It took a sport called Murderball for VIS athlete Shae Graham to overcome one of her biggest fears.
“Sport was a big part of my identity when I was a kid,” says Shae, who remembers the joyful feeling of sprinting in athletics meets on Cathy Freeman Oval in Mackay, dreaming of winning Olympic gold like her hometown sporting idol.
“But I had the car accident and I took that as a sign that sport wasn’t meant to be. I viewed it as my retirement from sport.”
The Victorian Institute of Sport scholarship holder was only 18 when she was a backseat passenger in a car accident, suffering life-changing injuries including a fractured spine.
For almost a decade the once sporty child says she was a “scaredy-cat”, uninterested in playing sport again. That was until she lost a friendly bet to her brother, compelling her to try wheelchair rugby, known as Murderball for its tough physical clashes.
“It was the best bet I’ve lost,” Shae says.
Shae is the first woman to represent Australia’s wheelchair rugby team which has claimed two consecutive Paralympic gold medals. She is also the AIS’s newest ambassador for The Good Village, an education program developed and designed for teachers, by teachers to upskill students on health and wellbeing, fitness, nutrition and sustainability.
Her message to kids is the same as the one she tells herself every day.
“Sometimes fear is the only thing holding you back. I now say to myself ‘you’ve got to do the things that scare you because you might just find the next thing you love’,” Shae says.
“When I decided to overcome my fear and try wheelchair rugby, I hopped in the chair and I loved every second of it.
“My competitive side was immediately re-awoken, I wanted to play and win. There was this team vibe I’d been missing for years and it was amazing. But it wasn’t just the sport, it was the community around the sport that made me love it as well.”
The Good Village is an online resource for Primary School children to learn about the benefits of things like physical activity, nutrition, wellbeing and teamwork through fun activities. Shae says she’s always felt comfortable with her Australian teammates, despite being the only woman in the squad.
“I put a bit of pressure on myself when I first started, I was joining this awesome team and I didn’t want to let anyone down. They’re the best in the world, so I wanted to be the best alongside them. They welcomed me with open arms, they’ve taken me under their wings and they’re helping me grow as a player.
“They’re all committed athletes and super serious about their sport, but they’re all just super nice human beings who are friendly, welcoming and genuinely great to be around.”
Training to make her Paralympic debut in Tokyo, Shae also works as a librarian at nights. While an Olympic legend inspired her love of sport, it was a primary school librarian who guided her to a love of books and her career outside sport.
“I think every kid dreams of representing Australia when they first start playing sport, that’s the pinnacle to try and represent your country. So I remember when I was in Primary School I did a lot of running and I wanted to be the next Cathy Freeman, get there and win a gold medal in track, but it turns out that wasn’t my sport.
“I also had this awesome librarian in Primary School and she’s the one who wanted to make me be a librarian when I grew up. I wasn’t a big reader until I met my school librarian and she introduced me to Harry Potter, so that inspired me too.”
“During my time I was out of sport I used that to travel and study and I achieved my Masters in Information Management.
“I’m really excited to have this opportunity as an AIS and The Good Village ambassador to represent my sport and people with disabilities. It doesn’t matter what life throws at you, you can still get out there, work hard and achieve dreams in life.
“If I can inspire one person to get out there and give anything a go, whether that’s sport or another challenge, that’s a good thing.”