Success grows from grassroots

SAM DUNCAN, THE AUSTRALIAN

Simple steps can break down barriers to participation.

When 13-year-old Daniela Di Toro lay in a hospital bed after a wall fell on her at a school sports carnival, leaving her paralysed from the waist down, sport was the one thing that gave her a sense of control and encouraged her to dream about possibilities again.

Within a year, she was representing the nation at the Australian Open, an event she first won in 1991. Di Toro went on to become world number one and competed in six consecutive Paralympic Games, five in tennis, and one in table tennis at the most recent games in Rio.

She signed up to be one of four ambassadors for the Prime Ministers’ Sporting Oration because, more than most, she understands the power of sport.

Di Toro describes the experience of first trying to play tennis again, this time in a wheelchair, as excruciatingly frustrating.

The 44-year-old says of her first time on the court after her accident: “I was in a brace from my neck all the way down to my pelvis. I couldn’t rotate, bend forward, or to the side. I didn’t know how to push a chair, and I was just sitting there.”

In the same breath, she says wheelchair tennis clicked for her “like a good golf swing” ten months later when she played her first Australian Open.

When it comes to funding priorities for athletes with a disability, Di Toro says the equipment is the most important thing. “It’s often expensive and changes as the needs and the ability of the person using it changes,” she says.

Accessibility is also an ongoing concern. At the professional level, sporting associations generally take care of things, but at the grassroots level, the responsibility often falls on communities, clubs and schools.

She acknowledges we’ve come a long way since she first confronted the frustrations of inaccessible facilities and a world in which the media coverage of sports stars like her would always inevitably have a patronising edge to it.

That’s really changed, particularly since Rio, says Di Toro.

Despite all the progress, access remains a real issue, and by this Di Toro doesn’t just mean the playing surface.

“There are so many clubs where I can’t even get in through the front door,” she says. “There might be a gate that’s up two steps or a gate that’s not even big enough.”

In the first instance, it’s about mindfulness, says Di Toro, also a practitioner of Chinese medicine and acupuncture. “When you start thinking ‘how can we make our club accessible to anyone: that’s gender, culture, age, people with different levels of ability and disability’, you start thinking differently about ‘where to put that step’.”

But you also need to promote the club or facility as accessible, she says. “If people don’t know it’s accessible, they’re not going to go there.”

It shouldn’t be limited to physical considerations either, access is also about creating a welcoming environment, says Di Toro. “It’s really about creating a place that says ‘you’re welcome here, and we value you’.”

The Federal Government’s National Sport Plan recently highlighted the number of women playing sport is still low, but for people with a disability it’s even lower, she says. “When you think about the fact that one in five people have a disability, that’s a lot of people not being active.”

Like Di Toro, Kyah Simon, a striker for the Matildas soccer team, represented her country on the international stage at a very young age, making her first appearance for the women’s national team as a 16-year-old.

She was the first indigenous player to score a goal in a World Cup. The 27-year-old can’t say how many goals she scored in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, because she can’t remember. It sums up the scale of her accomplishments on the big stage. For Simon, it was as an eight-year-old watching Cathy Freeman win gold at Sydney 2000 that made her want to play for Australia.

She says she developed a thick skin early on playing soccer in a league with only one other girl, the rest all boys.

“You’re always isolated being ‘the girl’ when you’re in a male dominated sport,” says Simon, who actually scored five goals in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups. “But I had really good teammates that had my back.”

The experience was character building, she says. As an indigenous girl playing soccer in western Sydney, Simon learned how sport can facilitate diversity and inclusion.

She recalls being on the receiving end of one racist comment which she dealt with by sticking up for herself and her cultural background.

“It’s a matter of education when it comes to those things,” she says. “It’s important for people like us, who are trying to be positive role models in society, to speak up and to stand for what we believe in: all the important things like equality and inclusion, and treating everyone the same no matter who you are.”

Simon gives back to the sport by running soccer clinics for young girls — Kyah Simon Football Clinics, for girls between the age of eight and 18. For her, it’s seeing them empowered as they develop self-confidence that makes it worthwhile.

“Something as simple as teaching them a small drill or skill, you can see on their face they’re almost a bit nervous or scared to fail,” she says. “But when they execute a skill they never thought they could, they take that on and build huge confidence from that.”

If Australia wins the bid for the 2023 World Cup, Simon says it will give so many girls the opportunity to dream. The girls playing at grassroots level now will go on to participate in that World Cup.

Like Simon, Alex Blackwell, Australia’s most capped women’s cricketer with over 250 international appearances, grew up playing sport in teams that were male-dominated.

“It was a good development ground for resilience,” she says. “I played cricket Saturdays and Sundays in 40 plus degree heat.”

But approaching teenage years, she say the sledging from the boys was enough to make her and her twin sister quit the game in Year 5 to focus on soccer, where there was less individual attention.

Having quit cricket for good, Blackwell says it was only because of one teacher in her school, when she was in Year 6, who thought there were enough talented girls to warrant starting a girls-only team, that she got back into the sport.

“This first ever Griffith East Public School girls team, well we went on and beat our boys team,” she says.

“Then we went on and won the state knockout. If it wasn’t for that champion Mr Cook year-6 teacher, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

There are barriers still, says Blackwell, and we need to create opportunities like Mr Cook did back in 1995.

“I mean, two Australian cricketers were produced from that team.”

Encouraging though, is recent data that shows six out of ten new participants in the sport are female, she says.

The gender equitable pay model implemented last year for professional cricketers meant Blackwell’s pay doubled overnight. “I’m not sure that it’s happened across enough sports yet,” she says.

Cricket Australia recently focused on trying to bring about “a groundswell in girls and women’s

participation”, she says, so that the professional game at the pinnacle could be underpinned by the junior talent coming through.

“There’s a little bit of a gap in club level participation still in adult females, but there’s been a significant change in junior participation,” says Blackwell.

“In a few years time that wave will come through and increase the standard and competitive nature of getting places in those national and domestic teams that are now professional.”

Sport can bring cultures together, says Blackwell, who’s captain of the Sydney Thunder Big Bash team.

She says one of her favourite moments was going out to Blacktown recently and seeing hundreds of girls, many Muslim, playing cricket in their traditional dress.

“Cricket as a game is really accessible to so many different people, particularly Muslim women who are dressed in a particular way,” she says. “I just loved seeing that.”

NewsAnna Poulos