Shooting for a level playing field

Written by Nina Tovey | 23 September, 2013

A determination to unlock opportunities for people with disabilities through better access to tailored fitness programs and sporting careers is fuelling Australian Paralympian Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy towards a new path.

A determination to unlock opportunities for people with disabilities through better access to tailored fitness programs and sporting careers is fuelling Australian Paralympian Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy towards a new path.

Kathleen, 27, had her foot amputated at 18 months, which led to her being fitted with a prosthetic leg. Coming of age, she initially took up standing basketball but was persuaded to try wheelchair basketball by Paralympic champions Don Elgin and Tim Matthews, who became her mentors – and she’s never looked back.

Her basketball career has since seen her play around the world, win three US National Championships and become a valued member of the Gliders, one of Australia’s most successful sporting teams over the past two decades.

Joining a team which has claimed medals at the past four Paralympic Games was a career high for Kathleen and cemented her love of the sport.

“I love the feeling of community in wheelchair basketball – we all look out for each other. On one end we are fiercely competitive and want to kick each other’s butts but on the other we support each other off court and come together to represent the women in disability sport movement. As proud as she is of her impressive medal collection, what really spurs Kathleen on is the challenge of changing the public’s perception towards people with disabilities.

“Anyone who watches a Gliders game will know how intensely physical the game is – we get faster and more aggressive each year. It’s certainty not for the faint of heart!”

“I’m constantly pushing beyond the physical limits myself and others set for me, whether it be through my basketball career or tackling bikram yoga and paddleboarding. I find it extremely satisfying every time I can see I’ve changed someone’s perceptions of people with a disability,” said Kathleen.

“I want to prove by example that it is often possible to accommodate people with disabilities in the world of sport and fitness. It may take some creativity and persistence, but it can be done. This is one of the messages I get across strongly through my public speaking.”

Kathleen is full of praise for the work the Australian Institute of Sport has done in giving athletes with a disability every opportunity to excel.

“The Institute has studied us as athletes to understand us fully and has provided tailored programs and equipment to help us reach peak performance. It is incredible how far we’ve come.”

Kathleen wants to build on this work by completing her Certificate III and IV in Fitness with FIAFitnationby the end of the year.

“My brother suggested I study with FIAFitnation as they have a great reputation and he really enjoyed studying the same courses I was interested in. My life is so heavily involved in sport that it seemed a logical step for me to take.”

She said showing people with disabilities they could get involved in sport and fitness is what motivated her to enrol.

“I want to better understand how the body works at an elite level when you have a level of disability to both improve my own performance and help others through personal training,”

“I think the role a personal trainer can play in someone’s life is quite special and can flow on to every aspect of their client’s life.”

Kathleen is also gearing up to prepare for the September qualifiers preceding the 2014 World Championships in Canada.

“Life will change quite significantly – there will be earlier nights, tighter time management, two to three training sessions daily and a stricter diet.”

Kathleen also works tirelessly for the new not for profit organisation Red Dust Heelers, a nationwide initiative committed to the increased inclusion of people with disability into all areas of life through community wheelchair basketball days and healing workshops.

If her studies, charity work and Paralympic career weren’t enough, Kathleen has set herself another challenge to conquer in 2013 – learning to surf.

“I know I won’t stay standing that long – but it’s my goal to stand for a couple of seconds. I’m not scared of the water so I can’t see any reason not to give it a go.”

Photograph by Arnaud Domange

Nina Tovey

Nina Tovey is a public relations expert who has supported a wide range of clients throughout her career, including world leading brands, Government Departments and small-to-medium enterprises. Nina is the founder of public relations consultancy Yoke Communications.

Read more by Nina Tovey

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