Being diagnosed with poliomyelitis (polio) was a shock for Jean. She was just starting her teenage years when her ability to walk was suddenly in jeopardy. An avid tennis player, Jean found it hard to come to terms with the thought that she might never play the sport again.
Fifty years later, she walked in the 2000 Olympic Games parade in her home town of Wagga Wagga to the roar of a cheering crowd. Among them, family and friends beamed.
Carrying the flaming Olympic torch, Jean honoured her country and celebrated a life dedicated to sport. It was also a powerful statement that her illness had never diminished her unwavering spirit.
After her polio diagnosis in 1950, Jean spent 15 months in a rehabilitation home learning how to walk again using crutches. During her stay, Jean’s eyes were opened to the wonderful world of wheelchair sport.
While understanding that her legs would never work the same way again, the discovery that she could continue to stay active and nurture her competitive streak filled her with hope.
“Being introduced to wheelchair sport really opened up my eyes to what I could do. I loved it all. Javelin, shot put, discus, table tennis: you name it, I played it,” she said.
Not only did Jean like athletics, she was exceptionally talented. Her natural sporting ability took her to the Paralympics in Scotland in 1973, and New Zealand in 1993. They were defining moments for her.
She trained every day in the lead up to the events. Friends and family would join Jean at the local park and help her practice by fetching the javelins and shot puts that flew through the air at world-beating speed.
“My first Paralympics in Scotland was like a dream. With stops along the way, the entire trip lasted two weeks. I can still picture the yellow taxis in New York and the beautiful beaches of Hawaii like it was yesterday,” Jean reminisced.
She left Scotland with a gold medal for shot put, and a head full of happy memories.
“The Paralympics was a lot smaller back then. I remember having to fill in for the Australian relay team because they had lost a member.
“I certainly wasn’t a runner; I felt like a lumbering elephant during the race. But I did get them a bronze medal,” Jean laughed.
Being a team player is in Jean’s nature. She has spent much of her life dedicated to volunteering, saying she found it more fulfilling than regular work. She loves spending time with other people and volunteering has given her the opportunity to chip in and do something for others.
The local day centre near where she lives holds a special place in Jean’s heart. She visited regularly throughout her later life and became a familiar face to many people within her community. She still attends the centre once a week to catch up with old friends. She is also part of a local committee that advocates for disability rights in Wagga Wagga.
“We want our streets to become more disability friendly,” she said.
“I was on the board for the Disability Advocacy Network for many years in Sydney. Now I am part of a new committee in Wagga which is aiming for smaller wins.”
Jean met her husband, Bill, while living in Sydney in the 1960s. A country girl at heart, she brought Bill back home after they saved their money for a few years.
When their son Andrew was five, Bill went to fight in the Korean War. The day he left was the last they saw him.
Jean continues to live in their family home with Andrew.
“I couldn’t imagine life without my son. Now I am using a wheelchair full time, he helps me every day with the little tasks that I am no longer able to manage by myself.”
Offering some additional support at home, Just Better Care Murrumbidgee Lachlan Support Professionals assist with day-to-day tasks.
“The girls from Just Better Care have become part of the family. They are so friendly and really brighten up my day,” she said.
“I turned 80 last year; I am not quite sure how I have made it this far!”
“I’ve done an awful lot of things in my life, despite or because of my disability. I tried writing a memoir a few years ago, to remember my life and leave a legacy behind. But I could never find the right words. I guess you could say I am a perfectionist.”
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