That sickening sound changed my life. Just 12 years old, my father and I decided to accept an invitation to join 2 family friends in a short flight from Melbourne’s Moorabbin airport. At 1000 meters on our landing approach, we hit a Cessna travelling in the same direction, just a few meters below us. The crunching sound was their propeller tearing our wing to shreds.
The drag on our wing was too much and moments later, we crashed through trees into the 18th hole of the Woodlands Golf Course. I became a Paraplegic and I lost my father. My mother was only 32 and she had two other children to look after. This was back when disability was neither seen nor understood.
Now that’s life changing!
You think that you wouldn’t cope
Most people think about becoming a paraplegic and say that they couldn’t cope. But you don’t really have a lot of choices.
It takes most people around two years to really come to terms with any significant loss. My wife wrote her thesis on that very topic. Eventually, people get on with their lives. Perhaps I was fortunate that being 12 years old, I didn’t appreciate what I had lost. For me, it was just a bit of fun being in a wheelchair and being really good at doing tricks with my chair.
It wasn’t until I started being left out at school that I felt different. Obviously I wasn’t included with sport, but then the people who used to be my friends stopped including me and wouldn’t help me with coping with access challenges at school. That’s when I really felt different and not accepted. I didn’t like it and it affected my whole attitude to life.
I realised that self-pity was a negative emotion and that positiveness, independence and a helpful disposition had to become my key attributes.
Getting on with it
Eventually, after messing up a few years at school, I finally made it to university. The words of my mother kept ringing in my ears “Chris, you can’t push a broom to earn a living”. She meant that I would be physically unable but I interpreted that to mean that I would be poor with an unskilled job.
I was invited to watch a wheelchair basketball game while I was at uni. It wasn’t long before I joined a team and loved every bit of this. Fast and demanding. Our team was the grand final winner on several occasions.
Perhaps the real love was racing. Wheelchair racing was in its infancy then and people would race in customized versions of their day chairs. Progressively, new designs were emerging overseas and I was very keen to get one. Unfortunately, it was not that easy. No on-line ordering over the Internet back then!
So I purchased an oxy welder and set to work with a tube bender and chrome moly pipes. I built a very fast racer. And then I built a few more for my mates and others who wanted to compete. Then I build some specialist basketball chairs and in time, the first modern function mono-ski for disabled skiers. Partly altruistic, partly commercial. My wife and I ended up building around 40 chairs!
Pity I didn’t patent some of my inventions. They are common-place today.
Taking fun seriously.
So, at 23 years of age, I was selected to represent Victoria in the Australian Nationals in Perth in both Basketball and Track. In my first games, I came home with the title of “Fastest Man on Wheels” after blitzing the 100 meters in 16.9 seconds.
That was good enough to get me selected for the 1980 Paralympics (held in Holland as the Russians wouldn’t host the Paralympics as well as the regular Olympics). I won two Bronze medals although I did manage to break the 400-meter world record in the heats. That record stood for some years. Even I couldn’t break it again.
For the next few years, I mainly focused on work and sport took a back seat. I returned to my love of ‘road racing’ in 1991 competing in the Melbourne Marathon again. I joined the Australian Road Racing circuit and until reasonably recently, continued racing in fun runs and marathons around the country.
I have always loved cars. Maybe those powered wheels were a sportier version of my wheelchair? Whatever, my first serious attempt at motorsport was as a navigator with my business partner Mark Cummings. We were a formidable team!
Over the course of years, we competed in 31 tarmac rally, including 7 Targa Tasmania’s, Targa New Zealand, 3 Mt Bulla Sprints and 10 Grand Prix Rallies. We won lots of awards for driving and navigation.
It is hard to describe the adrenaline that races through your blood as you speed down a closed country road trusting your life in your driver. And he is trusting that you have called the pace notes correctly. Most fast corners are completely blind and confidence is everything.
It was an amazing time and many of our fellow competitors became life long friends and as so many were also business owners, still great clients today. That is, those that made it. After a few tragic losses of very good friends, we gave the motor sport away. None of us will ever forget those days.
