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Resilience, community and representation – key lessons from CPA’s Paralympic Ticker Tape Parade

15 Sep 2021

The amazing performance of Australian athletes with cerebral palsy at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics has inspired a new generation of young children with CP and similar disabilities. To celebrate the return of our Aussie Paralympians, CPA recently held a virtual Paralympic Ticker Tape Parade, pairing aspiring athletes with some of our most successful Paralympians living with CP for an uplifting evening of community and conversation.

Culture and community

Kicking off the event were Christopher Pyne and Ben Atkins, represent Australia’s Para-football team, the Pararoos. They spoke to up-and-coming CPA athlete Matty Engesser, discussing the special bond that athletes with cerebral palsy have, and the importance of building and connecting our CP community.

“You need to find that special thing for a team to succeed, whether it be in football or athletics. With [the Pararoos], the drive, the determination, the spark was already there, it was just a matter of moulding and developing it. When we come together as Para-athletes we’ve all been through the same sorts of things, we’ve all faced challenges throughout our lives that able-bodied people don’t have to face, and that gives us a special connection”

– Chris Pyne

“We’re in such a fortunate position as athletes with CP that we have direct contact with our mentors, our inspirations, the people we look up to. If you can take anything away from this call – reach out to the current Paralympians. We were all once a 9, 10 or 11-year-old aspiring to get to the Paralympians or that World Championship. We’ve got the team spirit built in, it’s just taking advantage of that, and getting that advice and helping hand”

– Ben Atkins

Resilience and determination

Lakeisha Patterson had to overcome a difficult 18 months of injury, illness and lockdowns to make it to the starting line at the Tokyo Paralympics. She went on to win gold in the women’s 400m freestyle. She said that resilience was all about finding the “creative solution” to a problem:

“We’ve all got to overcome obstacles and it can be difficult to see past them at times and focus on the road ahead, but I think I’ve definitely learned [that] there’s always another way around situation… It’s just about giving things ago and finding that creative solution.

I believe when you are faced with challenges, you have three choices: you can either let it destroy you, let it define you or let it strengthen you, and I think I’ve definitely let all of these circumstances in my life strengthen me. They pushed me to become this better athlete so it’d be able to be able to get to Tokyo”

Lucky Patterson

Matt Levy, a five-time Paralympian, also shared the importance of staying focused, in conversation with young CPA athlete Aaryan Shah. He spoke about how making the most of the experience.

“Getting ready for an event I really try and remember why I’m there in the first place. There can be self-doubt, you can second-guess yourself, I try and remember all the training and hard work I’ve done to get to that point. At the end of the day, racing is the most fun part of what we do and it’s really less than five minutes compared to years and years of training”

– Matt Levy

Setting goals and achieving success

Evan O’Hanlon is one of Australia’s most successful Paralympic sprinters, having won five gold medals. In Tokyo he won bronze in the hotly-contested T38 100m event at his fifth games, and he spoke with up-and-coming 14-year old track star Sybella Warton about the importance of setting goals:

“My process for going coming up with goals over the last probably 15-20 years has been to look around at what hasn’t been done and try and go and achieve that. So when I started in athletics, I said to myself, ‘no one’s run under 11 seconds as an athlete with cerebral palsy for the 100 metres – I want to go do that.’

So I set my mind on it and I started breaking up that goal into tiny little amounts that were more achievable – those tiny steps turned out to be 0.36 of a second, which I need to improve by, divided by 365 days and [broken down to] 0.001 of a second – and that meant that every day when I woke up I just needed to improve by that little amount and I’d be able to get my gold.”

Evan O’Hanlon

Amanda Reid, who became the first Indigenous woman to win a cycling gold medal at Paralympics after triumphing in world record time in the 500m time trial C1-3, also spoke about the importance of breaking goals down into smaller, achievable steps. Amanda, who first represented Australia in the pool at the 2012 Paralympics before switching to cycling, said her strategy was to set herself short-term, medium and longer goals – such as winning a gold medal or breaking a world record

Representation and the gift of being different

Making a special appearance to round off the evening was Katrina Webb-Denis, who won gold medals at three consecutive Paralympics and is one of Australia’s best-loved athletes with CP. Now retired, Katrina was part of Channel Seven’s commentary team in Tokyo. She shared how much it meant to her that Paralympics was now getting the recognition it deserves, and also how CP has been her “biggest gift”:

“I just had the most incredible gift of being in Tokyo, where I interviewed Lucky and Matt poolside on behalf of Channel 7 and they were one of my favourite moments ever. To be a part of the media on the other side was extraordinary, because I know when I was an athlete I would have dreamed to have channel 7 waiting there and they never were. To be able to represent that as a Paralympian to be there in those extraordinary moments means so much to me.

“Cerebral palsy has been my biggest gift. My message is that this difference has been the thing that has powered me in so many different ways. It’s taught me to be strong, resilient, a problem-solver, it’s taught me how to have empathy and love for other difference… it’s great to be different.”

– Katrina Webb-Denis, OAM