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Letters from Rangatahi: My journey to finding the sport(s) I love

In this open letter, we hear from Halberg Youth Councilor, Amy Dunn. Amy’s letter sheds light on some of the challenges young people with disabilities face growing up in New Zealand when it comes to sport, and draws some powerful lessons for adults about how they can provide better quality sport experiences for all young people.

My name is Amy Dunn and I am short statured. I was born with hypochondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. I am 20 years old and I am in my third year study towards a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy. 

My experiences navigating sport and recreation like most young people would start in school. In year four & five at primary I did netball and in year six I did hockey. I remember only scoring one goal (and it was at training). I felt so excited about my achievement when it happened! I really enjoyed both of these sports. When I started intermediate, I really wanted to continue with hockey. Unfortunately, they were only selecting people for their inter-school team at intermediate, and only wanted the ‘best’. I remember this making me feel that sport was not right for me. For the rest of intermediate I showed no interest in sport, and would even bring excuses to class time physical education sessions. I had knee problems, but even when my knees weren’t bad, I would continue to use them as an excuse to get out of PE.  

High School soon came along. I went to an info session before the school year began and they had all of their sports on display. I thought to myself ‘there must be something for me amongst all the options!’. I did gain interest in a couple of options. One option I tried out was water polo. The juniors were not starting until the second half of the year, but I was given an opportunity to train alongside the seniors. While the seniors did their training, I swam widths of the pool doing drills with the ball and did join in with the seniors on occasions such as ball passing (which I also did by myself throwing it at the bench outside of the pool to bounce back in). Although I was by myself for lots of this training – I still enjoyed it as I was being physically active and had the ‘goal’ of when juniors started in my mind. Unfortunately, trials for junior water polo were very hard work and tiring. My P.E teacher at the time was managing the water polo and was proud of me for giving it a go.  

Speaking of this P.E teacher, they were rather good at adapting things – and especially grades as high school P.E was graded. I remember one time when she adapted everyone’s ‘favourite’ beep test for me – she adapted it so I would only have to go up and down half of the court. Funnily enough, this was too easy and I walked the whole test! Yet, looking back, the experience was definitely better than alternative of the beginning to run to get into the line each time while everyone else was still walking! Eventually, I would let go of the idea of participating in sport in High School as there were minimal times where I felt included with each sport.  

In November 2016, after the Rio Paralympics, an ACC Paralympic Open Day  was  held at the Advantidrome in Cambridge. I decided to go along, not really expecting much, but I thought it would be cool to see all the Paralympians and adaptive sports. At this time, I also lacked confidence and did not like the idea of socialising in these sorts of settings with an unfamiliar and large group of people – I was merely going for a look.  
I was warmly welcomed by (at the time) Parafed Waikato’s Sport Development Officer. She introduced me to what is happening at the Paralympic Open Day and even gave me ideas of what I could do in my short stature classification. As she made me feel welcome, I felt relaxed and comfortable heading inside. Among her listing of sports, she mentioned athletics. She pointed out where I could find information on athletics, and there I met my athletics coach I still have today.  

In February 2017, I attended an Outward-Bound course through the Halberg Foundation. It was the beginning of my journey with Halberg and now I am  on  the Halberg Youth Council – which aims to give voices to young people with physical disabilities and help Halberg achieve their purpose and mission – to enhance the lives of physically disabled New Zealanders through sport and recreation. . Part of the drive I have on the Youth Council, and the reason I applied was because of the experiences I had with sport and recreation throughout school. Although I do wish I had found out about being a Para athlete in school sports earlier on in school, I am still grateful it happened when it happened as I may have not been so appreciative of the opportunities and experiences I have had since..  

I was fortunate to be able to compete for my High School in Para athletics in my last year which was 2017. That year I also competed in my first NZ nationals as well as secondary school nationals. I found my first few completions difficult becasue I needed to remind officials I was a Para athlete, so they would place me right and not just with the distance of my throw among able-bodied players, especially when they worked out top eight after the first three rounds, as we would compete alongside them but have our own results list due to low Para numbers, and because of the low Para numbers I was automatically in the top eight but sometimes officials would forget that! 

Three years of athletics definitely feels longer than it has been. I remember when I went to Porritt for my first training the Wednesday following the Open Day. I also met another Para athlete my coach was training in throws and he kindly found me a shot put in the weight I would be throwing in. I still use this shot put in trainings today. It has a small flat area on it where I like to place my thumb on that area before I throw. 

Once I found out about inclusion through para sports, it was a like a gateway. I wanted to try anything and everything. Now, not only do I do Para athletics, but I also play wheelchair rugby socially. Looking back at my school experiences with sport – I’ve come a long away. I love both my sports, and have even begun to compete  internationally – last year I went to the Oceania Athletics Championships. 

To me sport is not purely about being active and fit, it is about developing a whole other set of skills, such as social skills, understanding your body, building friendships and connections, being resilient, being proactive. Responsibility and self-efficacy to get to training with the right gear and equipment. The most important aspect to me is fun. If you’re not having fun, then why are you doing it? It is what my coach has made me prioritise and feel in my athletics training as I develop into a more high-performance level. It is what I love about wheelchair rugby as it has a lot of banter in it, especially as it is also a large social setting compared to athletics which is where that important balance comes in again. I am having fun because I am in an inclusive environment that allows me to be the best sports person I want to be.  

I’ve really enjoyed the journey that sport has taken me on so far. It has taught me so much, and especially importance of finding balance between sport and study as well as the other things I have on in life. It will be interesting to see how this balance changes next year. I will likely be working full time, I could be in a different town or region which could then show a change in athletics coaches and wheelchair rugby clubs. As Tokyo 2020 has been postponed until next year, I also plan to work on the opportunity to qualify for these Games. I’m hoping that as I’ll be working, I will be able to self fund whatever is needed, which takes that stress off and more time and energy can be focused elsewhere. Although this journey is uncertain, I definitely look forward to it and finding a way to adapt to my new balance and will enjoy the learning this new change will bring.