When Natalie Smith slipped on a rock while hiking at Uluru in 2009 her life changed forever.
She suffered spinal injuries and became a paraplegic.
“It’s not something you can ever prepare for,” Smith said.
“It definitely turns your life upside down.”
Three years later, she won bronze in the women’s 10m Air Rifle SH1 event at her first Paralympics in London.
In August 2012, the same month those Paralympics were being held, Curtis McGrath lost both his legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving for the Australian Army in Afghanistan.
What happened next is now etched into Australian sporting folklore.
As he was being carried on a stretcher to the medivac chopper with horrific, life-threatening injuries he declared:
True to his word, four years later, McGrath won gold in the Men’s 200m KL2 Para-canoe in Rio.
It was Australia’s first gold medal in the event, which McGrath later donated to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
“It’s not where you’d expect to see a Paralympic medal,” he smiled.
“If it were at my house, it would be sitting on a shelf collecting dust and people wouldn’t get to see it.”
A tribute to the origins of the Paralympic movement
For McGrath it’s also a fitting tribute to the Stoke Mandeville Games, which is where the Paralympic movement evolved.
Held in July 1948, the day of the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, the Stoke Mandeville Games allowed war veterans who became paralysed to compete in sport.
“It’s also passing on what I’ve learnt from my sport, what can be achieved and giving others a chance to experience that.”
The 33-year-old will aim to defend his gold medal in Tokyo as well as compete in a new VL3 class of para-canoeing.
“I didn’t feel any pressure going into the Rio Games, I just wanted to experience it and enjoy the moment,” he said.
A third Paralympics for Smith
Smith will line up for her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo, where she’ll compete in the R2 women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing and the R3 mixed 10m Air Rifle Prone.
The 46-year-old qualified for Tokyo after winning a gold medal at the 2018 World Shooting Para Sport Championships.
She now hopes to add to her Paralympic bronze.
“Bronze in London 2012 was just amazing,” she said.
“I didn’t expect to get a medal at my first Games.”
Shooting in her genes
In an interesting twist, it was only after Smith began shooting that she was told by her father that it was in her genes.
Her late grandfather Norman Lutz was selected in the Australian Olympic team for Melbourne 1956.
Sadly, Lutz was forced to withdraw after suffering a heart attack.
“Dad says it’s a shame my grandfather isn’t still alive as he would’ve loved to have seen me shoot,” Smith said.
She finished in fifth at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, but her greatest achievement is better than any Paralympic gold medal.
Defying the odds
Doctors had warned her chances of having children were low because of her disability but Smith defied medical odds to give birth to her son, Daniel, in 2014.
“Yes, he’s my darling, though he’s not too happy about me going to Tokyo,” she said.
“Hopefully we can tear him away from his iPad to watch the Games and he can then say: ‘Look there’s my mum’.”
Smith also hopes to inspire other women in a similar position who want to have children.
“Everything changes once you’re in a chair, but you never know until you give it a go,” she said.
Smith also returned to her childhood sporting passion of horse riding.
Prior to her accident she competed in equestrian events as a state level dressage and eventing competitor.
“I love my horses,” she said.
“It’s definitely a harder sport from a wheelchair but once you’re passionate about something, it never goes away.”
With the help of a support person and a hoist, Smith is getting back on the horse, albeit a bit differently.