Australia

Beyond Tokyo: The future of the Paralympics

Some of the Australian Paralympians who’ll compete at the next Games in Paris 2024, Los Angeles 2028, and Brisbane 2032 are not yet disabled.

Others might be eligible to qualify without realising it.

You might not think so, but it could be you.

Silver-medallist and world champion Lauren Parker never imagined she’d be a Paralympian.

In 2016, she was a world-class Ironman athlete, watching the Rio Games from her training base in Majorca, Spain.

“I was able-bodied then,” she told ABC Sport while resting in Tokyo’s athletes’ village. “I remember watching it on TV.”

A year later, while cycling in training for the 2017 Australian Ironman championship, Parker’s bike tyres blew out and she landed on a guard rail. 

She suffered many injuries, including paraplegia.

“After the accident, while I was in rehab, I was told that I’d never compete again,” she said. 

“I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. And when I found out about para-triathlon it gave me that hope. I wanted to get back into training and my sport and set those high goals again.

“But it was so grim. I actually thought my life was over and if I wasn’t able to get back to my sport I wouldn’t be here right now. It’s so dark and many people — they go through that. And some of them, they aren’t here right now because they do give up. I’ve got friends that I had in rehab who aren’t here right now. 

Parker was saved by a phone call from the United States. 

How did she make it back into competition?

Her devoted long-time coach and best friend Brad Fernley answered the phone.

Lauren Parker and her long-time coach, Brad Fernley, transfered their attentions to para-triathlon after her accident.(

Facebook: Lauren Parker

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On the other end of the line was American Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Competitor Magazine and Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which raises money to help disabled athletes.

“He was one of the founders of the sport [of Ironman],” Fernley explained. “While Lauren was in rehab he said come and see what we’re doing over here.”

Parker checked out of her rehabilitation centre in Ryde, Sydney, and travelled with Fernley to San Diego, where she was introduced to Mr Babbitt and a lot of disabled aspiring athletes.

CAF offered to help get her moving again.

“Everybody had smiles on their faces,” Fernley said. “She saw that and said, ‘Well, if they can do it, there is hope for me’. 

“It was touch and go. She’s on this earth today because of finding this sport.” 

Road to Tokyo

Parker returned to Australia and began doing three sessions a week of hand cycling and four sessions of swimming. She trained a few times with the champion Paralympian Kurt Fearnley in Newcastle.

Lauren Parker with her Commonwealth Games Bronze Medal.
Lauren Parker won a bronze medal on the Gold Coast at the Commonwealth Games.(

AAP: Dean Lewins

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“Just training with Kurt under his renowned coach, Andrew Dawes, has been amazing,” she said at the time.

Nine months after her accident, Parker competed in her first para-tri race in Melbourne.

On borrowed equipment, she finished second and secured qualification for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

“I’ve only been on the racing chair for six weeks,” she said after the race. “And to be able to complete today’s race in an OK time, I’m really happy.” 

Parker won a bronze medal at those Commonwealth Games.

In 2019, she became the world champion.

“Triathlon ruined my life, but it saved my life,” she said.

A finish for the ages

An Australian Para-triathlete is narrowly ahead of her American rival in the closing stages of the final in Tokyo.
Lauren Parker, background, was overtaken by Kendall Gretsch in the final metres of the race in Tokyo.(

AP/OIS: Joel Marklund

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Her race in Tokyo could not have been more exciting.

Parker was leading all the way, with USA’s Kendall Gretsch chasing.

The Aussie knew the American was behind her because she was being told the time splits.

Parker was slowed down momentarily by one of the athletes she was lapping. 

“If I didn’t get held up on that last U-turn, I would’ve won by a second and not lost by a second,” she said.

“It would’ve been a different story. I’m disappointed at that but I got a silver medal at the Paralympic Games after everything I’ve been through.”

Bob Babbitt ran the post-race commentary in a Zoom video for USA Triathlon (he is now in the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport).

He said the Parker-Gretsch showdown was “probably one of the greatest finishes we’ve ever seen”.

“It was special,” he said. “It was really, really cool.

An American paralympic triathlete passes her Australian rival as they approach the tape on the finish line.
The sprint finish has been described as one of the most exciting of all time.(

Getty Images: Alex Pantling

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“The fact that there was a sprint at the end … will tie these women together for ever. They’ll probably be speaking about that together, if they’re up to it — I think they’ll be travelling around showing that video and speaking to that. And talking about their backstories and what led to that magic moment.

“I think that’s a moment that will live on forever.”

Parker will travel to the United States for more competition after leaving Japan.

“It’s been a great experience, and I’m grateful that I was able to come here and race given the time we’re in, that the world’s in,” she said. “And every athlete’s been through something to be here, and it’s been a big journey. Next time, I look forward to Paris and getting a gold medal.” 

She is now an international star of the sport, with opportunities to motivate others with her message.

“I want to send out to people — able-bodied and disabled — that [they should] never give up and anything’s possible. There definitely needs to be more support for athletes or people who have had those accidents.

“There [also] needs to be much more opportunities for athletes to get out there and find the sport that they can do.”

The Paralympic task ahead

The Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) said there would be a small number of athletes like Lauren Parker, who will acquire their impairment before the next Games in 2024. 

A more significant percentage of would-be Paralympians already have an impairment but don’t realise they’re eligible or haven’t been classified yet.

APC Senior Manager of Para-Sport Tim Matthews used javelin thrower Michal Burian as an example.

Michal Burian leans on a barrier wearing a gold vest.
Michal Burian won Paralympic silver a year after discovering he was eligible.(

Getty Images: Alex Davidson for International Paralympic Committee

)

“He was born with a club foot … but he didn’t know he was eligible for Paralympic sport. Once he got classified last year, suddenly a year later he’s a world record holder and Paralympic silver medallist.”

Mr Matthews said the improvement of recruitment processes at community level was a major focus.

The APC has information on its website, including an “impairment mapping tool”.

But individual sports have also been challenged to improve their access and coaching.

“We’ve got participation pathway co-ordinators in every state,” he explained.

“We don’t deliver the pathway. It’s sports’ responsibility to deliver the pathway [except wheelchair rugby]. Some of the disability sports organisations, they run programs specifically for people with disabilities. 

“All the high-performance programs are managed by the national federation for that sport.

He hopes the popularity of the Tokyo Paralympics will “open a few people’s eyes”.

Meanwhile, Brisbane 2032 will help drive participation in the next decade.

“There’ll be 10-year-olds sitting at home with a disability that will be 21 in Brisbane,” he said. “They should be licking their lips. It’s a massive opportunity. 

“Kids sitting in hospital that have lost their leg last week to cancer, are sitting up watching TV thinking, ‘OK, this is crap, I’ve lost my leg, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel’.”

The Channel Seven coverage of the Games is supporting a fund-raising effort, which has surpassed $1 million.

Mr Matthews said the money will go to buying much-needed equipment for community-level para-sportspeople. 


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