Seeking Champions The search is on for Australia’s next paralympic star

Seeking Champions The search is on for Australia’s next paralympic star

The starting gun has been fired for talent scouts to find the next group of Australian champions destined for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. 

The Coca-Cola Australia Foundation has teamed up with the Australian Paralympic Committee in launching the “Talent 4 Tokyo” program – the grassroots search for Paralympians of the future.

In July, Sydney Olympic Park’s Hall of Legends played host to the group of Paralympic hopefuls as they rotated through a series of sporting stations that measured their performances in a range of generic tests including height, sitting height, arm span and vertical jump height. The potential Paralympians were also tested across a range of specific sports including Para-athletics, Para-badminton, Para-taekwondo and more. 

“We have two aims for today,” said Australian Paralympic Committee’s talent identification manager, Cathy Lambert. “Identifying high-performance potential athletes who will help Australia stay in the top five in the Summer Games and, secondly, to introduce people with a disability to sports that best suit their impairment so we can generally increase their participation.” 

‘In a fabulous position’

The Paralympic Games has certainly evolved since its inception in 1960, when amputee and vision-impaired athletes could not compete and the Paralympic Village was virtually inaccessible to wheelchairs. 

“The world of Paralympic sport is now in a fabulous position,” said chief executive of the Australian Paralympic Committee, Lynne Anderson. “We have terrific exposure through commercial television for the first time ever this year, where sports in Rio will be shown for 14 hours a day. Australia has proudly been in the top-five performing countries since 1992. We’ve got to keep that edge, so the ‘Talent 4 Tokyo’ program plays right to the sweet spot of what we need.” 

Champion in a chair

Paralympian Madison de Rozario, 22, a middle and long-distance wheelchair track athlete, has transverse myelitis a neurological disease that inflames the spinal cord. 

“I tried a tonne of wheelchair sports when I was young, including basketball, even though I’m the most uncoordinated person on the planet,” said Madison. “After the third time, the coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re not great at this, but I have a race chair in the storage room, why don’t you try that?’ I tried it and loved it!” 

Madison went on to represent Australia in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics when she was just 14, winning silver in the Women’s 4x100m T53/54 event. Although her spot for this year’s Games in Rio is still unconfirmed, after failing to place at the 2012 London Games, Madison is hungrier than ever to succeed, and is training hard. 

Games, set, match

Senior Paralympic Performance manager at the Australian Olympic Committee and relay Paralympic gold-medallist Tim Matthews OAM was born without his left arm and only discovered he could qualify for the Paralympics by accident when he was 19. “I figured that because I was born without an arm, I wasn't an amputee and therefore not eligible,” said Tim. “I didn’t consider Paralympic sport until I was playing tennis and someone approached me and said ‘have you thought about going to the Paralympic Games?’”

Tim believes the value of events such as the ‘Talent 4 Tokyo’, is not only in sourcing talent, but also in helping to educate people on the options available to them. 

Coca-Cola Australia Foundation Chairman, Malcolm Hudson, echoes this, “Our mission is to inspire moments of happiness and possibility for young Australians, and I can’t think of a better or more suitable program than ‘Talent 4 Tokyo’ for these wonderful young Australians,” he said. 

All about opportunities

Tracy Love, whose 10-year-old son Jackson had a stroke at birth resulting in hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body), is a wonderful advocate for the program and its effect on prospective athletes and their families. 

“Jackson’s dream is to compete at the Paralympics one day, but he doesn’t know what for yet,” says Tracy. “As his parents, we wanted to find out if there’s anything else we could be doing. This opportunity for officials to help us with identifying what Jackson’s strengths are is so valuable and being around other Paralympians is great for his self-esteem.”

The ‘Talent 4 Tokyo’ program is hosting events nationally, giving all young athletes the opportunity to showcase their skills. Several high-potential prospects have already been flagged through the program. For young Australians with Paralympic dreams, the journey starts here.