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A composite image of Grant Sharman and Gareth Lynch pictured with medals and playing wheelchair rugby.

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A composite image of Grant Sharman and Gareth Lynch pictured with medals and playing wheelchair rugby.

'The greatest teachers are your peers' - in conversation with Grant Sharman and Gareth Lynch

Current and former Wheel Blacks athletes talk about life in the spinal unit, changes in perceptions about disability and the perks of a colostomy.

  • In conversation with Grant Sharman and Gareth Lynch
    The D*List
  • Below is a transcript for a recorded conversation between wheelchair rugby athletes Grant Sharman and Gareth Lynch.

    Olivia Shivas: So, why not you both first introduce yourselves and give me a quick intro and then we'll get into some of these questions. Do you want to start first, Grant?

    Grant Sharman: Absolutely, so my name is Grant Sharman. I was trying to figure out how long I've been in a wheelchair and I'm a bit horrified, I think it's 47 years this year so I'm having a few issues around that really. But yes, still here, still around. I've experienced, I suppose, the incredible change within the disability sector over those nearly five decades. I find that really interesting. And I was involved with wheelchair rugby from its inception in about 1990 through to about 2008 when I retired as coach. I had some other bits and pieces with it, but it was a wonderful journey, it was a great part of my life, and it's great to see this sport grow and flourish.

    Gareth Lynch: My name's Gareth Lynch. I've been in a wheelchair for seven years now. I had my injury in 2016, and I'm part of the current New Zealand wheelchair rugby team. Grant and I have a similar classification, the same classification, I believe, in wheelchair rugby. We're both one-pointers and that reflects a similar level of spinal cord injury.

    OS: How did you both get involved in wheelchair rugby? Do you remember that moment when you first sat in a wheelchair rugby chair?

    GS: Well, I'll take this one first given the chronological order. Oh, I absolutely do. I was working at the Spinal Unit in 1990 as a special hospital aide. That sounds like a flash name. Basically, I was just there to talk with new patients and I wasn't particularly good at it. I remember one of the guys that were doing stuff up at the gymnasium and they came down and said, "We're playing this game called murder ball. You should come up and check it out." I went up my day chair because people just had day chairs because there were no wheelchair rugby chairs, and get out on the court. It was the first time I'd played a team sport since I'd broken my neck. Yeah, it looks hard to call it a sport at that stage. We were doing things on the gymnasium court with a ball, put it that way. I wasn't particularly fit, I'm just thinking, "Oh my God, I'm so unfit." But just knowing that whatever that sport was, it was pretty cool and we enjoyed it. So that was my first taste of wheelchair rugby.

    GL: For me, it all started when I was still recovering in the spinal unit. I'd been there probably about a month after I moved out of the general hospital, and one of the current Wheel Blacks, Cody Everson, was invited in by another old wheelchair rugby player who was working at the hospital, and he said he'd bring his wheelchair rugby chair along if I wanted to give it a try. So I got lifted into Cody's chair and got a chance to push around and experience the agility and manoeuvrability offered by a modern wheelchair rugby chair, which has nice cambered wheels and is really low to the ground and I didn't have to worry about my balance, and it was all just so much easier than getting around in my day chair. So I thought this was pretty fun and it's nice to be a bit more manoeuvrable after a few months of feeling pretty sorry for myself after losing a bunch of agility and manoeuvrability. So that sort of opened up a doorway to a team sport that I learned a lot about from that day forward. 

    OS: I guess when you both first became disabled, what was it like, I guess, life in the spinal unit and learning to transition out of that? 

