assistance from parents. The Government announcement promising money for medal winners must have been very welcome and an extra motivation to do their best. Wearing the green and gold means a lot to our athletes; it makes them feel loved and worthy. In return we see a very entertaining program with elite athletes and inspirational stories. Many thanks to Channel 7 for the coverage which provided all Australians with the opportunity to share and enjoy the Paralympic Games over the twelve days.

Hosts on radio and television programs showered praise on the athletes for their resilience, firstly for getting to Japan and secondly, for competing in such conditions. From dripping with perspiration one week to dripping with rain the next; it wasn’t only the athletes – but the volunteers, the camera crews and reporters from across the world had to work in the perverse weather conditions.

The cost of special equipment is a significant problem for many athletes. It was gratifying to see the support coming in as Australians purchased virtual seats in a stadium. Over $2.25 million raised from $25 donations will be used for equipment and education.

Corporate Australia has realised that we need to have Paralympians in schools, encouraging and inspiring students to kick-start a career and dream of being a Paralympian. They will also share their stories and explain that we all have periods of self-doubt in our lives, whether we live with a disability or not. Those students will be able to join the teenagers in the Paralympian movement who are already setting goals for Paris, L.A. and, especially Brisbane in 2032.

I couldn’t keep up with the variety of cycling events but was fascinated by the equipment necessary to get athletes into their events.

Carol Cooke, the oldest at 60, has MS and rides a modified tricycle with more stability. She won Silver in the time-trial, then had a heavy crash on Thursday in treacherous conditions and headed to hospital.

Darren Hicks rides with one leg and never stood a chance against a young Frenchman with two legs. He was happy with Silver on debut, then took Gold in the time-trial.
Emily Petricola also has MS and made her debut at 41. She won Gold in track events and a Silver medal on the road. She rides without brakes or gears on her bike and has poor coordination and grip.
Paige Greco broke her own world record to win Gold on the track. She lives with cerebral palsy and switched from athletics in Rio to cycling in Tokyo.

Amanda Reid also broke her own world record to take Gold in the 500m time-trial. She is an Indigenous woman who hopes to inspire more Indigenous people with disabilities to start with sports and achieve their dreams. Amanda has intellectual, physical and visual impairments.
Riding tandem bikes needs lots of practice; pedals need to be in sync; the pilot and rider must trust each other; the pilot needs to understand the impairment and have the conversation about gears and the environment. Because bikes are longer, it can be tricky on the corners. When chains come off, a replacement bike comes in to save time. The wet conditions didn’t help in Tokyo.

There is such a wide range of disabilities in cycling. Categories and classifications are used to get factored times in percentage form. For one event where stability was needed before the race started, the bikes were in starting gates which had to be checked for each heat. Naturally, this was very time-consuming.

I have really enjoyed the wheelchair sports, possibly because I had participated in Eaglehawk years ago. Back then, the chairs we used were ‘dinosaurs’ compared to today’s models. They are adapted to incorporate different features into their design.

For basketball and tennis, speed, stability, and ease of rotation are required, so they have angled wheels. Rugby needs different accessories for both attack and defence during the game, while in cycling, the hand bikes are a more aerodynamic design for speed. Then all wheelchairs are tailored to individual needs of the athlete. These machines are very expensive, so athletes appreciate the financial support they receive and the assistance from Toyota to help them get to the court or track.

I saw the last quarter of a Rollers game against Great Britain. Earlier Australia had been 20 points in front but was only up by one with two minutes to go. It was exciting as the lead changed three times, but our last shot missed the basket, giving the game to Great Britain.

The women’s team (Gliders) was an inexperienced group with ten members making their debut in Tokyo, including Bendigo’s Bree Mellberg. After breaking her neck on the trampoline, she moved to wheelchair basketball. Mellberg saved her best for the last game against the Algerians.

Wheelchair rugby was great to watch as the Steelers used their strategies of blocking and watching the clock against the home team. This is the only full-contact sport so, for Shae Graham, the first Australian woman to compete, it was an experience among the guys. Members of this team said they had had nothing to live for until ‘finding’ rugby changed their lives.

Wheelchair tennis provides a contrast. I watched Dylan Alcott in his last Paralympic competition, playing for Gold against Schroder from the Netherlands. Dylan started slowly and had to fight for the first set. Then he took control and exploded away in the second set. In the doubles Dylan and Heath played the Netherlands, with plenty of break point opportunities for both teams, making it very exciting. The Dutch pair won that match in straight sets.

