TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 5: Richard Nicholson

A podcast with Richard Nicholson
June 2013
Richard Nicholson

Richard Nicholson

Paralympian

Richard is a veteran Paralympic athlete and has a long career as an expert practitioner of inclusive sport – something that has taken him all over the world. Here we talk about Richard’s life and work beyond sport.

 

 

Transcript TIC TALK with Richard Nicholson

Peter:

Today on Tic Talks I’m talking to Richard Nicholson, five-time Paralympic athlete, a long-time colleague and friend. How are you, Richard?

Richard:

Hi, Pete.

Peter:

Now, Richard, has a very diverse experience, wide across the sport domain. From a practitioners level at grass roots right through to Paralympic and Commonwealth games, as well. And that’s what I want to explore. Richard, you’ve been in Canberra for a long time now. Were you born here?

Richard:

I was born in Sydney but my parents moved when I was about five, so I think I’m about to clock over 38 years in Canberra.

Peter:

[Laughs] So you’re a Canberran then, really.

 

Richard:

Absolutely, yep.

Peter:

Yeah, yeah. You’re also a representative, which we’ll get to, a strider in a number of different sports. You started as a gymnast and then went into powerlifting. You did compete internationally in powerlifting. And wheelchair track and field, as well, at the Commonwealth games. That journey’s quite a long journey. So where did you go? How did you get from gymnastics first to power-lifting?

Richard:

That’s a good question. I was lucky enough I had a pretty good PE teacher in high school. And he was tired of me sitting on the side of the gym not participating in the regular classes. So he threw me up on the roman rings and it actually went alright. So he found a competition I could participate in and I got involved in gymnastics through a low-level high school competition.

I met a guy there with a fantastic attitude towards inclusion, guy called Chris Timpson. He invited me to his local gymnastics club, where I stayed for about eight years, really, seven or eight years through when I was about 19. And I was actually quite successful as a gymnast on the apparatus. But when I landed, it meant I had to land on my knees, which constituted a fall. And unfortunately, the better I became on the apparatus, the less competitive I was as an athlete because the deduction for my landings was too much to give away.
Eventually I left gymnastics, after coaching for a little while, and found my way to a disability-specific sport in powerlifting.

Peter:

Now Chris. You mentioned Chris Timpson. And I’ll pick you up on that one because Chris also, obviously, involved with athletics for a very long time now. He’s been one of the critical gatekeepers of inclusion around Canberra. He’s been one of the key people, now hasn’t he? How important was his role in your sporting career in that sense?

Richard:

I actually said this to him just the other night at an ACT Athletics awards night. Chris Timpson was probably one of the most influential people of my entire life. You know? He offered me an opportunity to just come down to his gymnastics club to have a look. And from there I started training, started to develop a love for sport. And since then it’s become a passion to be a competitor and also a profession as a sports administrator.
If Chris hadn’t given me that opportunity and that support to follow my interest and then, eventually, love and passion for sport, we wouldn’t be having this chat today. So he was very influential, particularly in that 12 to 16 years age bracket.

Peter:

You think you were kind of lucky to stumble across Chris? Or if it hadn’t of been Chris, it would have been somebody else?

Richard:

Actually, no. I was exceptionally lucky to stumble across Chris. Unfortunately, even 30 years later, people like Chris, with their attitude, are unfortunately still the minority in some areas. And people aren’t just as forward thinking about inclusion and can’t see how easy it really can be.

Chris was fantastic. He came along right at the right time in my life. He gave me confidence and self-esteem and a whole range of other things apart from a sporting career. Chris was, at the time, almost one in a 1,000,000. But fortunately there are a few more around these days.
Peter:

Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting that some people are the critical kind of gatekeepers for these sorts of things. And years ago there were fewer of them. Now there’s more people like Chris around. But you went into powerlifting. Powerlifting involves hours lying on your back lifting heavy things. [Laughs] It doesn’t sound the most glamorous of sports, but you were pretty successful as a power-lifter.

Richard:

Well I think with powerlifting, when I came back to sport, I wanted to compete on an even level. I did target disability sport and moved away from trying to compete in mainstream sport. And when I looked at the list of sports that were on the next Paralympic program, everything involved use of a wheelchair as far as I could see. Wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair racing, it was a whole heap of sports. And at that point I’d never used a wheelchair to get around in. I’d always just used my crutches.

So I chased powerlifting because I was already fairly strong. Gymnastics had made me fairly strong in the upper body. And it’s a power to weight ratio type of sport, so I thought I could probably do quite well there quite quickly. And fortunately for me, that was the case.

Peter:

Yes. You competed in Atlanta, didn’t you?

Richard:

Yeah. Atlanta and Sydney as a power-lifter, yes.

Peter:

Yeah, yeah. And then the transition to—Why the transition to wheelchair track?

