TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 14: Liesl Tesch

A podcast with Liesl Tesch
August 2014
Liesl Tesch

Liesl Tesch

Paralympian

Liesl Tesch has done a lot and IS doing a lot. Paralympic gold medal wheelchair basketballer, world champion sailor and globe trotting educator and speaker. And that’s just the start! A ‘must listen’ podcast!

Inclusion Club transcript - Liesl Tesch

Peter:

Okay, welcome to Tic Talk. I have Liesl Tesch right in front of me right now, hello Liesel.

Liesl:

Hello, it’s a great honor to be here.

Peter:

Thank you. I’m not quite sure how to introduce you because I could take the whole 15 minutes up by doing just that, actually, but I will describe you in a certain way that I thought about in the presentation that you just gave, and I will introduce you as a person who chases dreams and achieves them. How does that sound?

Liesl:

That sounds good to me, and I think a very important thing for me is, and has a lot of fun along the way. If it’s not fun then it’s not dreams we’re chasing.

Peter:

That’s a good point.

Liesl:

And for me, that dream, it took 24 years to get the gold medal and that’s kind of emphasizing enough how important it is to continue despite all the setbacks along the way, but the feeling that achieving that dream has given me is not something I can begin to explain in words. It’s a happiness that consumes you.

Peter:

You say 24 years, so was there a moment in time 24 years ago when you said, that’s the dream I’m going to go for?

Liesl:

Absolutely not. I think it’s been an evolution of a dream. Initially it was to compete for Australia and win a medal for Australia, and now it’s to win that gold medal. That gold medal—so that dream has evolved. It didn’t start with that shape, but it’s definitely been something that has been evolved as part of that process of being an athlete with a disability over the last 24 years.

Peter:

Can you think back to a time when in retrospect, when you’re looking back at it now, having achieved what you have, I guess it’s kind of easier to think about now then it was then because it might have seemed a million miles away that Liesl Tesch could win a gold medal.

Liesl:

Millions and millions of miles away. I mean, I was an able body kid who was totally into sport but yet the dream of a Paralympic medal doesn’t belong to someone who is an able-bodied kid for a start. But definitely every kid who is involved with sport has that Olympic dream somewhere in the horizon, not necessarily directly.

Yeah, but it’s just evolved along the way with various things and various opportunities that I’ve taken and various twists my life has taken and then all of a sudden its manifested into a goal along the horizon.

Peter:

I sorted of suspected it just hasn’t been fate. I reckon it’s a lot of your personal drive and the people around you. Let’s explore that one a little bit. The people around you, you’ve surrounded yourself with really high achievers, people who are highly motivated, I guess throughout your sporting career, in particular.

How important are those people as your network?

Liesl:

I think just having a network of fantastic people around you whether they are high achievers, but just fantastic people who you bounce off. Like it’s about positive, like I think I’m a very positive person and I live in an environment with very positive people. And I suppose positivity is about making things happen and living the life you want to lead, so yeah. And there have been battles, no doubt along the way, but to create the ultimate team, you’ve got to have really good people around you and so, I think it’s just part of my lifestyle that I’ve connected with people I believe can be part of achieving what we want, whether it be on the sporting field or off the sporting field.

Peter:

Self-fulfilling prophecy surround yourself with like-minded people.

Liesl:

Definitely and it’s what we did in the Paralympic sailing team. We just had a team of, we all were totally tuned into what we needed to achieve and then to achieve that and identifying whatever everybody else around us need to be, how we needed to be operating to achieve that outcome.

Peter:

And I guess that team thing goes right back to your basketball days and before that as well. Have you had time, this goes back a bit of time there, when you first got involved you gave a story in your talk around, you turned up with an old chair and everybody else had flashy chairs and that must have been—a lot of people would have just turned around and gone away and said this is not for me.

Liesl:

For me, I broke my back when I was 19 in a mountain bike accident. At that stage back in 1988, there really wasn’t—people with disabilities weren’t really out and about in the community. So I really hadn’t seen that much of people who were really active and participating in chairs. And so to go out to the stadium at Mount Jordan and see all those bright sporty chairs and people who were going fast and having fun said, listen this a ticket to possibility. I didn’t realize what my world looked like in the future, but I thought, this is a world that I want to be a part of.

