Before the accident, before the gold, silver and bronze, and well before she became the first woman in the world to compete in a professional league of men’s wheelchair basketball, Liesl Tesch grew up in a caravan built by her eccentric father and navigated around New Zealand’s South Island. It was 1969, and Tesch was just two months old when her family moved across the Tasman, where they mostly settled in Gore Bay, a beautiful and isolated spot north of Christchurch, distinguished by a great clay canyon and powerful surf. Seven years would pass before they returned to Australia.
“Dad was an isolationist,” Tesch says. “He didn’t believe too much in participating in the capitalist, modern world. Even as a uni student he spent a lot of time rebuilding bushwalking huts in the mountains around Brisbane.”
The family grew their own veggies and dug their own toilets. They lived off the land and ate berries and roadkill. They caught fish and used Tesch’s bright yellow Texta as a lure. Along with her younger sister, Tesch swam and hiked and played in bare feet. Their pets included pigs, goats and half-a-dozen cats. They had no formal schooling, but visited the library in the local town and loaned armfuls of books. Tesch read The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s conservation fable, and had its lessons reinforced by her father and by the mountains and rivers around her.
But they were impoverished and socially isolated, and a child’s development cannot subsist on mountains alone. Thoreau took no kids down to Walden Pond. I ask Tesch if she ever resented – or at least questioned – her late father’s imposition of this lifestyle at a time when she was too young to either resist or consent to it. “I remember my only doll was from the tip,” Tesch says. “And then I cut its hair off – I didn’t know it wouldn’t grow back. Our other toys Mum knitted on the knitting machine. But we treasured those things. In no way was it my father’s fault; it’s just how we were. We didn’t live like we didn’t have much, it was just how it was, and we didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, we’re eating roadkill’, because that was completely normal.”
Liesl Tesch is someone who is proud of where she is and has a tendency to view everything previous to this moment as being necessary to it.
In 1988, when Tesch was a 19-year-old arts student at the University of Newcastle, she came off her mountain bike at speed. Her spine was dramatically compacted, like a squeezed concertina, and Tesch was declared an incomplete paraplegic. She would spend two months in Sydney’s Prince Henry Hospital rehabilitating.
I asked Tesch if, in those early weeks, she experienced rage, doubt or self-pity. “I was pretty determined that I was going to get out of there, and not have life taken away from me by having these spinal injuries,” she says. “I also did a whole lot of letter writing whilst I was in hospital to stay in touch with various people along the way, and my mum’s support in particular was profound during that time. I was always going to get out of hospital and have a good time. I had this walking frame at the end, and I’ve pushed myself down the hospital ward, like symbolically it was important I did it. So I walked out of the hospital. Well, you wouldn’t call it walking – it was more like dragging this metal frame. And then I thought: ‘This is your lot, so let’s make the most of it.’ ”
In her new wheelchair, and with a discount pass for public transport, Tesch regularly made the trip between her home in Lake Macquarie and the wheelchair sports stadium in Mount Druitt, 144 kilometres away. The journey took hours, but the stadium was where she found competitive sport and a blossoming sense of possibility. Here were other young people in wheelchairs, people who drove cars, held jobs, had boyfriends. It was an empathic society, and inspiring, but in those early days at the stadium Tesch had no idea how powerfully sport would define her life.
Or how quickly. Within two years, Tesch was representing her country in wheelchair basketball. By 1992 she was competing in the Paralympic Games at Barcelona – her first of seven.
Throughout the ’90s, as Tesch was preparing for and competing in the Paralympics and her sport’s Gold Cup, she was also teaching geography in public schools. At the Sydney 2000 Games, those students bussed down to watch their teacher compete. She was now vice-captain. “Sydney was particularly special,” Tesch says. “I remember being out in The Rocks [in 1993] when they announced the winner was Sydney, and I was meant to do a TV interview but because of celebrations I was in no state to do it, and I was in no state to go to work the next day.
“Atlanta was a really rubbish Paralympics; they didn’t even clean our rooms before we arrived. The Paralympics wasn’t parallel with the Olympic Games to the extent that it is now – Sydney embedded the Paralympics in their relationship with the Olympics in a different way than they’ve ever been seen before. In Sydney we had a ticketing system that allowed the stadiums to be filled up with schoolkids, so we proudly set a precedent of how Paralympics could and should be and was to be forever after that.”
The team won silver in Sydney, Australia’s first medal in the event. Afterwards, in the athletes’ village, a male Italian athlete approached Tesch and suggested she come play with the men in Europe. Was that even possible?
Sport was important, but Tesch was also a teacher and mortgage-holder. She had carved a “conservative” life for herself and was unsure of how she might leave it – or even if she wanted to. But the prospect of playing with the men was tantalising. It was a chance for more adventure. Tesch sent her résumé to clubs in Europe, and was quickly accepted by the men’s team in Alcalá de Henares, a Spanish university town within the Community of Madrid. She played her first game in 2001, and immediately experienced a misogynistic rebellion.
This is Martin McKenzie-Murray’s first column as sports editor. He will be writing multipart series for the paper.
This is the first in a two-part series on Paralympian Liesl Tesch. Part two covers Tesch’s path to politics.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 21, 2021 as "Pushing the limits".
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