    GS: Well, I mean our experiences are very, very different. Purely because when I had my injury in 1977, the spinal unit wasn't even built. It was being built. And so for me moving to the spinal unit, I moved into the A ward first, was really like just this voyage of discovery. I mean, I was still learning about my disability. I think I'd been three months since my injury, and I'd been like nine weeks in skull tongs and spinal fusion and bits and pieces. Just the whole development of spinal cord injury was just in its infancy, really. And my life expectancy was, I was given 10 years, which is, you know, ludicrous. It was probably more realistic then, but sort of ludicrous now, people look after themselves and there's so many things there to do. But it was just learning really, I guess, how to live again. It's the simplest thing. But the staff and everyone were learning too. So we all kind of just learned together and figured stuff out and stuff worked and some stuff was a spectacular failure. But there wasn't the same kind of urgency. And I feel sorry, I think, for the newly injured people today because they appear to be just rushed through the system. Whereas, in those earlier days, you would work through the system and a quad would spend anywhere from six to nine months, maybe 12 months. But in that time, they would develop friendships, they would learn from older injuries and they'd be far better prepared to go out. I'm not sure what the turnaround time is now, but I think it's two months, so it's just, I just think it's not good. I don't think it's fair that people are going out, and I don't think it's fair to the families. Now having said that, you know, I was there for 11 years, but there were extenuating circumstances. I was only a child, I'd been boarding at school, so I didn't have that same community support. And there weren't the modern supports we have now with home help, attendant care etcetera, so they were vastly different. 

    GL: Yeah, it certainly sounds different to my experience, and while mine was seven years ago, I think, yeah, it sounds from what I've heard that people are spending less and less time in the unit. For me, it was about three months, three and a half months in the spinal unit before I was released into the world. I think my stay was a little bit shorter than they encouraged. I was really trying to get back out in time to start my or to continue my next year of my university degree that I was studying at the time I broke my neck. So that was a bit of a motivating factor for me, but yeah, like, definitely echo all the points that Grant said. It's a whole- learning about a whole new world. There's so many things about the body that I had no idea about. Learning all the different ways that a spinal cord injury affects you, things like your temperature regulation, all the way to what you can and can't feel, and your balance. And it's, yeah, certainly a long journey. So it's tough to cram it all into a short period of time, that's for sure.

    OS: For you, Gareth, I mean, yeah, three months sounds like such a short amount of time. What did you feel equipped or like ill-equipped, you know, with in terms of the skills or a new way to live when you left the spinal unit?

    GL: I was certainly aware that when I came out I would still be doing a lot of learning. And I was very lucky to be in a position where I had, going back to university, I had accommodation that was accessible that I could move into, and I had a whole lot of friends around that could help support me with things, and when I got stuck out and about and I had all sorts of troubles that I got myself into without realising I was going to get myself into trouble beca use I didn't really understand the way to navigate that step down onto the road and end up falling out of my chair. It's just the type of thing that, yeah, it's a lot of trial and error when just all of a sudden your world changes and you've just got to do the best you can with what you've got. So the biggest part on reflection now is sort of the psychological aspect of sort of coming to terms with who you are as a person again. I thought I had a really comfortable sense of self and knew exactly who I was before I broke my neck and I was spending all my time surfing and skating and doing board sports whenever I could. And then to have that rug pulled out and figure out, oh, what kind of person am I now? That was a really steep learning curve as well, as well as all the physical, medical side of things. 

    OS: It's interesting to think about, I guess, the perception of disability. Do you share similar experiences Grant, in terms of when you first became disabled? Hopefully, in theory, the idea or the perception of disability has changed in that time. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't? 

    GS: I'm not sure. I think in some respects it's changed in terms of global awareness. I mean, we have institutions and government documents that all enshrine disability rights and there's massive advocacy. Disability is certainly not hidden. Whereas, in the first, up until about 1983, I think was the ‘Year of the Disabled’, there was no, there just wasn't that awareness, you know, you really were quite novel. And, but by the same token, no one really worried because they didn't really think about offending you because this kind of wasn’t an issue.

    And the first time I ever went out, I’d been in the Middlemore unit for a total of about maybe six months before I went outside. I went to tell my physio and I'd asked some other guys and they'd said, "Oh, people stare." I was sitting in the corner of Queen Street and nobody stared. People walked right past me as though I wasn't even there. I wasn't sure whether I should be offended or not really. It was all quite weird. Certainly, I think the awareness factor is different. I've always believed any kind of minority, whether it's disability, religious, whatever it is, whether you like it or not, the onus is on you to make that first approach. And one really good example, I was at a function, I didn’t really want to be there. And this guy sat next to me and I couldn’t be bothered making any conversation “Oh come on”, so I did. Blokey things and the All Blacks and we had a real good discussion, and he finished his beer and he went to look back and just said: “Oh mate, can I get you one?” as he was always aware I had a disability and he could help me out, no worries. And it became evident really that, really, it doesn't take too long for people to see past the chair, the disability, whatever it is, when they see the person and engage. It's just sometimes annoying that you've often gotta be the one to instigate that, but that's maybe just me just being old and lazy.

