WHEN Greg Smith first turned to wheelchair rugby after an outstanding wheelchair racing career, he could tell that he had a big task in front of him. The difficulty had nothing to do with whether he believed that he could make the Australian team; with the little experience that he had in the sport, he believed that he could and that was the problem.
The national wheelchair rugby team of the mid-2000s was in trouble, according to Smith and Australia’s chef de mission for the London Paralympics team, Jason Hellwig.
Hellwig earlier this week told how there had been a bad attitude among some of the players and the Australian Paralympic Committee had demanded the team to right itself or the sport’s funding could be in danger.
Smith said he could see the flaws in the team. ”My competitive nature kicked in and I saw the team that was going to Athens and I thought, ‘I reckon I could get on the team with some of the boys who are going,’ so I trained hard and set that as a goal and four years later I was there in Beijing,” Smith said.
Hellwig credits the 45-year-old Smith, who has quadriplegia following a car accident when he was 19, for changing the attitudes within team, which has allowed it to transform into a world power.
Hellwig was so impressed by Smith that when it came time to appoint the flag bearer to lead the Australian team in the opening ceremony in London, he knew there was a top candidate. ”He transitioned his skills from one sport into another, but the leadership that he’s conveyed with that had just simply been remarkable and unique and stands him out from an outstanding group of people,” Hellwig said. Smith, who had been a physical trainer in the Australian army before the accident, competed at three Paralympic Games in wheelchair racing and cemented his standing as the world’s best in Sydney in 2000 by winning the 800, 1500 and 5000 metres with two world records.
He retired in 2001. But it was not long before he was invited to a social game of wheelchair rugby and, while sold on the game, was frustrated at questionable attitudes to training by some players.
”Sydney was the first Games where it was recognised as a Paralympic event,” Smith said. ”It probably didn’t have a professional attitude about it and particularly in Australia because it was so young. The athletes who were playing the game probably didn’t quite realise what it was to compete at the top level and the things you had to do … there was probably a little bit of disbelief at the things I was doing and professionals do to try and be the best. The guys started to take that on board [and realise] that if they wanted to compete at the top and try and take my position away from me that’s what they had to do and I think I helped breed a culture within the team that where we are is because of that.”
Superstar Ryley Batt has admitted that despite being part of the silver medal-winning team in Beijing, he had been disappointed with his fitness. ”Back in the day when they finished a game, guys would probably head off and have a cigarette or a pie or something like that,” Smith said. ”Those things don’t happen any more.”
Australia is one of the gold favourites in London after its silver performances in Beijing and the 2010 world championships, losing both times to the US.
As for leading the team at the opening ceremony, Smith said he was thrilled by the opportunity.
”I can’t wait to be out there with the flag flapping and 80,000 people cheering and clapping and hopefully the Queen will give me a nod and I’ll give her one back.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.