Australian Paralympian: why sport should be accessible to all

Sport is a great passion for the majority of Australians. Yet not all sports lovers and participants get the same opportunity to participate and excel in sport. Wouldn’t it be great if that changed?

Sport is a great passion for the majority of Australians. Yet not all sports lovers and participants get the same opportunity to participate and excel in sport. Wouldn’t it be great if that changed?

This week we look at sport and social responsibility, which is the focus of our next Speaker Series event this Thursday, 19 November 2020. It will feature Craig Foster, Adjunct Professor of Sport & Social Responsibility at Torrens University hosting a panel with legends including AFL great Adam Goodes, cricketer Michael Clarke, rugby league’s Paul Harragon, netballer Caitlin Bassett and Joel Thompson, Manly Sea Eagles player and founder of The Mindset Project.

At Torrens University we believe strongly that sport has a responsibility to not only do good but to champion inclusion. We are very fortunate to have a world champion Sit Skier and Australia’s first Sit Ski Paralympian working with us, Victoria Pendergast (Tori). Most of us at the university know of her as Tori the master of marketing tech platforms, but few of us know about her former life and prowess on snow packed slopes.

Tori Pendergast’s growing love of sport and snow

Tori recently shared a little of her journey into sport with us as well as her hopes for the future of sport as a whole. She was born with a condition called sacral agenesis which is a rare offset of spina bifida. Despite this challenge, Tori had a very normal Aussie upbringing where her family and school ensured she was able to do what she wanted, that included sports.

Growing up on the sunny Central Coast of NSW is a long way from the slopes of North America, Japan and Europe yet that is where Tori’s global sport journey began. Tori says that we have her sister, Kate, to thank for her eventually pursuing a career in snow sports. Kate had been on a school camp to the snow and wanted to go back, their parents weren’t aware of how Tori would be able to get on the slopes.

Kate had done her research and knew that Disabled Wintersports Australia (DWA) was thoroughly committed to inclusion because their mission statement read:

“To promote and foster the advancement of participation by people with a disability in wintersport in Australia, safely and with dignity”

– DWA Mission Statement

After her trip to the snow, Kate was convinced that with the right support, her sister Tori would be able to get up the mountain and ski like others on the slope.

“I saw a bunch of kids dashing around the mountain. They were in wheelchairs. So I knew Tori could definitely do it,” Kate said.

The support and care that DWA provided in getting Tori up and running opened up Tori’s eyes to the joys of hurtling down the slopes at breakneck speed. It became a regular family holiday adventure. It was on these holidays that Tori was approached by Paralympics Australia to train with them.

It did not stop there. Tori went on to compete at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

Access to sport doesn’t happen by magic

Tori has been fortunate in that every step of her journey has been one of inclusion. Yet she is well aware that this is not the case for all.

Tori says without organisations like DWA and rehabilitation services that get you out to try sports it would be very difficult to get out.

“It was not like there is a brochure or handbook mum and dad got to know about these things. It was only through their own investigations and chance that we got to know about these services and what financial assistance they provide to get you going” Tori said.

“Sport can be prohibitive for people regardless of ability but especially if you have a disability. For instance, if you are recovering from an accident and now have a permanent disability there are so many costs involved in getting not only medication but also adaptive equipment that lets you live in your own home.

“When you do want to get into sport then DWA, and organisations like it, help with providing equipment to enable you to have a go, reducing or even removing the financial barrier between you and sport – a sit ski for example costs ten thousand dollars. These organisations need awareness and increased funding so they can continue to remove these barriers preventing people from being involved in sports, locally and globally.”

For Tori, being inclusive locally and globally means creating “an environment where anyone is welcomed regardless of background and without bias. Treating them as individuals without the limitations of their background or impairment.” She says this is what she had with the “para-team”.

Ensuring inclusive sport is socially responsible

Tori says local sporting events are a great place to start inclusion of para sports. They promote the message of equal playing field with different levels of ability.

“Para by definition is parallel, so by that pure definition all sport should have parallel para events. Exposure at the same level of competition wherever possible, the Commonwealth Games have already integrated para sports so it is possible,” Tori said.

She believes that there is still work that needs to be done when it comes normalizing the presence and participation of disabled sportspersons in sports.

“Lack of education in the community is impacting progress of integration. Exposure to kids of other kids and people with disabilities as being able to compete in sport is important so it becomes the norm, inclusion is then embedded in the mindset early on”, Tori adds.

Tori is very conscious of the fact that, like it or not, each time a person in sport speaks up or out on anything they need to be aware that people will listen locally and globally due to their profile.

“You’re not only performing for yourself and trying to do better, but you’re also a role model for others, whether you realize it or not,” Tori said.

“It’s really important that you keep that in mind, especially when you’re posting on social media, that you’ve got a certain responsibility to demonstrate good sportsmanship and be a role model.”

For Tori, the power of sport and high profile athletes to change the world should never be underestimated. This is why she believes sport is such a potent force for social and societal impact.

“The world is there for all to take advantage of, yet some in the world have more obstacles to overcome than others. If you have a platform or a voice, then you need to be aware of the power of using your voice to start the tough conversations.”

Watch Tori tell us more about how sport changed her life here.

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