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How sport changed my life

Richard Nicholson
Rich Nicholson (centre) is aiming to compete at his sixth Paralympic Games.

07 Sep 2015

By Rich Nicholson

There’s family photos of me walking around as a toddler, but it was so long ago I can’t remember it now. I was four when I fell ill and lost the use of my legs.

Now I’m 45, but I’m as determined as ever to compete at the next Paralympic Games. If I can make it to Rio, a year from today, it would be my sixth Games.

As a kid, I never dreamed of life as an international athlete. How could it be open to me?

When I was seven, my parents gave me a skateboard. For years I wore the prints off my fingertips, following my friends around the Canberra suburbs.

I’d come home missing bark off my elbows and knees and plenty of times my parents must have asked themselves why they’d even bought it.

But that skateboard gave me independence. Skinned knee s and elbows taught me valuable lessons - if you have a buster, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again.

When I was 13, I met a gymnastics coach, Chris Timpson. That was a watershed moment in my life. Chris lit a spark in me, a love for sport that still burns today.

Once I was up on the gymnastics apparatus, I could keep my legs together, point my toes and compete with all the other kids.

Of course, the dismount was my issue. I couldn’t land on my legs, only on my knees. So while every other kid was starting their routine striving for a perfect 10, the best I could hope for was a 9.5.

I competed and coached gymnastics, so giving it away wasn’t easy. But I’m competitive, it’s what keeps me motivated. Besides, if you’re open to new ideas, there’s always a door opening somewhere.

Gymnastics made me strong, both in the upper body and in my work ethic.

So I took up powerlifting in my early 20s. I made my Paralympics debut at Atlanta in 1996, but Sydney 2000 was the highlight. Weighing 58kg, I bench-pressed 175kg, triple my bodyweight. It was a personal best, a national record and good enough for silver.

I got silver again at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, before switching to track and road racing. I was a sprinter at first, but I’m more focused on middle-distance these days.

I’ve made these decisions to change sports because I never want to stop testing myself. Motivation for me is about putting your front wheel on the start line, against the best in the world and giving it a crack.

When I switched to wheelchair racing Kurt Fearnley was still only 20, yet to emerge as the legend he’s become. Still one of the most thrilling moments in my Paralympic career was being in the Birds Nest of Beijing, watching Kurt come into the stadium and take gold in the 2008 marathon.

Competitors like Kurt have become good friends. I still get excited being part of the Australian team.

In the lead-up to the last Paralympics, in London 2012, I was so determined to do well, I left Australia early to train in Switzerland. Preparation was going perfectly.

I only remember waking up in a hospital. No wallet, no phone, no crutches, no wheelchair. Not even any clothes. I was alone in the country. I literally had nothing.

Someone had walked out in front of me on the track. I was going 34km/h. There were severe lacerations on my face. Even after plastic surgery, the scars remain.

I thought about going home, but I couldn’t. Back to those lessons on the skateboard - have a buster, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again.

So I did and, with some very close friends and teammates, we collected bronze in the 4x400m relay.

These are the tests I love in life and sport. Challenges make you more resilient and a better athlete.

I like to train, I’ve never had an issue showing up each day and putting in the hard work. I love the people involved, who continually challenge themselves to do the same.

You can’t live this kind of life doing it by yourself. The ACT Academy of Sport has supported me for two decades.

I work at the Australian Sports Commission. Funnily enough, I’m part of the Australian Institute of Sport Draft program, which tries to identify athletes who could switch to Olympic sports and be successful.

The next sports I’d like to try are hand-cycling and kayaking, but only for recreation.

Will Rio be my last Paralympics? Possibly, but I’ve still got to make it there yet.

I know I still enjoy competing. Rio is only 12 months away, not far at all, and I’d sure like to be there.

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