Born premature at 25 weeks, Matthew Levy was given very little chance of survival.
“I had a pretty tough beginning,” he said.
“I was born very early, with cerebral palsy and vision impairment due to oxygen at birth.”
Diagnosed as legally blind, his tiny body was battling a minefield of medical complications.
“I’ve had 50 odd operations ranging from heart, lungs, ear and brain,” he said.
“I don’t look at the numbers.
Levy began swimming at the age of five to get his limbs moving. When he was 12, he competed at his first state swimming championships.
By his own admission, he wasn’t very successful, but his persistence eventually paid off.
Five Paralympics and counting
Now aged 34, Levy is heading to his fifth Paralympics, hoping to add to his already impressive tally of two Paralympic gold medals, one silver and five bronze.
He’s also broken several world records, and in 2014 was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” he said.
“From when I started my career in 2004 to now, it feels a bit surreal.”
Levy will be competing in the 100-metre breaststroke, 4×100 metre freestyle relay and the 50-metre freestyle in Tokyo.
The COVID-19 pandemic means he hasn’t raced internationally since 2019 and Levy admits there are a lot of unknowns going into this Paralympics.
“I’m out there to do personal bests and do my best,” he said.
“Hopefully that will be good enough to stand on the podium.”
What’s equally important for Levy is having fun and enjoying the moment.
It’s an attitude that’s served Levy well away from the sporting arena too.
For the past 11 years, he’s been working part time at Westpac in various roles.
Levy has also completed a bachelor of business and an MBA in leadership and innovation, and has established himself as a motivational speaker.
“I look at life as a glass half full,” he said.
Games #7 for Danni Di Toro
It’s a similar philosophy driving Danni Di Toro, who at 47 is powering to her seventh Paralympic Games.
“I’m a competitive beast and can’t help myself,” said Di Toro, who is the co-captain of the Australian Paralympic team.
A former wheelchair tennis world number one, Di Toro has won Paralympic silver and bronze, 10 Australian Open titles and numerous grand slam crowns.
After achieving all she could in wheelchair tennis, Di Toro switched to Para-table tennis for the 2016 Rio Games.
And she’ll again be competing in Para-table tennis again in Tokyo.
“It’s like the most opposite sport [to tennis]. It’s been a real learning and unlearning [process],” Di Toro said.
She’s likened the switch to a rewiring of the brain.
“There are so many whys? And not enough, why nots.”
Di Toro became a paraplegic at 13 when a wall collapsed on her at a school swimming carnival.
While sport has been an incredible vehicle for Di Toro, she says it’s important to think more broadly when it comes to athletes with disabilities.
“It’s not just about, ‘Oh you’ve got a disability, you can become a Paralympian,'” she said.
“It’s about making a meaningful contribution in the community and life you lead.”
With the Olympics having already inspired so many during the pandemic, Di Toro believes the Paralympics will provide the world with more much-needed hope and reprieve.
“I feel incredibly privileged and humbled.”