Mr SPEAKER: Order! Pursuant to the resolution of the House yesterday, it is my honour and privilege to welcome Paralympians Ms Julianne Adams and Mr Hamish MacDonald onto the floor of the House to address honourable members.
Ms JULIANNE ADAMS: Mr Speaker and honourable members, I would like to begin—quite predictably, I think—by thanking you very, very much for this amazing opportunity to speak this morning on behalf of the Australian Paralympic Team and especially the 285 athletes. We realise that this is a wonderful opportunity and I thank you sincerely.
When I was thinking about what to say today—I must confess that I have not had a lot of time to prepare, as I have been a little distracted with other things—I thought perhaps I could talk to you about the Paralympic Games, but there is no point in doing that because there is a lot of literature around that will give you that detail. Instead what I would like to do this morning is give you a little bit of a personal perspective on what it is like to be a Paralympian, how I came to this point and what the Paralympic Games mean to an athlete. Perhaps a small personal overview will put you more in the feel and the spirit of the Games. Please do not panic: I am not going to go over the past 34 years, which is my age. I will just pick out certain relevant points.
Contrary to a question that I and several Paralympians have been asked by members of the media and, indeed, members of the public, as a child I did not lie in bed at night dreaming of winning a Paralympic gold medal. It was quite the contrary. I actually lay in bed dreaming of winning an Olympic gold medal and I had quite a promising career as an elite gymnast. I worked over 12 years for 30 hours a week and reached the ripe old age of 17. I realised that I was not going to make that goal and went gently into retirement at 17 and a half. I then moved on, fairly predictably, through year 12 studies, on to university and picked up the typical university activities—the study, the extracurricular activities and the part-time job which, when the parental allowance dries up, you have to have.
My part-time job was related to my previous sporting background as an elite gymnast and I was employed to put some routines together that were going to be videotaped for national standards. One day I was in the gym rehearsing a move that I had done thousands and thousands of times—it was run-of-the-mill—and I did not quite complete the move. My hand slipped. I bounced off my neck and onto my back and severed my spinal cord. In the course of 10 seconds, my life changed irreversibly. I will not go into detail because there is no need to do that. Suffice to say that there was resuscitation, followed by ambulances, calls from mother, flights by father interstate, intensive care and surgery. Very shortly afterwards—though it may seem surprising—there was that realisation that this is a horrible situation, but this is life. This is the life that I have been given and I am going to live it the best way I can.
Honourable members may think that is strange, but it is a survival instinct. The will to survive is very, very strong. I started looking forward and I did not look backward. I did not look back at the fact that I could not continue with my chosen course of study. I thought my physically active life was over. This is when wheelchair basketball entered my world. It happened while I was still lying in a hospital bed. An elderly gentleman in a wheelchair wheeled himself into my hospital room. I was not very keen to see him. I did not know him and I was not keen on the whole wheelchair idea, having newly come to one. I said, "What are you doing in my room?" He said, "Well, I have heard you have a bit of a sporting background and I thought you might like to come and play wheelchair basketball. We are recruiting."
I was actually quite horrified—in fact, absolutely horrified. I had just finished 12 years as an elite gymnast and I did not want to have anything to do with disabled sport. I had the impression that was a pastime or recreation—just something to fill in the time and a little bit of something to do while not being able to fulfil a normal role in life. Well I soon did not have a choice about that because as part of my physiotherapy program I was dragged down to the basketball court. I played it once and was hooked for life—and I have a lot of life, hopefully. It was physically challenging; it was exciting; it raised the adrenaline; it had physical contact; and it challenged me and gave me back the physical side of myself which, as an athlete, I needed. What made it really important was that I was useless—absolutely useless. I could not reach the ring with the basketball. Of course, as you do, I started to set goals. My goal was to reach the ring and put the ball through the hoop, and so it built until I made the first State team and went to my first national event. Life was pretty much getting back on track.
To start with, sport for me was a way to get back into life. It was a way to build my physical strength and find a part of me that I thought I had lost. Of course, it did not stop there because there are always higher goals to aim for, and I kept going. I went back to university and kept playing basketball. In that first year of university, I made my first Australian team. It was in the very early days of women's wheelchair basketball. It was the first international tournament that the Australian women's wheelchair basketball team had been to. We went to St Ettienne in France and finished sixth, which was amazing. Life was back on track with international travel and I was physically competitive again. Sport did an awful lot for me in those early days. Unfortunately—or fortunately for Australia, but unfortunately for me—the Paralympic movement in Australia is so strong that one has to be incredibly committed. At that stage I was juggling university and sport and probably the preference or priority was given to study.