And just because I was in a hospital chair with a big ugly brace on it at that stage, didn’t mean that I couldn’t have the vision that I couldn’t participate there.

Peter:

You teach as well—I’m jumping around a little bit but that’s okay. You’re a teacher as well. How do you think your sport has really helped you as a profession, your being a teacher?

Liesl:

It’s interesting, I think I’m really lucky as an athlete I have a different identity as well as a teacher. So a lot of people just have that athlete identity whereas I have a teaching identity that I participate with outside of sport. But I think sport’s given me self-esteem. Whether you have a disability or not. We get so much of our communication skills, our teamwork, our self-esteem from our achievements we have in sport and I think for me, I teach senior high school, the ability to connect with kids has come through the ability to connect with teammates, all the way through my career.

So, I think I’m pretty good at listening closely to the people who are around me and being able to deliver what they need.

Peter:

Do you think the kids at the school, do you think they kind of see you differently at all, to anybody else?

Liesl:

I think sometimes I need to clunk them with the metal to remind them that I need to be seen differently. But no, I think it’s so interesting. At the beginning they definitely see disability like a lot of people do, but by the time that they’ve spend some time with me, I’m just a teacher. And hey, there’s a wheelchair parked in the corner of the classroom and the teacher walks a bit funny to into that wheelchair, but the really interesting thing for me, Peter, was the social media around London actually gave me access to teach—I’ve been teaching now for 20 odd years, but the people that I’ve been teaching 20 years ago, were there right beside me and have been finding me every 4 years with the games.

So, I haven’t just been a teacher, I think I’ve also connected with the community as an athlete and somebody who does something a bit different.

Peter:

You mentioned, London, but you’ve been around a while. But you’ve been around a while and you do see a massive change in that time, from the early days of Barcelona.

Liesl:

Barcelona, yeah, when I was first involved, I think we are so lucky to have had the Sydney 2000 Paralympic games and the legacy of a community that sees people with disability and expects to see them out there and participating, Barcelona in 90, 92, people my age were in special schools if they had a disability. It was just unbelievable. People didn’t know what Paralympics even was. It was sort of really off to the side of everything else.

We did, I mean, do you want to buy a raffle ticket? We eventually fundraised to get ourselves to the games. And then evolution of that, Atlanta, I’m sure it was a fantastic Olympics, but it was a shocking Paralympics and then I’m really proud to say I was proud of the Sydney which put the Paralympics on the map. We had a new ticketing mechanism where people got through the gates and we really didn’t know if people would come, but they got through the gates and we played for the first time in Paralympic sport, in the history of Paralympic sport, in front of packed houses, so not only our family and friends, the rest of the world paid and we played in front of packed houses, so I’m really proud as an Aussie that that’s continued.

Peter:

I think it has continued, and we might explore that too. I was there in the final in 2000. It was—

Liesl:

Me crying with the silver medal.

Peter:

Might talk about that too. But in 2000, I think you’re right, it was a watershed moment, for not just for sport in this country, but it was for people with disabilities in this country. Now we talked about it with different people, through Tic Talks and things like that, and what do you think is really the kind of legacy the Sydney games left for Australia?

Liesl:

It’s not only the legacy of the Paralympic athlete access, but I think the people who saw the games. And for me it was the young kids. So the young kids seeing people with disabilities participating, have now grown up and they now have an expectation in the community to, hey we’re not, to the side, we’re mainstream, we’re in the inside where everyone else is and so those kids have grown up so it’s just an exceptional part of the theme.

Another thing beautiful thing are the people who were volunteers, and what’s been set up by not only the Olympics and Paralympics, we’ve got massive networks of volunteering and love that understand that people with disabilities are out there and possibly should be participating in all walks of life.

Peter:

I think they are out there asking the questions out there, why not?

Liesl:

Absolutely. And I also think it’s a privilege in Australia to be an athlete and it’s frightening as well because so many other people with disabilities, because of the Paralympics, we’ve been shot into the public eye, whereas there’s lot of other amazing people with disabilities operating also in other aspects of art and culture and academia who don’t have the voice, and the publicity that athletes have. I mean, that’s also a reflection on Australian society but definitely in the disability sector we have got a strong voice I think because of the Paralympics and the media associated with sport in Australia.

