Wheelchair world champion serves up message of hope in Samoa

The reigning world number one wheelchair tennis player, Dylan Alcott, is excited to be on Samoan soil for the first time - and he's come to share an important message. 

Alcott is one of the finest examples of the way in which someone with a disability can live fuller lives than most people could ever dream of, which is precisely the message he wants to send about people with a disability in Samoa. 

By his early teens the athlete had already made a name for himself on the national wheelchair basketball circuit in Australia. By 17 years he was the youngest ever Paralympic gold medallist at Beijing 2008. 

After winning silver at London 2012, he decided to switch sports. He has won a total of nine career grand slam titles in tennis so far and another gold medal at the Rio Paralympics. His activities off the court are impressive too; Alcott is often seen "crowd surfing" in his wheelchair at music festivals and was even recently voted one of Australia's most popular television personalities. 

“It’s my first time in Samoa and I’m loving it so far,” he says.

A major purpose of the trip is connecting with the Samoa Spinal Network (S.S.N.) and sharing experiences across cultures. 

“They’re called life hacks. You find out little tricks and things like that [from] other people similar to you,” he says.

He says S.S.N.'s depth of community is inspiring. 

“It’s awesome to see such a sight as there even aren’t these many things in Australia,” he says.

The purpose of Aclott's trip to Samoa is to educate, inspire and encourage people to try things that they wouldn’t normally do. His own story is a great example. 

At birth, Dylan was discovered with a condition called Lipomyelomeningocele. 

“I was born with a tumour wrapped around my spinal cord and it started growing with me when I was three months old,” he says.

When he was only a few days old the surgeon was forced to remove the tumour to save his life but in doing so he rendered him a paraplegic; much of the first three-and-half years of his life was spent in hospital. 

He credits the support of a loving family and older sibling, Zack, with not only getting used to being in a wheelchair but being proud of it. 

“I was very lucky that Zack taught me to be really proud of whom I was, of the fact that I was different which was pretty cool,” he says.

He says he was always raised to be independent; he took the train to school by himself to meet new people. But growing up had its challenges. 

Being in a wheelchair sometimes changed the way people treated him and even made him a target for bullies. There were times growing up when he even hated his disability. 

“Some people might treat you differently,” he says.

“I think for people that are born with their disability, it’s often really tough because kids are brutal sometimes.

“It’s just about being patient but also resilient to make sure you don’t let the people that give you a hard time get to you."

He credits an epiphany in his later teens with his current positive outlook: for every one person who treated him badly, Alcott realised, there were thousands of others who treated him with the fairness and dignity everyone deserves. 

The secret, he says, is getting out into the community. The more you try, the more fun you'll have, he says. 

“It’s just about starting small” he says.

“I love being in a wheelchair, I love having a disability. I’m very proud of it and I just want more people to be proud of who they are too. You might be a bit different but everybody wants to be different.

“Everyone wears different clothes, lives in different houses, has different jobs and does different things. So what better way to be different than to have a disability? As long as you can embrace it, be happy and proud of whom you are."

He's advising the S.S.N. to expand their involvement in sport by partnering with "able body sporting clubs" as well. 

“You don’t need these big huge programs where everybody has a disability. You can actually integrate someone like me into any program as there is ways to do it such as changing the rules and systems to suit anybody with any sort of disability,” he says.

“The first time I was being a normal person was when I started playing basketball and tennis".

He comments on how it’s so great to see people that are passionate about trying to help each other, especially in Samoa where people with a disability may not get as many opportunities as they deserve.

"I really enjoyed being able to come to talk to them,” he says.

His advice for the S.S.N. is to keep pushing through, never give up and hopefully to receive more support from the Government and private sector in the form of employment opportunities for members. 

A.N.Z. has brought Alcott to Samoa as an ambassador for the bank and helped establish his connection with the S.S.N. (Last year the bank made a donation of $35,000 tala to the S.S.N.'s operations). 

“A.N.Z. have been a huge support of everything that I’ve done and for the last three years, everything that I’ve wanted to do to help people with disability right around the world they get behind and it’s no difference in Samoa. It’s great to see them out here, supporting the local community,” he says.

Getting involved in wheelchair sport, especially at an elite level, is not always a simple undertaking and Alcott says the role of sponsors such as A.N.Z. is vital. 

“I think that’s the best thing about Paralympic sport is everyone always tells us we’re very inspirational,” he says.

“We are elite tennis players who put on a show every time we play to be able to get a return in the investment to people like A.N.Z. to sponsor me.”

He was only able to become involved in wheelchair sports thanks to the donation of a $10,000 wheelchair; something he credits as one of the most important developments in his life as it gave him a network of contacts of other people with a disability.

Now the Dylan Alcott Foundation is helping to make contributions of its own, to help young people with disabilities achieve their goals. 

“There aren’t enough people with disability who get to go to university to become lawyers, doctors, surgeons, musicians, and Paralympians,” he says.

The Foundation works on helping them overcome obstacles, be they accessibility issues, financing or even the absence of opportunity and has already disbursed hundreds and thousands of dollars in equipment and scholarships.

The Foundation's Manager, Georgina Saggers, said they will be in Samoa for two days. 

“We’re going to the Samoa Spinal Cord Network and we’re going to the local tennis to hit some tennis balls and talking with A.N.Z. in sort of educating them in what we’re doing back and what we can do here to sort of improve on things,” she says.

For Alcott, increasing funding for people with a disability is only part of the answer. 

He points out that physical barriers to accessibility remain a prominent issue: “One of the biggest barriers is lots of stairs," he said. 

But, for people with a disability, accessibility also has a broader meaning, he says, and one he wants to emphasise during his time in Samoa. 

“Accessibility is not just the things that you can see such as the stairs and the bathrooms. Accessibility is also the attitudes in the way that people talk to you,” he says.

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