Every athlete has their story of resilience, incredible talent and perseverance, but seven-time Paralympian Christie Dawes has a tale that will stop you in your tracks.
The three-time Paralympic medallist and former world champion is in the same elite group as Kurt Fearnley and Dylan Alcott, and her success off the track is equally awe-inspiring.
She began wheelchair racing as a 10-year-old after becoming a paraplegic in a fatal car crash.
Then she saw Louise Sauvage compete.
“I was 12, watching the Barcelona Paralympics (1992) and I saw Louise Sauvage on the track,” she said.
The car accident happened just months after another family tragedy.
“My dad took his own life, it was very difficult,” she said.
“We were struggling to find our new normal after dad had died and mum said we need a break to get away and reset.”
The family set off on a beach holiday to the NSW north coast.
“A dog ran out onto the road, the road was wet, my mum braked but we slid and had a head-on with an oncoming car,” Dawes said.
“I broke my back, mum was terribly injured and the lady in the other car died.”
A few years later, she made her Paralympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta games.
“I was always an active kid, before my accident I was a gymnast,” she said.
“Several surgeries and four months in rehab on my back waiting for my spine to knit back together, I wanted to find that feeling again of being free and wild.”
Twenty-five years and six Paralympic Games later, she is still one of the world’s best.
COVID curtailed preparation
COVID-19 has been a huge hurdle for Dawes, with government restrictions and border closures preventing competition.
“My track was locked up for a couple of months, COVID-19 stopped all of our events – Toyko March 2020 is the last marathon I did,” she said.
Like with every obstacle Dawes has been dealt, she took the year delay of the Tokyo Games in her stride.
“I was relieved – I didn’t want to decide between my family, my safety and my sport,” she said.
“It’s a terrible position to put athletes in – I also had a baby in 2018 so it gave me another year to bounce back and get speed and fitness back.”
Watching the success of the 2020 Olympics has also been a relief.
“I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst and I was pleasantly surprised that everything seems to have gone to plan.”
As a mother of two and wife, the dangerous nature of her sport is always on her mind.
A terrifying crash, then a bombing
At the 2008 Beijing Games she was involved in one of the worst crashes seen.
“Six hundred (metres) to go, coming into the straight, everyone is trying to make a move, Switzerland’s Edith Hunkeler lost control, taking out seven of the 11 riders, including myself.”
There were countless injuries and Dawes ran over the head of Japans’ Wakako Tsuchida.
“When you’re going at high speeds with wheels, close together in close proximity and your drafting and there’s medals on the line, that’s the nature of the beast.”
In Tokyo, Dawes will be competing in the wheelchair marathon, an event she almost quit after being caught up in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013.
“It was the worst hour of my life,” she reflected, thinking at the time she had lost her husband and son in the tragedy.
She was waiting to meet them at the finish line, when the news of the explosion broke.
“I really started to panic, I remember losing count of the emergency vehicles trying to get to the scene, every time I rang I couldn’t get through.”
Later, she found out they were being held in a safe area.
With Paris 2024 around the corner, Dawes has no plans to retire.
“I am so ready to go and can’t wait to get this COVID stuff under control and we can be travelling and doing our qualifying times for Paris, so get me on that plane.”
While juggling training on the track and raising her two children with her coach and husband Chris Dawes (who is also coach to Kurt Fearnley), Dawes is also a teacher, broadcaster and advocate for people with disability.