Siren Sport Collaborator Mary Konstantopoulos speaks to para athlete Alexandra Viney about discovering para sports, her Tokyo 2020 experience and the power of visibility.
In 2010, at age 18, Alexandra Viney’s life changed instantly when she was in a high-speed car accident caused by a drunk driver. Viney survived the accident, but had lasting impairments to her left elbow, forearm and hand.
Throughout her high school years, Viney had been a promising rower. But following her accident, Viney had no idea that continuing to play sport was an option, particularly when she was still trying to overcome the trauma from the accident.
“At that point, I had so much to deal with already and on top of that, there were so many people saying ‘it’s not so bad, what are you complaining about’, and then when I tried to do something, others saying ‘you are really clumsy’ or ‘your hand doesn’t work like it used to’’, said Viney.
“There was so much judgement and so many obstacles placed in front of me that never should have been there.
“I knew I was capable of so much, but everywhere I turned doors were shut in my face. It was extremely overwhelming for me at such a young age, especially when I was dealing with the mental health challenges of a car accident.”
It took eight years following her accident, before Viney was asked whether she had considered becoming a Para-athlete. Until that point, Viney had no idea that this was an option for her. For Viney, this highlighted an opportunity to advocate for greater visibility for Paralympic sport, particularly for those people that acquire a disability at some point through their life.
“We all need to work together to erase these barriers that people create,” said Viney. “So often these barriers aren’t real and they come from what people think.
“We should look for capability, instead of limitations. It takes much less effort to make a change and allow someone to join in rather than shutting them out, causing pain and being less inclusive.”
Viney does acknowledge though that there has been tremendous progress in this space, particularly with visibility of the Paralympic movement. Viney had the opportunity to see this first hand as part of the PR3 Mix 4+ at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“It was absolutely incredible to be part of the Paralympic team this year, particularly being given the chance to stand alongside athletes who have been competing for years and advocating for change for a long time.
“A small example, this year Samsung gave all the Paralympic athletes a headset and a phone, just like the Olympians received. My understanding is that this was a first and whilst it may seem like no big deal, symbolically it is very important.
“I’ve come in and had the benefit of years of hard work from so many people. To see a symbol that we are seen as equal and important means a lot.”
Similar work continued on the ground in Australia while the Paralympics were happening, with athlete Chloe Dalton advocating for Paralympic athletes to receive an athlete bonus for winning a medal; just like the Olympians do. A few days into her campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that as well as Dalton’s fundraising efforts, the Federal Government would fund Paralympics Australia to ensure all medallists would receive the same bonuses.
“It’s important for people to know that ‘para’ does not mean anything other than running parallel with the Olympic Games,” said Viney.
“It is the same calibre of high performance athletes, it is the same goals that are wanting to be achieved, it is people wanting to push themselves to the limit regardless of how their body functions. It is people chasing challenges and the impossible, because it is possible.”
When Viney was on her Tokyo adventure and following her return back home to Australia, she was completely blown away by the support shown towards the Paralympic team and the levels of engagement that the Australian public showed. Viney hopes that this is something that can continue and that Paralympic sport can continue to be made visible so that the next generation of athletes understand that there is a place in sport for them.
“Because of the postponement of the Games last year, we are about to roll into a big year of sport including a Winter Games and a Commonwealth Games; this will help keep the conversation about Paralympic sport going,” said Viney. “So many Paralympic athletes are excited and engaged. We have more confidence that people are aware of what we are able to do, and in turn, that makes people question what they can do too.
“Then the conversation shifts from justifying what we are doing, but instead recognising the value of Paralympic sports and the opportunities that come with it.
“And that’s an extremely powerful place to be.”