Peter:

Yeah, I think the people listening to this as well, in Sydney, the crowds grew enormously each day as you went through the couple of weeks. There were busloads of kids, and I think they were coming around as kids then, not now—grown up now and that’s a very good comment, I have never heard that one before, cause you were right, there thousands upon thousands of kids who saw it for the first time and kept coming back there today and now they’re adults.

Liesl:

Yep, and now they’re starting to become the decision makers in our society, so I’ve seen it, I’ve walked beside it. I’ve got autographs of people with disabilities when I was 8. So they’re desensitized, it’s normal, it’s not the mother’s pulling the kids away saying, coming away. It’s the kids asking questions of Paralympians and getting autographs and having personal contact, what’s that, how many years, 13 years ago now and growing up now and starting, they’re university students now so they are people who—so it’s not just people with disabilities advocating, it’s people who would have seen people with disabilities out and about and active and successful.

Peter:

That’s the other thing that’s the real legacy isn’t it? That’s the ultimate legacy.

Liesl:

In summary.

Peter:

Moving on then, you were at the next two, that you—for people listening wheelchair basketball as well, very well known for that. But more recently as well, sailing.

Liesl:

Yeah, I came home from the Bejing Paralympic games and there as an email from Sails for Disability which is a beautiful Sydney based organization. They’ve got a 54 foot yacht for people with disabilities take care of and sail out of Sydney Hobart. And there was an email saying, you would try to out for a spot in the Sydney Hobart yacht race, and it was like an off-shore ocean race, no way!

Peter:

Let me guess, you said yes.

Liesl:

Initially I thought, it’s dangerous, people die. And then there was another email saying, would you like to go for a tour and a sail on a 54 foot yacht out of Sydney Harbor, and who wouldn’t? Yeah, especially accessible and inclusive. So wheeled down and wheeling down the wharf it actually felt like I was coming home and I was in the right place. Cause as a kid I broke my back, and prior to that I was doing a whole lot of sailing around the shores of Lake Macquarie, and it just felt right. So, as it turned out with a (11:19) I ended up in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race that year. And part of a documentary that’s been shown every year on the television called Disable Bodied Sailors. And Dan Fitzgibbon, a phenomenal athlete, possibly on the way to the Olympic games for the next one who is a quadriplegic, silver medal in Beijing, saw the documentary and tracked me down.

And I think the rest is history. So I went for my first sale, Dan said do you want to go to Miami next week, it was school holidays, I went to Miami and we won our first regatta against the best, sailors in the world. Stuff you learn as a kid, it’s amazing, and having the opportunity and go, yeah, okay, I can find this stuff that’s deep in the pockets combined with the ability to be an athlete and put that all together with 8 months of really intense hard work on the water and on line and overseas to tune what we needed to tune and I didn’t think it would be London 2012, I thought maybe it would be Rio 2016 but I’ve got a big gold one now!

Peter:

Yeah, I bet the challenge was something you couldn’t resist. Are there similarities between the sailing community and how, it must be one of the most adaptive, creative sports in Australia because the nature of the sport is demanding in some way, are there similarities between sailing and basketball communities? Cause I know you crossover both at a really high level.

Liesl:

I think both the communities have evolved in very different ways as far as inclusion for people with disabilities. Basketball Australia has worked out a whole bunch of different frameworks to creating inclusion pathways to people with disabilities, whereas I think yachting Australia has had a beautiful framework called Sail Ability which is an international franchise for people with physical and afflictional disabilities can compete, actually quite a separate to mainstream sailing.

Yachtys have seen that happening on the sideline, whereas I think now more into a pathway where people are becoming more included and people becoming more aware of including people with disabilities in different aspects of sailing.

Peter:

I think sailing, too, especially more than most sports are really showcased what can be done. Cause it’s such a challenging terrain. I don’t know if people who are listening, the Sydney Hobart example is one of the most challenging events in the world for the sport.