Richard:

Once I began competing at an international level in powerlifting, I was obviously mixing with a lot more athletes with disabilities and realized there are a lot more sports that I could probably do well in. And I had some friends in track.
Louise Sauvage was a big athlete, particularly around that time. And she was constantly hassling me to have a go at wheelchair racing. And I’d met some other people involved in the sport. And it became clear to me there are a lot more opportunities simply to compete in wheelchair racing than there were in powerlifting. It’s a sport I thought I could do well in. Again, I felt I had the right physical shape to be a good wheelchair racer. That was one of the main reasons I chose to participate in that sport.

Peter:

Yeah. Also, parallel to all this, I know, it’s interesting to talk to you about your career at the sports commission and programs such as sports ability and what impact that has had over time from when you first started it. Can you explain a little bit about your involvement with sports ability?

Richard:

Yeah. Well, I guess I was quite lucky. I decided that I didn’t like my previous job and went to university specifically to try and get a job in sport as a career. And I started working with Pete at the Sports Commission as part of my uni. And I just never left. I kept hanging around. That’s how I got started in sports administration.

And I was lucky enough to help to eventually manage the sports ability program in Australia, which was a fantastic opportunity for me. Particularly working through the education sector and working at a really grass-roots level. Creating opportunities, particularly for those with high-support needs, which I’d never had much to do with in the Paralympics, training as an athlete. So it was a great opportunity to learn a whole heap of new skills and learn a whole lot about inclusion, particularly in an education setting and a broader community setting, as well.

Peter:

Now you developed as a presenter around sports ability. And that naturally involves elements of inclusion. How do you get people to see what inclusion really means? What do you think of some of the really important ways that educators can teach others around inclusion? You’ve done a lot of workshop presenting, a lot of presentations around that. Are there some critical things that make a difference in people? Or is it just kind of potluck?

Richard:

I think in terms of inclusion, sometimes seeing is believing. Or actually the practical aspects, you know? Having done a number of workshops, you see those light bulbs go off in people’s heads at different points in different workshops. There’s a penny that seems to drop, and all of a sudden someone understands it. Or someone can see how it could work in their own particular context, whether they’re from a particular sport or they’re from a school as a PE teacher. I think they’re always thinking in their own context in there. But the light bulb goes off at different moments.
For me, I think video’s a very powerful instrument to use in workshops so that people can actually see people with disabilities competing in or participating in activities where perhaps it wasn’t on people’s register before. They didn’t think that that was quite possible. And also, practical activities, just showing people how easy it is. Or, just by changing a few elements of an activity, whether it be the rules, equipment, or environment, it can make such a huge difference to the inclusion of people with disabilities. They’re probably the two main things that I think have the most successes. And building that confidence in them to be able to think a little bit more laterally and be confident to make some changes.

Peter:

Yeah, we focused—in your work you understand it very well—between the difference between a social model approach to education and a medical model approach. What happens? Have you got memories—I’m guessing you have, a bit of a loaded question—you got memories of people in workshops who are really fixed within a medical model view of what is there? And can you see that journey they go on? Is seeing a practical activity that people do, that they can actually see, a social model—?

I’m just trying to get at—is there some way that in workshops where you have people who see very strongly the things that can’t be done as opposed to people who see the way things can be done? You got any sort of tips or advice?

Richard:

Tips? I guess it’s a difficult one because I think it often depends on that individual’s background. A lot of that “what can or can’t be done” comes from a fear. And it’s generally just that lack of exposure to disability.
I think you can try through conversations. Fortunately there’s often people in the workshop who have their own local examples of what they do with their kids or their groups. Sometimes you’re preaching to the converted. So it’s good to facilitate a group discussion around a whole range of different scenarios.

And as I said before, I think the video and the actual getting people doing stuff. Sometimes that might be it. A game of goalball or playing cricket on a tabletop or something like that is a very effective way of trying to change peoples’ thinking. It can be a difficult process.

Peter:

Yeah, yeah. You think there’s a difference between—for old people like us that have been doing it for ages—From 10 or 15 years ago in running workshops to if you’re running one tomorrow, is there a difference in the sort of approach? Do you see a progress in that time?

Richard:

I do. Well, certainly in Australia. It’s difficult to put in a broader context than Australia. But there’s definitely been a significant shift in people’s approach to disabilities and people’s understanding of disability. And that’s a community and society-wide thing in Australia. It’s improved a great deal

I think the Paralympics have certainly had a significant effect on people’s perception of people with disabilities, particularly in the sports sector. That’s sort of growing to a point now where there’s really good coverage of the games when they’re on. So that’s helped a little bit. And I think there’s just more people with disabilities out and about in community, and certainly in mainstream schools these days.

People’s exposure to disability in general in society’s changed a lot over the last 20 years. And I think that’s changed the approach to inclusion in the sports sector significantly, too. It’s an evolutionary thing. It has definitely further to go, but it’s definitely changing in the last 20 years.

Peter:

Yeah, well I guess you’d hope so, wouldn’t you? You’ve also worked overseas a fair bit in the South Pacific. Do you think similar progress has been made there?