    GL: No, I can certainly relate to those sort of interactions, yeah

    OS: I've spoken to a few other, particularly like wheelchair rugby athletes and they’ve said participating in a sport has helped them a lot in terms of not just like physical aspects, but social aspects of adjusting to living with a disability, is that the same case for you both? Or what else has it helped you with adapting to life with a disability? 

    GL: Well for me, when I first discovered wheelchair rugby again, it certainly helped put another piece into my life that I'd sort of lost from not being able to do some of my favourite things anymore. All of a sudden having something else not just to do but having a community to learn from, like I didn't really get much of that in the Spinal Unit at the time that I was going through, so, to find a community of people that shared similar situations and had been doing it for much longer than I had, and learning about all the other aspects of their lives that they were getting up to. I was a little bit unsure about what I could do with my life. Would I be able to have a job? Would I be able to just do all these things? I've met all these people that were out there living really- one eye-opener of getting involved in the sport, I got a lot of other benefits as well from things like just the physical training that has certainly helped me with not having a whole heap of muscles to use anyway. Getting them a lot stronger has improved the quality of my life as well. But yeah, it's me in many ways, I think.

    GS: I think I found similar. I mean, one of the great things I think about, you know, disability sport, and I think the word you use there is community, and I think that's quite critical because often within sports, people gravitate to sports because they like running or they like high jumping or they like whatever. Often a sport like wheelchair rugby or wheelchair basketball, is that it is one of the only team sports for your level of disability. So it's either that, that or that. And often the people that gather together come from different backgrounds and they see the world differently in a way that more unified sports would. But the other thing is, is that along with your sport, you know, you're also, living is a bit of a chore. You know, the whole getting up, you know, the things we all know, the, you know, going to the bathroom, relationships, intimacy, children - a whole bunch of things. And the greatest teachers are your peers.

    And one of the really specific examples in my life, without going into lots of gory details, is that bladder and bowel play a massive role with the majority of people with spinal cord injury. Not exclusively, but in the context of this conversation. And after you've been in a chair for long enough, things get a little difficult and it starts to consume you, which is challenging. I remember being in a minivan with about 12 other guys at the end of a tournament in Wellington. One of the guys saying he had had an accident, but he was happy because in like three months he was having a colostomy and he wouldn't have to deal with a whole lot of shit, basically, literally and figuratively. And I remember looking at him and I said, "Bro, seriously, you're really going to do that?" And he goes, "Yeah." I was having my own issues and someone else popped up and said, "Yeah, I have one of those, it’s really good." And I just was quite - I need to look into this. And I went and made some inquiries, and man, every man and his dog seemed to have a colostomy. But no one said anything. But then that spark, really, after about 18 months, led to a massive change in my life. I had the operation - and I can't remember how many years it went in a chair, but I remember thinking at the time that I wish I'd done this 5 or 10 years earlier. And I wouldn't have got that kind of peer suggestion support from many other places. The fact you were there, they're often common things. And they also extend right across the board to equipment, to your day chair, to various other things that come out. I mean, you can have open days for the cows to come home, but attending a training camp or a tournament, particularly overseas, you know, you've got a wheelchair every tournament overseas, oh my gosh, there's just so much to find out. You see what they're wearing and what they've got, you know, where did that come from and how does that work? And it really, it keeps you current.

    OS: Speaking about sport, can you remember Grant what was it like going to the Paralympics in the 2000s? What was it like back in the day? 

