Proving that a disability doesn’t have to hold you back in chasing the sporting dream, 28 year old Natalie is waiting to find out if she will be selected for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Natalie’s journey started when she was in primary school, with a local organisation called Rebound WA.
Rebound WA supports Western Australians living with a physical disability to live an active life and connect them with the community.
Rebound WA says they aim “to remove barriers – both physical and mental – so children and adults with a physical disability can have the same participation opportunities as their able-bodied peers.”
Natalie was born with a condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, which is the development of joint contractures. A joint contracture is where a joint becomes permanently fixed in a bent or straightened position that impacts function and range of motion.
Natalie’s most affected joints are in her legs, allowing her to use her arms regularly. She says that this “makes her lucky”.
Because of the condition’s impact on the joints of her legs, Natalie uses a manual wheelchair.
“My two nephews love to climb all over the wheelchair and try to push it around the house.”
Growing up, while at school, the chances for Natalie to participate in sporting activities were limited. But other than that she was just like any other kid.
“At school, I would be lagging behind, struggling to push my wheelchair through the grass to play soccer or trying to play golf (I hated it) and not being able to keep up with my friends during [Physical Education].
“When I got involved with Rebound, I could keep up with my peers, and actually feel like I was contributing and that my participation was worth my time, rather than being delegated as goalie because I couldn’t move along the grass to participate any other way.”
Finding a sport
Natalie took a while to settle on a sport. However, through Rebound WA she was able to try a wide range of sports and activities.
“I started with throwing disciplines like javelin, shotput and discus. I was pretty good as a young kid…there are still some standing Australian records [that] I hold, mainly [in the] under 12 and 14’s.
“I have also tried swimming but following a black line up and down the pool is not for me. I would rather play water polo or something than compete in swimming.
“Wheelchair tennis is another sport I have tried and [it] is very easy to adapt to play with any of my friends and family.
“However, there is only one sport I have stuck with over the years, and that is wheelchair basketball.
“I am lucky enough to be part of the Australian squad. We have just played in the Tokyo Paralympics. I was selected as part of the team to play for my country and compete on the highest stage.”
Besides being selected for the Australian national team, the Australian Gliders at the Tokyo Paralympics, participating in sport has given Natalie a wide range of opportunities.
“I participated in athletics on a national stage from the age of 10 to 19. I have travelled around Australia with athletics and basketball without my family, competing and learning to be as independent as possible.”
“I have also been a member of the Western Stars (now Perth Wheelcats) state basketball team since its inception in 2014. I have competed in the Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball League as a result.
“I was a member of the U25 World Championship team in 2011 and 2015 where Australia won silver both years. I am currently a member of the Australian Gliders.”
Meeting other kids with disability and peer support
Being able to have the opportunity to participate in sport has also meant that as a child, Natalie was able to meet other children who had a disability. Which meant she was able to learn from those around her and build relationships and a sense of community.
“I hadn’t met that many people who had disabilities before becoming a member at Rebound WA. The people I was aware of who had disabilities were non-verbal and very dependent on carers, or they had aggressive degenerative disorders. It wasn’t until I was 10 and became a member with Rebound that I met anyone even remotely like myself,” says Natalie.
“There was no official peer support program put in place when I became a member; however, there were opportunities to learn from others.
“I was always pretty resilient and never felt I was treated differently by my family, friends and school environment. So [I] didn’t see anything as a barrier and there was no excuse not to try to do something.
“I had a pretty strong sense of who I was and what I was doing, however it was good to mix with other kids with disabilities to build up the confidence.
“[Sport] gave me an opportunity to meet other kids who had disabilities who were perfectly capable of looking after themselves, [had the] ability to drive and do other activities that people tend to take for granted.
“It showed me that I could do whatever I wanted, not that I didn’t believe that before, but it reinforced that sense of independence and that anything you could do, I would find a way to make it work for me.
“It also kept me active in a way that I wasn’t able to [be] at school. I have since been able to travel the country for sport and learn some crucial skills along the way, like using an escalator and being able to get up curbs.”
Although there was no official peer-support structure in place when Natalie joined Rebound WA, she was still able to learn from those around her. She was able to learn skills that would be useful not just for sport but for life.
“In terms of my experience with peer support, there were not many of us who would attend athletics training so there was no reason to split into age groups as you would find at a mainstream athletics club. The older kids pretty much adopted me as their own and things went from there.
“Add in travelling to Brisbane later that year (2001) to compete in the National Junior Disabled Games where I was the youngest member of the team at 10; there were lots of opportunities to learn new ‘wheelchair and disabled life’ hacks. I think by the end, I was providing peer support!”
Outside of sports Natalie has enjoyed studying and has completed a Masters of Speech Pathology. She now works and continues to represent Australia.
Natalie’s experiences with Rebound WA have given her amazing opportunities, skills, and community which she says is important for anyone with a disability.
“[I] believe it is really important for young kids with a disability or those who have been injured recently and now find themselves with a disability to have a community to be part of.
“The life hacks you learn from this community are crucial and can provide a boost to your sense of self with how your disability fits into your life.”