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'Take a look at yourself, mate': The tough love that produced a wheelchair rugby legend

(Photo by Getty Images)
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19th August, 2021
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Elite sport is 100 percent made up of people who have had to overcome someone, or something, to rise to the top above the weekend battlers who play it for fun. But in no other sporting arena are the hurdles faced so high, the stories as inspiring as you’ll find at the Paralympics.

And Australia’s team co-captain for Tokyo, the wheelchair rugby legend Ryley Batt, has a story of persistence and drive that’s hard to match and a sporting journey that is mind blowing.

Batt, who seeking third gold medal in one of the Paralympic’s most high-profile sports in Tokyo, his fifth Olympics, was born without legs and webbing in his hands.

The realisation that he was different to other kids was brutal, as he wrote in The Roar’s sister publication AthletesVoice in 2019.

“It was my fourth birthday and I was hiding under my doona in tears,” wrote Batt. “Mum came into the bedroom and asked what was wrong. ‘I wished for legs for my birthday,’ I said. ‘But I still don’t have any’.

“Mum says it was the first time I showed an awareness that I was different.”

Batt’s pre-natal ultrasounds had suggested no issues and his condition at birth shocked his grandparents.

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“My nan, the sweetest thing ever, said that, in a way, she didn’t know how to love me. It must have been hard for them. No one knew how to raise me.

“They cried for a few weeks, apparently, worried I wouldn’t be able to do anything in life. Then they made a decision to raise me as a normal boy and that, I think, is what set me on the path to where I am today.”

At first Batt refused to use a wheelchair and had a skateboard to get himself around.

His parents, meanwhile, tried to treat him like every other kid, tried to encourage independence, sometimes to the shock of strangers.

“As a kid, dad would take me down to the beach, he’d throw me on his back, put me in the car and then, at the beach, he’d throw me onto the soft sand and make me crawl down to the surf.

“There would be all these families there watching dad saying, ‘Go on, get yourself down to the water’, and I’d be chucking a tantrum, crawling along looking like a prawn cutlet.

“It might seem like Dad was cruel. But he was a very good sportsman, a triathlete who did ironman and played squash and did everything really well. He was always very competitive and he believed the best thing was to push me and treat me like every other little boy.”

There were games of ‘classic catches’ in the backyard and footy where his dad kicked and Batt tried to take marks.

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His grandfather bought him a quad bike and he loved being treated like an average kid.

“It really worked, at least when I was young,” Batt wrote.

“Once, I was in the car with Dad and saw a three-legged dog on the roadside. I said to Dad, ‘Look at that poor dog with only three legs’. Dad said, ‘Take a look at yourself, mate’.

“There were so many times when I was a kid that I forgot about my disability and a large reason for that was the people I had around me.

“I feel massive gratitude towards my parents and grandparents for taking the approach they did.”

Like many kids hurtling into their teen years, Batt suffered failings of self confidence and bouts of “shame”.

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“Part of that shame I felt throughout high school played out with my refusal to use a wheelchair,” he wrote.

“Wheelchairs were my kryptonite. I hated them. I didn’t want to be in one because I thought people would look at me funny and because it felt like admitting defeat.

“I wanted to play sport, but wouldn’t do anything in a chair. I’d crawl around the soccer field at school, but every time I’d get the ball people would kick me or something would go wrong. I’d go goalie and they’d kick the ball over my head.”

He parents tried to persuade him into a wheelchair when he was eight and he remembers telling them: “You can put me in a wheelchair but there’s no way I’m going to use it”.

In grade six, he had a chance to play wheelchair rugby for school sport when a Sydney Olympics medallist, Tom Kennedy, gave a clinic for able-bodied kids.

Batt’s mates jumped into chairs and loved it, but he still refused.

Soon after though, Batt was on a weekend away. He rode his skateboard down to the beach and hid it in the bushes when he went for a surf. When he got back the skateboard was gone.

“I had no mode of transport and something clicked in my head that I should give the wheelchair a go. The next time at school sport I jumped in a chair and loved playing wheelchair rugby,” he wrote.

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He was hooked, started training with a local team, got selected for NSW and a short time later was invited to a national training camp.

He represented Australia at senior level for the first time as a 14-year-old in 2003, and is still going strong 18 years later.

In one way, Batt feels fortunate that he had his disability since birth.

“There are people I’ve played alongside who have broken their necks at the peak of their lives and had everything taken away from them,” he wrote.

“Some had competed in able-bodied sport, went to parties and so on and then had to adjust their whole lives.

“I was born with my disability and spent a long time coming to terms with it. But I never had anything taken away from me.

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“It’s a huge thing to get used to, to change your life like that. Some learn to be independent and get on with what they’ve got. But many others go through depression and really struggle.

“When you throw competitive sport into the mix, it can be tough keeping a balance. There’s a lot of doubts and a lot of nerves.

“Failure can be a huge thing for any athlete, especially an athlete with a disability. It can lead to serious problems.”

On Thursday Batt was one of 156 Australian athletes and officials who arrived in Tokyo ahead of next Tuesday’s opening ceremony, his aim to be on the wheelchair rugby team to win three successive gold medals at a Paralympics.

“What I’m really excited about as co-captain is just to see this whole team come together,” he told AAP.

“We don’t get to see these other sports … in between Games, so it’s really good to get the mob back together.

“Yes, we have our own individual sports to compete in and we want to do our best, but it’s also just being part of this amazing mob and experiencing the Games.”

Batt picks up the co-captaincy reins, alongside six-time Paralympian Danni Di Toro, from Paralympic legend Kurt Fearnley.

“The pride I have to be co-captain of this team and being handed that role from the great man Kurt Fearnley, it’s something I wasn’t after in life,” Batt said. “But it’s pretty special.”

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