Elderly Aboriginal man posing for camera in front of black background

IT WAS THE CLICK OF A GUN WHICH CHANGED HIS LIFE FOREVER, BUT THE JOURNEY FROM THE BUSH TO PARALYMPICS TRAILBLAZER IS ONE OF GROWING BOLD IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY FOR ORDER OF AUSTRALIA MEDAL RECIPIENT, UNCLE KEVIN COOMBES.

Speaking with journalist Pete Timbs on Feros Care’s Grow Bold with Disability Podcast, the Wotjobaluk Elder and proud and prominent member of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community tracked his path through struggle and success, and how basketball changed his life.

But every story has a beginning, and Kevin’s as he knows it took shape when hunting in country Victoria in 1953, when the crack of a gun left him a paraplegic.

I was 12, my cousin was 14, and there were two nine-year-olds with us,” Kevin said.

“We all came from Balranald across the New South Wales border from Swan Hill, and we’d all go shooting rabbits. We had a rest, and a little bloke came along and started playing with my gun.

“I heard it go ‘click’, and I said to myself, ‘I think I left a bullet in that’. Sure enough, I did leave a bullet in it and it hit me in the back; it came out just between the ribs on my left side and just missed my heart. I was lucky to be alive really.”

Far from town and in and out of consciousness, an uncle of Kevin’s was able to reach him, taking him to Balranald hospital, before he was transferred to Swan Hill.

Kevin already knew his paraplegic diagnosis but surviving the grimmest of odds and over two years without seeing family and friends was a journey he could never have prepared for.

“It was pretty terrible… I had 24 stitches in my stomach, and for me to pass urine, the doctor had to do handstands on my stomach as there were no catheters,” he said.

“They sent me to Melbourne because I had bedsores which could get into my bloodstream and kill me. So, I went and didn’t see another black face for two-and-a-half years; it was pretty hard.

“I didn’t know much about paraplegia in those days, and if you had a spinal injury back then, you’d live for only about five weeks, yet here I am 60 odd years later.”

While modern times have given passage for a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support networks and organisations, even the word “disability” was as foreign as they come in Kevin’s community during the 1950s and subsequent years.

HOW UNCLE KEVIN’S PATH LED HIM TO THE BASKETBALL COURT AND FUTURE PARALYMPICS GLORY

Although in a wheelchair, Kevin wasn’t seen as disabled as he worked, particularly with Aboriginal hostels for about 19 years. However, in 1981, the international year for disability, Kevin was added to a National Committee fighting for rights of Aboriginals; placing him on his future path.

“Basketball was part of the rehab at Austin Hospital, and because there wasn’t any place I could go in Melbourne; I didn’t know anyone, there weren’t any hostels around in those days, so, I’d go over there and practice after their program had finished,” Kevin said.

“That’s how I got into basketball. They had a Championship in Melbourne in 1960, and myself, and my mate were selected to go to Rome in 1960; the very first Paralympic Games.”

Not only was Kevin in the first Paralympics, but he also owns the honour of being the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Paralympian to represent Australia.

Referring to the Paralympics as a “big family”, Kevin would also represent Australia in 1968 in Israel, after forgoing selection in 1964, when he was “chasing girls”.

Kevin would go on to captain the Australian side at the 1972 Paralympics, as well as the 1974 Commonwealth Games, before retiring after his fifth Paralympics in 1984.

“I wanted to travel and see the world,” Kevin said. “I’ve been to America, England, Europe… there’s nothing better than sitting in a boat, travelling down the Rhine and sipping a nice white wine.”

Travelling the world and playing the sport he loves brought plenty of joy and fulfillment, but off the court, things weren’t as initially rewarding for Kevin.

A resume underpinned with national representation and Paralympics pride afforded no professional concession for Kevin, who found employment pathways and options for a young Aboriginal man in a wheelchair in the 1960s and subsequent times hard to navigate.

“One of my mates, who was also in a wheelchair got me my first job, and I worked for him for 12 months until they moved and I couldn’t drive out there and back every day,” Kevin said.

“I got a job as a sales representative selling anything to do with printers, and I did that for 15 years.”

Finding his way, Kevin went on to spend 39 years in the workforce, 25 of which was spent with the government in Human Services and Health.

It was through his efforts and contributions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare during that period and disabled sport, which saw Kevin receive his Order of Australia.

“It was a great career, and basketball opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I played in five Paralympics, so Basketball Australia was a marvellous thing to be part of then.

“When I became a Hall of Famer, I was going through a bad time with health and wanted one of my girls to get my award, but she said, ‘I want you to go, you are the person that deserves this, not me’.

“I was glad; it was a great night, and it’s been a great career as part of the Paralympic family.”

GIANT STRIDES MADE IN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND ACCEPTANCE OF ATHLETES WITH DISABILITY PLEASING FOR TRAILBLAZER, UNCLE KEVIN COOMBES

Part of that journey with the Paralympic family has been the satisfaction in seeing the giant strides made in society’s support and acknowledgement of disabled athletes during his career and beyond.

Where once Kevin and his cohort would have to “go begging” for funding while rattling tins outside Victorian Football League (VFL, now AFL) games, he said progression has seen things turn around greatly.

“It’s about progression and it’s very pleasing to see,” he said. “I have never been as proud as when I was involved in the organising committee for Sydney 2000. To see the first wheelchair basketball game we played, and to have something like 22,000 people at the game, was just unbelievable.”

“I also carried the torch inside the (Olympic) Stadium and was one athlete who alongside the likes of Dawn Fraser and Marjorie Jackson who had streets named after them in Sydney for the Games.”

Having carried the torch, its metaphorical passing to the likes of wheelchair racer Kurt Fearnley and the next generation of athletes with disability which has brought Kevin joy, contributing to his overall journey of growing bold and reaching his goals.

“I’ve got the utmost respect for Kurt… I remember seeing him as a 10-year-old, and I thought, ‘this bloke is going to be a superstar’, Kevin said. “It turned out I was right, but I’ve always been very confident in what I do, and I’ve always been pretty bold and not backwards in coming forward.

“If I see something out of place or people doing the wrong thing, I’ll tell them, so, I suppose that’s being bold.”

TO LISTEN TO THE FULL GROWING BOLD AND DISABILITY WITHIN THE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY, CLICK HERE.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO OTHER EPISODES FROM SEASON TWO OF OUR GROW BOLD WITH DISABILITY PODCAST.

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