From murderball to the basketball court, Robyn Lambird has always loved sport. Now they’re pushing for gold on the racing track at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Robyn Lambird has been dreaming about the Paralympics since first taking to the racing track competitively back in 2016. Now, with team selection within reach, so too is a long held dream of a gold medal.
“I’ve pushed that A standard now a couple times,” the 24-year-old told Siren. “So I think I’ve proven that I’m sort of ready for selection. So it just comes down to how many spots they get as a team and who they think is the best chance of getting a medal.”
While uncertainty swirls around Tokyo and whether the games will even go ahead, Robyn remains focussed on training. On getting the miles in and making sure when and if that opportunity arrives, they’ll be ready.
“Obviously, for me, it’s been on my radar for such a long time now. Coming up to the fifth year now, like really sort of focused on that, with that being the end goal. So if it goes ahead, I’ll be there pretty much, if I get selected.”
Robyn has built a solid case for selection. At the 2018 World Para-athletics Grand Prix in Switzerland, racing in the T34 classification, she came second in the women’s 100m and fourth in the women’s 200m. The next year in Arbon, she placed sixth in the women’s 100m T34 and women’s 800m T34.
The 100m T34 is Robyn’s specialty. The world record is 16.79 seconds. Fast. But the landscape in Australia within this class means that Robyn has to look overseas for serious competition.
“For my class and my disability, there’s not really much competition in Australia, but like some really world class athletes internationally. So for me, it’s a lot of racing myself and just trying to make sure that I’m proving to Athletics Australia that I’m in contention for a medal, and I can rank myself within that top five in the world.”
Bumper cars on steroids
Robyn was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine. After a serious operation at 12 that resulted in a loss of fitness, she was looking for a way to get back into sport.
“Not just for the physical benefits, but also for the social benefits,” Robyn says.
Enter Amber Merritt. Paralympian and star wheelchair basketballer with the Australian Gliders.
“I think Amber and her mum were actually the people that sort of put me on the path of disability sport,” Robyn says. “My dad was actually working with Amber’s mum at the time [and] she said, ‘Hey, bring her down to wheelchair basketball and give that a crack. I think the community there will be really great for Robyn’.”
“Immediately Amber sort of just took me under her wing and was like just a cool person to be around. She’s pretty funky. But [she] also introduced me to sort of sport and what disability sport can do. And I just think she’s a pretty good role model. Like she’s pretty outspoken about a lot of things, including mental health and those kinds of things. And I think it’s just good to have that sort of strong female role model in the community.”
Robyn embraced wheelchair basketball and at one point was pushing for selection with the Gliders. And while Robyn’s focus shifted to athletics instead, basketball did introduce another sport to their life.
Like “bumper cars on steroids” is how Robyn describes wheelchair rugby, or murderball as the sport is affectionately—and accurately—known. Robyn was captivated by the sport after seeing a local team playing on a court adjacent to where she played basketball. “You could just tell there was like so much banter and energy within the team,” Robyn says of the team.
“I was pretty nervous. Because I think I was like 14 [or] 15. I was real small and skinny. But again, like the boys just welcomed me into the team. And they’ve all, sort of all become like, brothers to me… They’ve really looked after me and really shown me that it doesn’t matter if I’m a girl on the court, they’ll hit me just as hard. But they’ll also push me to push myself just as hard as well.
“I just love the community around rugby. I think it’s, it is really supportive… It doesn’t matter what your gender is, or anything like that. Like once you’re on the court, you’re just there to play.”
The value of visibility and community
Community is something that is close to Robyn’s heart. On Instagram, her nearly 20,000 followers are one such community. Through their Instagram account, Robyn shares life as a disabled athlete but as a person with a wide range of interests including fashion. For Robyn, the enthusiasm for sharing all aspects of her life is nothing new.
“I’ve been making little videos [since] I was a kid. And sort of putting myself on YouTube from a younger age than I’ve ever sort of done sport or sport was a particularly big focus in my life.”
The visibility inherent in these online communities is something Robyn values. It’s also something her experience with rugby and the team helped her to see the value of for other young disabled people.
“I started traveling with the rugby boys, and just sort of seeing how they lived their lives and how they adapted to certain challenges as disabled people. Like I realised that that was so important to me [and] if I could be that for someone else, that would be awesome… Just to be able to sort of show other people that they’re not alone. Like number one to be disabled, but then you know, also to be queer.” Robyn says.
“I think in terms of disability, there’s still a lot of fear around that. People often assume that a disability, that’s the worst thing that can happen to you,” Robyn says. “I’ve had my disability since birth. It’s not something that I really think about in my day-to-day life unless someone else’s sort of perceptions of what that means is holding me back.”
For Robyn that visibility extends beyond disability to the queer communities they’re also a part of.
“I think like for them… to think about, well, you know, not only [has] this person got a disability, but you know, they’re into this, or they might be gender diverse or they might have a different sexuality, like it just doesn’t even come into people’s minds.”
This visibility is one of the reasons why Robyn prefers to call themself a disabled athlete as opposed to an athlete with a disability.
“I usually go by disabled athlete because I think the whole sort of person first language is sort of a way to get around talking about disability quite often and disabled identity. So I often call myself disabled rather than person with a disability.”
Sport can bring people together
Social media has provided more than visibility and community to Robyn. It also provided a route for young girls with disability to reach out. Today she mentors young disabled girls.
“Kids can’t be what they can’t see, you know, and it can be really scary. If you don’t have anyone else to look up to, you can feel so alone. So I think it’s really important for those people that are claiming to be diverse, that they include disability, that they include gender diverse people, because our society is so rich and diverse.”
“For me, the biggest reward is when young kids just sort of tell me that they feel seen or, you know, parents now have a brighter outlook for their kids with a disability because they’ve seen what I’m doing, and they’re not gonna put any limitations on their kids anymore. Like, that’s just, that’s all I need to be honest.”
“Sport has this wonderful power to bring people together, which I’ve certainly experienced in all the different sports that I’ve played. And, like I said, when I was playing rugby it didn’t matter… what kind of body I had, as long as I could be on that field and playing. So I definitely see, especially on a community level, there’s a huge opportunity to sort of bring different people together and to learn from different people through sport, it really can be this unifying thing.”
For now, Robyn is focussed on the Paralympics and living those dreams. A trip to Canberra for some extra training and experience racing with other wheelchair racers is coming up soon. Then there’ll be some camps with national coaches.
“So that’s pretty exciting,” Robyn says. “I’m just hoping that the WA border opens up and I can get over there. But yeah, I mean, the Paralympics is what I’ve been dreaming about for the last five or six years. So just really looking forward to that.”