Liesl:

It’s phenomenal like for the sailors it’s 3 hours on and 3 hours off, or depending on how your group organizes this, 3 hours on, 3 hours off, so sleeping 3 hours, getting up with like cold water tortured drips dripping down on your bed which is on some crazy angle and then the boat tips to the other side and you’re on some other crazy angle. And then throwing some bad circulation, so on the high seas, I’m boiling a jug full of water to heat up a hot water bottle so my legs re-heat so they get back to normal temperature before I go back out onto the freezing cold deck of the boat. Push it to the limits.

But we did it the first time around with a guy, two guys who are blind, so the sailors who were by far the best sailors at night, two guys on the foredeck, both who were above knee amputees, so anyone who is standing up would be washed off the front of the boat with these big waves, these guys were custom made to be on the front of the foredeck so a whole a bunch of people with disabilities got to Hobart that first time, that was just amazing.

Peter:

Was that the first—

Liesl:

There have been several times, I think probably been more than 15 times as an organization, that was just my first experience with these guys and it’s just a fantastic group of people and an amazing organization.

Peter:

Must be a great sense of achievement to get to the finish line of these.

Liesl:

We came over the line and were like, okay, racing sail down, training sail up, can’t we stop and have a moment of partying?

Peter:

Fantastic, fantastic. I also wanted to talk about Sport Matters, as well, we’ve profiled Sport Matters in Inclusion Club. Did that with Jackie and Curtis, so people can have a look at that, but also your involvement and co-founder of Sport Matters. Now, in your travels all over the world you’ve seen some amazing things. But in developing countries in particular, some challenges facing people with disabilities, can you talk to us about some of the things you’ve seen.

Liesl:

My background is—I’ve got a double major in geography so I think it’s my social responsibility to the kids I teach to travel as much as I can and I do, I believe in inclusion, I believe in opportunities for people with disabilities because of my history, so I suppose as I’ve become more confident in my own capacity to coach, I’ve been to a lot of countries coaching people with disabilities in wheelchair basketball which was my first and foremost. And through that, I’ve seen, the ability of sport to give confidence to people and also unite communities.

So people with disabilities in developing nations are often terribly, terribly isolated. So they live at home and don’t have access to transport or education. Don’t have access to inclusion, sometimes don’t have access to food if there’s a choice. So by bringing people together, in a team environment, just gives people an understanding that they are not so alone in their worlds out there, and through that uniting and developing self-esteem and skills and communications and networks and partnerships, giving them the power to create change in their communities is something that we as a whole bunch of people in Sport Matters need to do this on a bigger scale and that’s where that organization is born. We have the possibility in Sport Matters to really bring communities together and create change in communities and what that need is, is going to be identified by the particular communities.

Initially because of our backgrounds we thought sports with people with disabilities, but we realized the power of sport is so big let’s create sport and create inclusive pathways in that sport to include people with disabilities as well, so straight away it’s a smart framework. Not just people with disabilities in sport framework as we set things up.

Peter:

Well I think that’s the ultimate inclusive framework, isn’t it?

Liesl:

Absolutely, yeah, start off in the beginning with everybody. Absolutely.

Peter:

And build it from there.

Liesl:

And see who’s there and just expect them to be part of it.

Peter:

What are some of the countries that you’ve worked in? It’s not often you meet people who’ve witnessed first-hand the power of sport in those sorts of communities. It’s incredibly powerful.

Liesl:

For me, I think the privilege was to run a workshop at the second international convention to (17:10) run by (17:12) in the capital of Lao. Laos is the most bombed country in the world after Vietnam war so there’s a whole lot of cluster bombs and land mines with probably one injury a day, but we had people from all over the world and I came down the ramp at Bangkok airport to fly to Vietchin with a whole bunch of people from all over the world who had been injured by cluster bombs, who, electric chairs, crutches, you name it, who had never even considered the possibility of participating in sport in their community. So for me it was, well we have to do this on a bigger scale. We have to give this opportunity to others.