In track and field events and long distance running, technological advancements have allowed artificial body parts to become increasingly refined and targeted for high-level competition. With world records and PBs, these athletes make history every time they compete. Blades are made of carbon to match the runner’s weight and impact level while providing the appropriate amount of traction. Their individual designs need trials and adjustments until the best fit is found. The same applies to upper limb prosthetics, including hooks for cycling, as they work to mimic the functions of fingers, arms and elbows.

Before the men’s 100m, I was amazed with preparations – getting prosthetics into position in the starting blocks for the sprints took longer than the race itself. I saw Isis Holt lower her PB by .3 sec. in her tremendous run in the 100m where she was catching up, but ran out of time and space. She met the same woman from China in the 200m, with the same result.

Jayden Paige, only 16, impressed me on the starting line as he pointed to his name tag and mouthed the words ‘Remember this name’. He didn’t make the finals, but later said that he was learning secrets from more experienced team members.

Legally blind, Jaryd Clifford produced a courageous display of middle-distance running to win Silver in the 5000m in the brutal conditions of Tokyo. He had trouble finding tethered guides to keep up because he runs so fast, so he took the risk of running without that support.

James Turner has cerebral palsy and had to fight through pain and contractions to get over the line in the 400m final en route to his Gold medal.

Rheed McCracken won another Silver in the 100m wheelchair race – the third in a row!
Madison De Rozario worked hard in her wheelchair races, but I really enjoyed her efforts in the dangerous conditions of the marathon where, once inside the stadium, the Swiss girl caught up and almost overtook Madi. She won this Gold by one second.
In the triathlon, Lauren Parker missed out on Gold by one second. In the wheelchair leg she had lost valuable time, caught behind a slower competitor.

Most of Australia’s swim victories were rousing come-from-behind efforts, embodying the never-say-die spirit of the Dolphins. From very nervous first-timers to the veterans, the PBs, WRs and medals kept coming. I watched a new event, the mixed 4x100m relay for those with an intellectual impairment. That team was thrilled to win Silver.
With USA and Italy finishing quickly, it was a great finish for Australia’s men in the 4x100m freestyle to break the world record and win Gold. I missed the girls’ events but saw some very happy faces on the late news.

I was waiting to see ‘Scooter’ Patterson win a Paralympics medal which had been eluding him for years; he managed a Bronze and a Silver this time. Col Pearse was rewarded for his resilience and hard work in the dam; he achieved a PB and an Australian record while winning Bronze.

After 13 years and 17 medals in her career, Ellie Cole shared her thoughts that being part of a relay team is better than individual medals because of the camaraderie and team culture. All relay teams won medals, resulting in 28 of the 34 Dolphins taking home at least one medal.

Eric Horrie (41) switched from wheelchair sports to para-rowing and was chasing Gold after two previous Silvers. He now has set his sights on 2024 for the elusive Gold.

Curtis McGrath is a 10-time world champion and gold medallist. He rarely sees his gold medal because it is in the War Memorial in Canberra. McGrath’s legs were amputated while serving in Afghanistan in 2012, so the current situation there has given him some sleepless nights and concerns for the mental wellbeing of soldiers who had served there. He now has a gold medal to keep at home.

I need to apologise to all those involved in sports I have not mentioned and others I have missed; too many athletes doing their best in so many events. The common message I heard in interviews was the importance of inclusion and equity for people with a disability in sport and society. I feel like the Paralympian movement is going ahead and the conversation about disability is everywhere – and that makes me happy.

On the last morning I turned to 7Mate and was thrilled to see streets lined with spectators. Finally, the people of Tokyo had a chance to share in the Games, cheering every athlete who came past.

Later that evening, the Closing Ceremony honoured the commitment of the athletes with music and fleuro costumes representing their boundless energy and vitality. As the team representatives carried their flags in the parade, the path was marked by 24,000 volunteers, many assisting those with disability to move with the music. It was an honour for each representative and they were savouring the moment as they came and placed a mirror on the sky tree to reflect the light later in the ceremony.

The flags of the 163 nations were on show as we watched the performers, many of whom had a disability. My special moments were the stilt dancers, the drumming band and the routine done by about 150 people in wheelchairs; dressed in black with their white arms making synchronised patterns on the dark background. Very spectacular!

When the flag was given to the Mayor of Paris for 2024, footage was shown of athletes in Paris – able-bodied or with disability, they were celebrating there as one team, giving a strong message to the world. Very moving!

The President of Tokyo claimed that the Games had broken records, opened eyes, won hearts and fulfilled the dreams of many. He farewelled everyone and praised the team of young stars who had been unearthed and could now carry their nations to even greater heights in three years’ time in Paris. The ceremony closed with a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Beautiful World’.

Sayonara Tokyo! A bientot Paris!

Mary Pianta
Disability Contact Coordinator.
Diocese of Sandhurst.