Why Shelley Chaplin won’t let her disability stop her doing anything. By Richard Cooke.


Double vision: Shelley Chaplin, 31, kayaker and wheelchair basketballer

Rio’s off the cards for me. I don’t have any routes to it left. The Gliders [Australian wheelchair basketball team] missed out on qualification, and then I got involved in Paralympic kayaking, and I was hoping to make the world championship team for that. But I didn’t.

Not qualifying sucked. I was really lucky that straight after the qualification I went on a trip overseas. I went to Vancouver, where I spent 12 months playing basketball, and then I also went to the University of Illinois, where I did my undergrad degree.

I got to see all the people that I’d played basketball with over the years, and other coaches, and I think they gave me a lot of perspective into what I had gained aside from the Paralympic Games. Obviously my goal was always to go to Rio, but it always just gave me a sense of all the other things that I had gained throughout the years that I’d been part of the Gliders.

When I got home, there was a big gap in my life from when I’d been training. And I was expecting to keep on training, so I just took up para canoe. I started doing it to take my mind off not qualifying for basketball, and then it turned out I was quite good at it. So I had a crack and didn’t quite get there. 

Because para canoe is a new sport in Rio there’s not very many women doing it. I was successful – I’m the third-fastest female in Australia – but I think that was due to the fact that there were not that many people participating at this point.

There wasn’t much fear factor for me in the kayak. Because I’m an aerobic swimmer, I always found as a kid that it was the only thing I really could do. Definitely for someone with a higher level of disability, it would be kind of scary. 

I thought I was going to retire after London. Then when I got home I was like, “Oh, this is a bit boring”. Of course I want to keep playing basketball. What am I going to do in the real world?

The past three years I sort of set up a life outside of basketball. I’ve had a lot more balance, and so I think, for me, that made not qualifying a little bit easier. I have a job to go to, things like that.

For the moment I’m being both a para canoe competitor and a basketball player. My big goal is to qualify for the world championships next year in para canoe. I’d only been training three months leading into this world championship so it wasn’t quite enough time for me, but I think I can definitely be in the mix next year. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I can do both.

It is gruelling. I’m on the water four times a week, and they’ve sort of tailored my gym program to suit those sports. And then I’m on court for basketball twice a week. It will get a little trickier next year.

The canoeing races take about five minutes. It’s pretty gruelling and mentally you have to stay switched on the whole time. I think that’s challenging for me, because in basketball it’s really short, sharp bursts of mental energy. Whereas this is like the whole time you have to have perfect technique or the boat’s not going to move the right way in the water.

It actually sounds a bit clichéd – but I don’t let my disability stop me from doing anything. I think that’s come from travelling the world and living overseas and things like that. My family, I think, raised me exactly the same as any other kid. As though I didn’t have a disability. I think that was key for me.

I’ve recently taken up rock climbing, too. It was in an indoor gym, and so that was challenging. And then I decided to go outdoors and that was very, very, very hard. I found a different way to go from all the others.

I can’t tell heights. But, yeah, it was high. It took me a long time to get up there, but I did it.

In August, Shelley and her Paralympic teammate Leanne Del Toso will be cycling through Cambodia and Vietnam to raise funds for disabled sport in South-East Asia and Victoria. Donations can be made here.

1 .  

2 . This week’s highlights…

• AFL: Melbourne v St Kilda

Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), Etihad Stadium, Melbourne

• Netball: Queensland Firebirds v NSW Swifts

Saturday, 5pm (AEST), Brisbane Entertainment Centre

• Super Rugby: Queensland Reds v Cheetahs    

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

• NRL: New Zealand Warriors v St George Illawarra Dragons

Sunday, midday (AEST), Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland 

Soccer: A-League grand final – Adelaide United v Western Sydney Wanderers 

Sunday, 3.30pm (ACST), Adelaide Oval 

• Snooker: 2016 World Championship

Until May 2, The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, England

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Double vision".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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