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Cameron Leslie: Paralympic Pioneer

In this interview, we talk to three-time Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and NZ wheelchair rugby player Cameron Leslie. He talks about his life in sport, from his early swimming experiences through to today, with success across two sports and a new role supporting New Zealand’s next generation of young swimmers.

Cameron Leslie is a world record holder and three-time Paralympic gold medallist swimmer, who has also represented New Zealand in wheelchair rugby at three world championships.

Born in Whangarei, Cameron, an athlete with a quadruple limb deficiency, took up swimming at an early age. But he nearly gave up the sport aged 16, after a disappointing debut appearance at the IPC World Swimming Championships in 2006.

A return to the IPC World Swimming Championships in 2013 brought a gold medal in the Men’s 150m Individual Medley and a bronze in the Men’s 50m Backstroke.

In 2019 Cameron saw success in both swimming in wheelchair rugby. As well as winning a gold at the World Para Swimming Championships in London, he helped the Wheel Blacks to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo with a third-place finish at the IWRF Asia-Oceania Championship.

He was introduced to wheelchair rugby in 2007, falling in love with the sport at a Have a Go Day. Before long he was training with the Auckland team twice a week, with his dad driving the four-hour round trip. Soon after, he was selected for the Wheel Blacks.

Cameron has received recognition for his talents and successes with a number of awards and honours. In 2008 he received the New Zealand University Blues Award for Maori Sportsperson of the Year and was awarded Auckland University of Technology’s Male Athlete of the Year. In 2009 Cameron was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to swimming.  

He was appointed National Para Swimming Development Coordinator by Swimming New Zealand in September 2018, supporting the development of para swimming in 172 centres across New Zealand.  In December 2019 he was appointed as an intern on the Board of Sport New Zealand.

Experience in sport as a child

Cameron talks about what got him started as a swimmer as a kid growing up in Whangarei, where opportunities to participate in sports was limited for young people with disabilities at the time. Later, when moving into wheelchair rugby as a teen, crossover skills from throwing a ball around and playing ‘knee rugby’ with friends and siblings growing up were key for him when transitioning into his new sport.

Balancing roles

It’s important to Cameron to ‘give back’ to the sports that he’s enjoyed. He does this by supporting the next generation of athletes through his role at Swimming New Zealand, aiming to make a difference to their development as swimmers whatever their level of ability and ambition. Cameron talks about how he balances this role alongside his ongoing career as an athlete and being a father, and how learning to manage his own time and responsibilities has benefited him as he aims towards the Tokyo 2020 games.

Swimming and wheelchair rugby: any similarities?

On the surface, swimming and wheelchair rugby may not have many crossover skills. But for Cameron, the self-discipline and motivation from his swimming are things he has carried over into his rugby while also enjoying the team aspect. He discusses the feeling of winning as an individual versus winning as part of a team, actually preferring team success as there are many more people to share that experience with. As an individual, he says, it’s important to steer away from focussing on success that’s only linked with personal bests. Look for what you did well.   

What makes a good coach?

“I’ve been lucky in the coaches I’ve worked with,” says Cameron. “They’ll ask what a person can do, not what they can’t do. With Para sports, that’s massive.”

Cameron talks about what makes a good coach, the coaches he’s had in his career and how they’ve all pushed him and challenged him to be the best athlete he can be. He’s lucky, he says, in finding coaches who’ve been willing to operate outside their comfort zone and work with a disabled athlete. “Making themselves uncomfortable” to aid their own personal and professional development as coaches.

Advice for young people with disabilities

Cameron discussed the importance of sustainability in finding a sport as a person with a disability, whether that’s being able to attend training, affordability, or access. Love for the sport is also key, he says – you have to have fun and enjoy it. This is what has kept Cameron competing for so long; despite the gold medals, it’s his enjoyment of swimming that keeps him going. “Enjoying it and finding something you can do regularly is massive. Find something you can enjoy, feel free and active doing, for a long period of time.”

Image Source: Cameron Leslie

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