The cold white stuff
Having developed a much more advanced snow ski for disabled people, my wife and I started skiing. A lot. We spent many winters skiing in all of the mountains in Australia and most of New Zealand. Eventually, this became an annual ritual to the great slopes of North America, Japan and France.
Something for all of the family and a passion that remains to this day.
Actually, our family is quite addicted to getting into that big Qantas bird and heading off overseas. From an early age, our son and daughter would accompany us regularly to foreign destinations. As adults, they have continued this passion independently and will probably always be financially poorer but culturally richer as a result!
You have a son
Of course I knew that. It was his eleventh birthday and he asked me to organise his party at the same Go-Cart track that PCV had their annual challenge. That’s a grown up’s track.
Ok, they have some slower carts so it will be safe. This would be one of the few parties I actually made it too. His birthdays had always clashed with Targa. So, I organised his party.
Nick raced on the big track and finished around mid-field with his mates. Fair enough I thought. But Nick didn’t think that way. He was disappointed. After all, dad raced cars. He asked me if we could come back next weekend and practice. What could I say?
So we did. He wanted to know all the racing lines and how it was that I could get around the track so fast with just a piece of string on the carburetor. I later upgraded to a stick on the accelerator. So week-by-week, we practiced. He gradually closed the big gap in our times, even though I was also getting better. I said to him, when you beat my best time of the day, I would put $1,000 towards your first car.
Within the year, he had not only beaten his mates by two laps at his next birthday, held the new lap record at the track but he and I won the PCV annual challenge! Together. Yes I found that I had a special mate in my own family. That was a great moment.
Funnily enough, this Sunday practice morphed into cycling. Mark Cummings encouraged me to get a hand cycle and enter the Great Victorian Bike Ride (580 kms from Phillip Island winding to Buchan that year). So Nick practiced with me and we managed to finish. It was hard. We will soon be attempting our 9th ride this year, from Halls gap down along the Great Ocean Road. My wife Aileen has joined us on 6 of those rides.
In 2014, instead of starting the GVBR in Mt Gambia like every other sensible person, one of my crazy mates suggested we start in Adelaide and ride the Coorong for 500 kms to the start and then do the ride and on from the finish to Melbourne. So we did. Seven of us rode for 1,200 kms and raised $34,000 for Port Phillip Specialist School Foundation, a fabulous place for significantly disabled children. I was Chairman of the Foundation at the time.
Never compromise your lifestyle Chris
Decades ago, one of my older and (seemingly) wiser partners (Price Williams) once told me those words.
Perhaps to my financial detriment, but one thing is for sure, we have all lived a fabulous life. My wife, my children, my partners and even my clients! The mantra of Have Fun, Make Money and Be Respected has always been there.
We have worked hard when it was necessary, been though tough times, helped our clients and community along the way, but always with a smile. Always enjoying the best that life has to offer.
And that is what life is all about. Seize every moment, be smart and don’t waste a drop of it. There are so many people who squander their lives and just don’t get the most out of their life. We are all only here for a few short precious years. If I can make the most of my life, then so can anyone.
Top 5 things in life?
Fair question but hard to answer. But here goes …
- Cooking dinner. Any meal, any time. But especially when the family gets together or when friends visit. Or those occasional times when you are in some remote country with a kitchen, a local market and with a fellow traveller who is just as passionate to share the cooking.
- That glass of Champagne. Handed to you by the flight attendant while you wait to taxi away on a flight that you have been planning for months. Almost as good on the homeward leg too!
- You have really changed our lives. Wow. I have heard those words maybe only 20 times but every time a client said them, it makes everything worthwhile. I know I made a huge difference to many businesses, families and owners over the years but not many people say it. But it is always fabulous to hear.
- The surprise around the next corner. Nothing better than finding the back roads around Australia, Europe or the USA. With roads less travelled, a keen photographer for a wife and a love of driving, that next corner is always going to hold great promise.
- Walking. Ok, I can’t really walk but I love my version of it! Miles and miles every week. To and from work. To the shops. To the gym. And of course exploring every city and country we have ever visited. Keeps me fit and keeps my brain on track. Wears out my tyres though! At least my shoes are spotless.