There’s a power and flow in the Australian Paralympic movement.
You could see it working on day one in Tokyo.
It was even more obvious at the opening ceremony.
Danni Di Toro and Ryley Batt entered the stadium with only a flag and chef de mission Kate McLoughlin for company.
Batt did not feel lonely.
“We know we have the whole mob behind us,” he said.
This green and gold team will compete for each other, and in tribute to those people who helped them find their way to this moment.
For Di Toro, and many others, that included the late Sandy Blythe, whose Rollers team of Atlanta 1996 this week celebrated its 25th gold medal anniversary.
Who was Sandy Blythe?
Robert “Sandy” Blythe was an exceptional athlete from the country town Derrinallum, Victoria, with ambitions of playing in the Victorian Football League, when a car accident paralysed him.
Six years later he represented Australia at the Seoul 1988 in wheelchair basketball.
It was the first of his four Paralympics; he finished his career as co-captain of the entire Paralympic team in Sydney 2000.
At his subsequent induction into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame, it was noted: “If he were to be remembered for nothing else, Sandy Blythe’s role as captain of the Rollers during their historic run to the gold medal at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta would guarantee his place in Australia’s basketball history.”
The 1996 campaign started with a loss against Spain. (IOC boss Juan Antonio Samaranch arrived at the stadium at halftime to inspire the Spaniards.)
Preliminary round victories over Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, and Argentina restored confidence.
Blythe was co-captain alongside David Gould, another admired leader.
The team, which had never finished better than fifth, adopted an attacking mindset and two mottos: “One stop – one basket” (promoting a counter-attacking approach) and “Our time”.
A quarter-final win over the Dutch sent Blythe and Gould’s men into a semi-final against the Americans, who hadn’t been beaten for 20 years.
Australia’s star player was Troy Sachs, the world’s best shooter.
Sachs scored 28 points to help upset the United States.
The gold medal match was between the Rollers and Great Britain.
Sachs shot 42 points (the same as Patty Mills in the Olympics bronze medal playoff last month), including five from seven three-point attempts. (After the Games, Sachs signed with the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks and won the next three US national championships.)
Australia won the final by 15 points.
One of the lasting images of that game was Blythe and Sachs hanging from a hoop; the conqueror Sachs was holding the shorn net as a trophy in his left hand.
Inspiring children to get into sport
Another photo that still gives goosebumps is the fist-pumping celebration of teammate Nick Morris.
Morris, from Wangaratta, had once seemed destined to play high-level sport – cricket and football.
But a dirt bike accident left him unable to walk.
As a teen, he’d spent time recovering in the Austin Hospital alongside a young girl, Danni Di Toro, who’d been injured by a collapsed wall at a swimming carnival.
They became friends. (They used to play table tennis.)
Helping the pair throughout this traumatic period was the hospital’s recreational and lifestyle manager, Sandy Blythe.
“Between Danni and myself, Sandy was very much a mentor,” Morris said. “He led from the front. He was a great leader. He instilled a sense of excellence.”
All three of them had been involved in accidents; all knew what it was like to lose so much in an instant.
Blythe was there to show the youngsters that they could live actively and successfully despite their physical restrictions.
Nick Morris and Sandy Blythe would not only represent their country together. They went into business liaising with architects, developers, and builders to improve the accessibility of workplaces and public spaces – helping the lives of many thousands of people.
Morris, who will be commentating for Channel Seven on some of the biggest games in Tokyo, remembered the 1996 triumph with pride.
“That set Australian wheelchair basketball on an absolute purple patch,” he said.
While the Rollers missed out on a medal in Sydney, the women’s team, nicknamed the Gliders, won silver.
And everyone was witnessing the flourishing of the Paralympic Games.
Sandy Blythe’s death
After Sydney 2000, Sandy Blythe suffered undiagnosed chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.
He took his own life five years later. He was 43.
In the note he left for loved ones, which was read as part of the eulogy at his funeral, he said: “We all have our limits and mine had been well and truly reached.
“After becoming sick… I tried to find answers despite so many medical investigations. It all became clear in August 2004, when chronic fatigue syndrome revealed its sinister self.
“Since this, my time ‘up’ has diminished to at best an hour in the mornings and about 40 minutes in the afternoon. This, together with an inability to sleep, chronic prostatitis … kidney problems and paraplegia, left no hope.
He also left behind some advice.
“Make life fun because you never know when something so horrible will make you have to throw your hand away, no matter how much you didn’t want to.”
Blythe’s partner, former double-silver medallist Paralympian and Gliders’ captain Paula Scott (nee Coghlan), told the other mourners she’d lost her soul mate.
“I am so grateful for the time we had and I am so grateful to experience a love as enduring as ours,” she said.
Generational power and flow
Sixteen years later, Paula Scott said Blythe’s legacy was strong as ever.
“Every Paralympian has their journey and it’s unique to them. Everyone that’s faced the challenges they have… there is a crossroad and you either turn left or you go right.
“From my point of view, meeting people who’ve done great things puts things into perspective.
“Knowing Danni’s story and Nick’s story – when you meet a Sandy Blythe it can be powerful.
“You can have the ability to inspire others. It’s such a selfless thing. It’s very contagious.
“The people who Sandy touched have gone on to motivate others. He gave people a voice. He was the beginning of that.”
Nick Morris agreed.
“The Aussie spirit, especially in Olympics (and Paralympics) — we play as part of their legacy. I looked up to players and I’m assuming that players looked up to me. The best teams and the most humbling teams are always thankful for who came before them.”
As a child, Danni Di Toro left the Austin Hospital encouraged by Blythe to get back into tennis, a sport she’d played before her accident.
She went on to become a champion, winning medals as well as grand slam titles, before switching to table tennis, the game she played in hospital against Morris all those years ago.
In Rio 2016, Di Toro was Australian team co-captain with the great Kurt Fearnley.
“The first time was such a proud moment, but the second time,” she said after finding out she’d be carrying the flag in Tokyo. “Not many people get to do that.”
It was fitting she shared her honour with Ryley Batt, whose achievements in wheelchair rugby echo the feats of Blythe, Sachs and co.
For a long time, Di Toro and Batt have been showing other young people with disabilities what’s possible.
The next wave of athletes included Dylan Alcott, who first saw Louise Sauvage win gold medals in Atlanta. He wrote in his memoir, Able: “I remember thinking how she’d been a kid just like me, and look at her now, an incredible champion, the best in the world.”
When Alcott met Di Toro in 2002, he realised she would be an important mentor.
“Danni’s enthusiasm was infectious,” he wrote. “She was one of the most inspiring people I’d ever met – she still is.”
Look at the blazing Alcott now – going for a ‘golden slam’ (all four tennis majors and Paralympics gold).
At full tilt, he is the epitome of power and flow.
Call it the Sandy Blythe Effect.