When it came to selection for Barcelona, I had had a great training camp and I was looking really good going in. The coach sat me down and said, "Julianne, you have had a great camp. You did really well but you are not going to Barcelona. You are not on my team." He also said to me—and I will never forget this; I objected at the time but he was so, so right—"You're not going, not because you are not one of my team's best but because you're not one of my team's most committed. To make it to an Australian Paralympic team, you have to put in 110 per cent, and then some. At this point, your life is not in the situation where you are doing that." Australian Paralympic sport is as strong as that and we have the strength to say that athletes must put it as a priority. And that is a fair call. There is a lot of time, effort and expense going into it and it should be given priority.
I stopped playing for a few years. At that stage, there was not today's State and Federal support and we had to find a lot of the funding ourselves. For example, I paid for my first trip to France. I went back to complete my study and I went on and went to work. In 1995 I received a phone call from the Australian coach who said—and this is very funny—"Are you any more committed than you used to be, Julianne?" Of course, he could not see my facial expression. I said, "Of course I am, coach." I had not touched a ball for three years. He said, "That's good, because I will put you in the squad." I said, "The squad?" And he said, "To go to an Atlanta. I just have a suggestion for you, though. I would really rather that you were in Melbourne." I have not said that at that point I was living in Western Australia. Of course, yes, I decided, I will move my whole life—and I did, because I was ready for that challenge and I was ready to commit.
It was a gamble, sure, because I was given no guarantee of making that team, but there was a confidence that I had it in myself, that I could do well if I put the effort in and chose to make the trip to Victoria. I did so. I was terribly nervous during the selections for the Atlanta team and I was thinking: Did he know about the training session I had missed—because, of course, there has to be one sometime? Did he know about that morning I slept in? He either did not know, or he did not care. I made the team and went to Atlanta. The standout experience in my mind from Atlanta is being so proud of representing my country. The support the Australian community gave was just phenomenal. I will never forget the hero faxes and messages from kids, members of the public and members of Parliament. It was just sensational. It was feeling like you were part of the family, and that is a very special feeling.
However, the results were not quite what I wanted, so I had to go on to another Games. I went on to do the four years to Sydney. In that time, thankfully through the support of your Federal colleagues and the Australian Sports Commission and through your State Government contribution to funding athletes and other State Government programs, funding and arrangements have now been honed so that we can actually be fully dedicated athletes should we choose. That has made an incredible difference to me personally. In the last eight months I have been a full-time athlete. If I am going to do this one, I am going to do it properly and hopefully come out with a gold medal.
At this time it has very much been in some respects the power of one that brought me to this point in my life; it had to take a lot of internal strength. But something stronger than the power of one, which is incredibly strong, is the power of the nation. I have reached this point but I could not have done so and been as prepared as I am mentally, physically and emotionally without the power of the nation. That is where Australia has done so very well in preparing the Australian Paralympic team. Hopefully, that will continue in supporting us through the Games and our performances. I am sure it will. It is something we are relying on, as the Olympians have done, because that will get us over the line.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to speak to you today. The strength and power the athletes have put in hopefully will be reciprocated by everyone in New South Wales and Australia. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
Mr HAMISH MacDONALD: Good morning. Right off the bat, like Julianne, I thank you very much for this tremendous opportunity to speak to you this morning. Ladies and gentlemen, over the next few weeks there will be a new chapter in Australian sporting history. The community will be introduced to a new group of sporting heroes whose names, like those of Thorpe and Freeman, will be etched into our psyche forever. The Paralympics, as we heard already from Julianne, are the most elite and prestigious competition for all athletes with a disability. No doubt this Australian team is the most well resourced and best prepared team we have ever produced. For the first time, at these Games Australia will be represented in every one of the 18 sports to be contested.
These Games are set to be the greatest Paralympics ever staged, with the largest number of participating nations ever and community support in the form of ticket sales already far exceeding any expectations. Having attended two previous Games and having just witnessed what is considered to be the greatest Olympic Games ever, I am sure that once again the people of New South Wales and Australia will deliver the goods. However, it is our aim that these Games leave a lasting legacy: a legacy that enables all future Australian Paralympians to continue to receive support and be adequately resourced and prepared to perform at their best; a legacy that will showcase the talent and potential of all people with a disability; and, above all, a legacy of elite performance and goodwill.
Most importantly, through the New South Wales Parliament I thank the people of New South Wales for their continuing passion and commitment, from the decision makers here in this room to the thousands of supporters who will attend the Games and to the many volunteers who will help make it happen. From every athlete attending the Games from every corner of the globe, I invite you all to join me, my Australian team mates, the elite athletes from around the world and all the people of New South Wales out at Homebush Bay to help us create some history. Thank you.