There are perhaps no sporting stories quite as awe-inspiring as those of our Paralympians. With the 2016 Games fast approaching, now is a great time to shine a spotlight on just a few of the 170 Australian athletes due to compete in Rio in September. We also take a look at the value of optimism, a trait demonstrated by many of our Paralympians, and how it can help to shape achievement both on and off the sporting field.
1. Madison de Rosario, wheelchair racing
Madison is a 22-year-old athlete who has been competing in the Paralympics since she was 14. Madison’s story started when she was four years of age, when what started out as a bout of the flu led to viral transverse myelitis, in turn resulting in spinal cord damage and paraplegia.
Always keen on sport, Madison first tried her hand at wheelchair tennis and basketball. After not doing so well in these sports, she turned to wheelchair racing instead.
Madison’s achievements in her sport include being named the WA Junior Sports Star of the year in 2009, and breaking the Australian record in 200m racing in 2011. She also won silver at the Beijing Games and bronze at the 2013 IPC World Championships.
While she dreams of winning gold, Madison also wants to create a life where she can balance education with a sporting career. On her Australian Paralympic Committee bio, she names fellow team member Angela Ballard, former coach Frank Ponta and champion racer Louse Sauvage as some of her main sources of inspiration.
2. Kurt Fearnley, wheelchair marathon
Athlete Kurt Fearnley was born without the lower portion of his spine, and began his wheelchair racing training at the age of 14. He has been competing at the Paralympics since 2000, when he was 18.
His career highlights are almost too numerous to mention! Among other victories and accolades, his Australian Paralympic Committee bio highlights three gold, six silver and two bronze medals over four Paralympic Games, various medals at the IPC World Championships, and completing the 96km Kokoda Trail in 2009.
In one interview, Kurt said the key to success comes from “believing in yourself”, and thinking each day about “what will make you stronger today.” Kurt has also written a book called Pushing the Limits, and strives to become the strongest and fastest person in a wheelchair on the planet.
3. Davinia Lefroy, rowing
Davinia is vision-impaired as a result of having a condition known as congenital macular dystrophy, which has led to deterioration of her central sight. Davinia was already a keen rower before she made the decision to go into para-rowing.
While she has been competing in her sport since 1994, the 2016 Games will be her first Paralympics.
Davinia likes the fact that rowing is something she can do well whether disabled or not, and particularly enjoys its meditative aspects. According to her Australian Paralympic Committee bio, she considers being selected for the Paralympics to be the highlight of her career so far, and is looking forward to competing.
As a clinical psychologist, Davinia will also no doubt be familiar with the role of optimism and positivity in helping to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Studies show that optimism can help change our lives for the better in a number of ways, even if we’re not all athletes going for gold!
The science behind optimism bias
According to Tali Sharot, cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, human ‘optimism bias’ might at times be considered unrealistic, but it also makes us happier and healthier, and keeps us moving forward and striving.
It can also be self-fulfilling, leading to positive behaviours that bring about the outcomes we can see in our minds. On the other hand, pessimism tends to be self-fulfilling, leading to negative behaviours and outcomes.
Optimism involves what is known as ‘mental time travel’ – the ability to imagine ourselves in a different time and place from now. Another part of optimism and positivity is the ability to learn from ‘bad’ things, and to look for the cloud’s silver lining – which is something we can see in many of the athletes heading to the Paralympics. What might appear to be tragic to many of us has been used to achieve things that, in some cases, might not otherwise have been realised.
It seems the trick to optimism is in trying to see the good in any situation, and in envisaging what we want to achieve ahead of time. Certainly Australia’s Paralympians are an inspiration to us all, and we wish the whole team the very best in Rio!