    GS: Back in the day. Well, it was actually the 1990s, so my first Paralympics was '96, and it was in Atlanta. And it was very interesting because the Paralympics in those days were actually a totally separate event. So a country would bid for the Olympics, and then they, kind of the Paralympics kind of tagged along, so to speak. America is a very interesting place anyway, I know Gareth will agree with, but I think with disability, but once the Olympics were over, the organising committee just moved out. And this new organising committee moved in, and it was quite chaotic really, it was really quite funny. And interesting, so they would bring buses in from around America, where they had wheel hoists, etc. And they would use the military to drive them, military personnel, because as we all know, the US is a very litigious place where, you know, stub your toe and someone's going to sue you. Well, no one sues the military. That's it, no one sues them. And we got in and the whole team was lined up on one side of the bus. We were heading off to some kind of training. And we were all just sitting there because we'd all been to training, you know, just waiting for the four-point tie-down and all the rest of it. And the guy, I think he was an army guy, got in and said g'day and sat down in his seat and I thought, oh he must be getting something and turned the bus on. I thought, yep, that's all good. And then he just drove off and we just concertinaed like something out of a Charlie Chaplin movie, and watched the light on our back and the stars. And said, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa’, and he pulled over and, you know, we all sat up and, you know, they all put us back in our chairs and we thought, okay, well, this is more of a New Zealand thing really. Then we just figured out a way to hang on and away we went. And then we were picked up three hours later, the guy got lost, it was like 8 o'clock at night. But what was interesting was the change that was occurring. While we were there, Sydney was going to be the next Paralympics but the Aussies were much more on to it and they had people clipboards saying "What do you like, what don't you like, what can we change?" We were very forthcoming with our suggestions.  And Sydney was vastly different.

    And if you wanted the Olympics you needed to bid for the Paralympics and you needed to have a good bid and that changed the game because then it legitimised the Paralympics and we noticed in terms of the financial remuneration. So a bit of a long answer but it was very by the seat of your pants and there were significant changes in terms of the professionalism and the promotion in London and Rio to a whole new level.

    OS: To wrap things up, I have a final question for you both, and it's looking at the future and what are your hopes and dreams for disability sport in the future?

    GL: I guess I just love to see the involvement across all levels increase in participation. I've got so much out of being involved myself and even at any level from just going along to training once a week just to have a laugh and catch up with the new community all the way through to people that are looking to take it a bit more seriously and get the- and focus on that high performance side of things. Just, there's a big spectrum of how you want to participate in any sport, obviously. And, yeah, the more people that get involved, the benefits are there for the participants and it certainly benefits the wider community as well to have increased diversity and increased people's opinions to hear from, going back to the themes that Grant mentioned before, yeah everyone has a slightly different way of doing different things and different things work for everyone and the more people that are more part of that community that you get to share and learn from is a greater benefit for everyone. So yeah, I'd love to see participation continue to increase as it has been trending upwards.

    GS: Yeah, well said, Gareth. I'm going to come from a slightly different perspective on that. I think elite level disability sport is, has a reasonable support to it, and is fairly well-established, I think, within the, you know, the New Zealand sports psyche. I'm going to come through it, I guess, with a different hat than I wear with disability sport Auckland, where we're looking at particularly younger people coming through with lots of different disabilities. And I get excited to see, you know, things like rock climbing and, I don't know, there's a whole bunch of other sports that I would never have dreamed of trying, but I had the opportunity to try. And I really get a kick at seeing the younger people come through. It seems like a lull, but there's more and more of them. And I think it's so exciting because at that level, if you're a young person with a physical disability at school, with mainstreaming, you see your able-bodied peers playing all sorts of things and getting the benefits and that doesn't always come to you. And so seeing sporting opportunities being made available is great. I think it delivers confidence, camaraderie, all the things that I've experienced, and I think it's great for families and for their siblings and for the community. I think there's a rise, there's a rise. And I would love to see that really step up. Because that's where our Paralympic athletes are going to come from.

    Sure, you're going to get people that have a trauma along the way at an older age, and they convert over and they rehab, and as Gareth has, and I did, and get into an elite sport, and that's great. But I certainly think the younger ones coming through and maybe I’m just getting old and senile, that really excites me. But I just think the enjoyment of sport and the accessibility, making it accessible, I think is fantastic.

    OS: Cool, thank you both so, so, so much for your time, and yeah, good luck with everything.

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