Paralympic athletes ready for the biggest stage

Australian wheelchair rugby captain Ryley Batt (Paralympics Australia)

By Oliver Lees

Despite the Tokyo Olympic Games having come and gone without any major incident, Paralympics Australia deputy chef de mission Tim Mannion admits he’s not quite ready to relax.

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games scheduled to kick off with the opening ceremony on August 24, Mannion, who has been organising the logistics of getting the para-athletes to Tokyo, says he’ll breathe a sigh of relief when he sees the athletes enter the stadium.

“There’s just been such huge uncertainty for the past 18 months, to be honest it’s been hugely stressful,” he said.

“We’ve been in communication with Qantas to charter direct flights to minimise some of the risk. There’s been so much planning involved, it’s the games like no one’s ever seen before.

“What did give us a massive boost of confidence was how well the Olympics went and the Australian team recording zero COVID cases.”

Many of the sports, or parasports, at the Paralympic Games, are similar in nature to those played at the Olympics, but are designed to be suitable for people with disabilities, such as wheelchair basketball.

Other sports have been specifically designed for people with disabilities, such as goalball for the vision impaired, and boccia, for athletes with severe physical disabilities.

This will be Australia’s 15th showing at a Paralympic Summer Games since the concept was developed in 1960.

Australia currently sits sixth on the all-time Paralympic medal leaderboard with the United States in first, but Mannion says the team has developed into one of the most consistent nations in competition.

“The Australian Paralympic team has been in the top five every year since 1996,” he said.

“We were fifth in Rio, and we topped the medal tally in Sydney at our home games.

“Athletics, swimming and cycling are always our strongest medal hopes, similar to the Olympics. We’ll be defending our gold in wheelchair rugby too. Led by captain Ryley Batt, we’ve won at the last two Games.

“We’ve also got high hopes Shaun Norris can help lead us to a medal in the wheelchair basketball.”

Mannion says Australia will have a large number of para-athletes in contention to win a medal.

Fourteen time grand slam champion and popular media personality Dylan Alcott will be looking to back up his two gold medal haul at Rio when he returns to the court in Tokyo.

Australian Paralympic swimming legend Ellie Cole will also be looking to build on her legacy in the pool.

The 29-year-old amputee already has 15 Paralympic medals to her name, including six gold medals. In Rio, she claimed a medal in each of her six events.

On the track, Paralympic power couple Vanessa Low and Scott Reardon will be will both have their eyes set on the podium.

And Sunbury product Trevor Hirth will start the Games as the number one ranked para-table tennis in class seven across Oceania.

For Mannion, it will be his sixth Paralympics (summer and winter) involved in the team.

His favourite moment in Paralympic history comes from Athen in 2004, when para-athlete Kurt Fearnley won gold in the wheelchair marathon event.

“Kurt blew a tire [in his wheelchair] with five kilometres to go, but pushed on to win gold,” he said.

“The able bodied equivalent would be a road cyclist blowing a tire on their bike and powering through it to get back and win.”

This year, the Paralympic Games will be streamed live on Channel 7, with more coverage than ever before.

With only a minor time difference between Australia and Japan, and with many Australians likely still under some form of COVID-19 restrictions, Mannion says these Games will be the perfect opportunity to showcase the unique talents of Paralympic athletes.

“The Paralympic movement is its own movement,” he said.

“The tendency is to class them in the same category as Olympians, but we’re very proud of being Paralympians and want to be celebrated for who we are.

“It’s the pinnacle event for people with a disability, and we’re really hopeful that we’ll have a huge captive audience back in Australia, and that our para-athletes can make them proud.”