Richard:

Yeah, I’ve been to Fiji a few times and done some work there. The approach is a little different. I think, as you were talking about the medical model before, it’s a different sort of approach and understanding of disability in Fiji at this point in time. It’s a little bit of education. Perhaps go in there and try to bring out that social model of inclusion in certain places. But that’s a good challenge there’s a number of people in this country up for. So it’s good.

Peter:

Yeah, yeah. It’s a different cultural context. It’s difficult to get your head around. What suits us here in Australia may not suit somewhere like Fiji, for example.

Richard:

Yeah. Definitely that was a big challenge for me, to get around the different culture that exists in other countries. I’ve only tried to do this sort of work in Fiji. And I’m sure it would be different in other Pacific countries and other countries around the world. But taking those cultural considerations was something I hadn’t faced before and it’s been a unique challenge.

Peter:

Okay, that was good. Richard is a fairly, for people listening to this podcast, he’s a fairly focused individual. It’s a pretty cold, miserable morning in Canberra. He’s been out training this morning. And Richard trains all year round. What kind of discipline—? I was trying to get to you as a person. You know you’re very disciplined in your approach to training and to your performance in that way. Is that just in-built in you? Or is it just what you have to do?

Richard:

I was asked a very similar question recently. I think at 42, nearly 43, and still trying and competing at an international level, I do it because I genuinely like it. In fact, I love it. You know? And the day I don’t love it will be the day I sleep in and don’t get out of bed. I still generally enjoy the training. Obviously it’s nicer in nicer weather.

But I see the training’s a means to an end. And I like putting my front wheel on the start line and testing myself against the best guys in the world. And it’s been a lifelong passion since I was 12. Since I got involved in that gymnastics suit, or like a club, I’ve been involved in sport.

Peter:

Nothing much holds Richard back. I don’t know if you want to talk about it. But the accident you had prior to the London games last year, that would have finished most people off for the games. But if you’ll just describe what happened there?

Richard:

Yes. I’d gone to Switzerland early to train for the London games. And we were there for at least a month. And I’d gone two weeks early to try and get out of the cold weather in Canberra and get some really solid training in in Switzerland.

Unfortunately, the day after I arrived, I had a nasty crash on the track and injured myself significantly. And I required a number of stitches to my face, unfortunately. I woke up the next day in a hospital bed in Switzerland knowing there was no one in the country for me. I didn’t have my wallet, my mobile phone. I didn’t have a wheelchair to get out of bed and take myself to the toilet. I actually even didn’t have any clothes other than a hospital gown. And I was staying nearly an hour away from the hospitals near where I was staying. I was in a spot of bother at that point.

I really did question whether I would make London, what I was going to look like, and why was I still doing this as a sport at my age. I’d already been to five Paralympic games. So there was a considerable amount of soul-searching over the next few days.

By the time, about five days later, that some of the other Australian athletes started to arrive in Switzerland to train, fortunately for me I had decided that I still wanted it. I had put a lot of time and effort in. I was in really good shape, other than my face, at the time. And I put a lot of effort in. And people had invested in me. I really wanted to go to the London Paralympic games.

I guess for me the hardest thing was making sure that mentally I was up and ready for training and going to be positive. Moving forward as soon as the other Australian athletes arrived, because I knew they were going to be excited and training hard on the lead-up to London. I didn’t want to be a sorry sack, sitting around complaining about my misfortunes.

It was a few days of soul-searching and then I just made a decision that I would go for this. And fortunately for me, it worked out. We were lucky enough to win a bronze medal in the 4×400 relays. In the end it was a good decision and I look back on that know and think yeah, that really tested my resolve as an individual. But I came through it and I am stronger for it.

Peter:

These things are meant to test you, I guess. Your face didn’t turn out so bad.

Richard:

No, no. It’s good. I’ve got a bit more character around my head than this time last year. But I have to thank the Swiss and their medical facilities, because they did a great job.

Peter:

[Laughs] They did a good job. So what’s in store for you now, Richard, from here to the next six months or so?

 

Richard:

I as an athlete, I’m lucky enough to be selected for the World Championships, the ATC Athletics World Champs in Léon in July. So that’s quite exciting.

And professionally I’m moving from the Sport for Development role into an Athlete Pathway, so more into a high-performance area working at creating pathways for athletes.

Peter:

Okay, okay. We’ve barely touched on some of the diverse things in your career and life here. But that sounds like an interesting time in the next few months for you.

Richard:

Yes. I’ve got maybe some new challenges, new things to get my head around. I have to say that this sports-in industry, there’s so many opportunities to do different things. Whether you’re working with small NGOs in a developing country or doing inclusion things through education here in Australia, or perhaps looking at a high-performance pathway and working that area, there’s plenty of opportunities in and cool things to do. I love it.

Peter:

[Laughs] Good, that’s good. Okay, so we’ll say thank you very much Richard Nicholson for this edition of the Tic Talks. Like I say, we’ve only just touched on some of the things in there. But thank you very much.

 

Richard:

Thanks very much for the opportunity, Pete.