So that was the first one. So running the workshop and getting those people up and active in their communities, was pretty amazing, but also for me, with the Laotian community of, we call (17:54) wheelchair basketball, ran workshops there and got the people with disabilities in the rehab organization to talk to all the delegates, 800 odd delegates from around the world, who then got into wheelchairs and started a game of wheelchair basketball for the first time ever, just to say excuse me, your highness to the Prince of Jordan, cause I had to hoof him out of the wheelchair (18:14) but just showcasing to people that had not ever thought about sport for people with disabilities to the power of sport and what people with disabilities can do rather than what they can’t do in their local communities.

Peter:

That’s a tremendous motivator isn’t it to continue that sort of work.

Liesl:

Walking up in (18:31) in Dehli with 10 sports chairs all boxed up still and looking at the piece of cement with the buffalo, broken down (18:37) the broken glass and saying where’s the basketball court, and them saying it’s over and saying, no then moving the buffalo and sweeping the broken glass and then my job description has never been to draw a court before, and drawing a court, putting the chairs together and then—

Peter:

Did you know the dimensions?

Liesl:

No, I had to Google it (18:56) it was like fitting a basketball court on something that was a little bit square and then some countries with banana palms in the corner, so by 8 o’clock in the morning, by the time Nelson, who’s a polio guy from over there and myself were drawing the chalk court, I was sweating more than I was during the whole workshop. We then said okay and we painted on with spray paint.

Peter:

That’s great. I met Nelson last week.

Liesl:

Yeah, phenomenal, and to bring him over here and have like a tournament slam down under wheelchair basketball with 19 teams and then having him sit here at one of our fundraising event down in Campbell with Redford College is just gold. Send him home and let’s just see what evolves. I’ve had two years of wheelchair basketball now on his team and he’s just seen pretty much as good as it gets in Australia, so as a leader he’ll be taking lots of ideas back to his community.

Peter:

That’s great. I’m almost scared to ask, what next for Liesl Tesch?

Liesl:

Isn’t it nice on the couch?

Peter:

That’s good, what next?

Liesl:

Sometimes I think it’s time to slow down. I think it’s time to put—actually Sport Matters is at a point now where we have to look at getting a real successful business model so we’ve got income generation on a regular real basis into the future so that’s a sustainable organization that can not just be looking for little bits of grants along the way, so that’s sort of the next big challenge to network. It’s not my skillset, but I suppose I’ve developed the ability to work with people who have got the skills needed to be part of this team.

Peter:

I’m sure, absolutely certain it will go from strength to strength with Sport Matters, and you’ll just be busier than ever.

Liesl:

I really, really hope so. Like it just has such potential, especially being in Australia where we are such a great sporting community, to be able to use sport and aid together, to change disadvantage communities both here and overseas.

Peter:

There is one question I was going to ask you and I must have forgot, but I’ll ask you now, one thought, the big steps we’ve made in Australia is, Australia is actually a really quite inclusive community. They get up and go. We’ve got a strong sports culture. Quite an inclusive culture really, despite popular opinion, we are I think. How much do you think that has really contributed to acceptance of people with disabilities, in more general terms? I’m trying to get to what role sport has played, I can’t emphasize it enough.

Liesl:

Absolutely, and I think like social change and community, it’s really hard to measure. But I think especially through the Paralympics, just seeing people out there in the community being active and being part of the community and just taking that on and making that into part of life. And I think with some people with disabilities seeing athletes being active in communities, possibly inspire people with disabilities who weren’t necessarily as included, to take a step up and step out in their world as well. (21:47) like who knows when the time is right? And everybody’s got a time that is right for them to take the next step and be up there and be active and be brave. And for every person that step is a different increment to everyone else. And I think that is also the beautiful thing about what we talked about this morning. Creating inclusivity is about listening to the individuals and seeing what the individuals need in their life to make their lives a bit, as individuals more empowered in their lives and the community around them a better place.

Peter:

That’s well said. Very, very fine point. One of the great things about my role and my work is meeting people like Liesl Tesch, it’s seriously a great honor and I’ll continue to catch up with you every now and again.

Liesl:

Absolutely. And actually, talked the other day, I think the day I stop playing wheelchair basketball is the day I die.

Peter:

That’s probably right, probably right. So thank you very much Liesl for joining us.

Liesl:

Absolutely a great honor and I wish you all the best in your work.

Peter:

Thank you.