Meet Our 2018
Stacey was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was three months old and her parents were told by their doctor that she would never walk or talk; that she would have an intellectual disability; that she would be a burden and that one of their options was to put her in an institution.
But “thank god they didn’t listen to him” says Stacey “because right now I’d probably be in a grey walled room rocking in the corner”. She can’t believe that only 39 years ago her parents were given the option of ‘sweeping her under the rug’.
But her parents loved her instantly and she knows there was no way they would have given her up; they have given her unconditional love her whole life. “My parents have made me who I am, they are why I’m me. It’s not just genes. They have been tough, they never let me give up and when I failed, I had to do things again. Not in a hardcore way, they just know I could be better that’s why I’m not a soft-cock”.
Stacey comes from a sporty family, her father Andy Roche is an elite athlete and competed as an Olympic style wrestler in the 1974 Commonwealth games, so Stacey says competition is in her blood.
Primary school was an enjoyable time for Stacey “when I got to school I saw all the other kids walking and running and I wanted to as well” So she started walking at 6 years old. She has continually surpassed all the milestones association with cerebral palsy. But secondary school was a different story “secondary school tends to be tough for everyone, but add cerebral palsy into the mix and it’s never going to end well” She says “I was alone a lot but it was good for me, I learnt to be on my own and to be OK with it”.
Stacey says “it’s frustrating that when people meet me, because their perception is always that I’m f***ed in the head”. I have two minutes to prove to people that I’m on an even keel intellectually; it’s pretty exhausting, like going to a job interview every time you meet someone new. I wish I could wear a CV around my neck saying that I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree, that I own my own home, and that I have a successful career”
Stacey is a competitive Boccia player (Boccia is like lawn bowls) and represented New Zealand at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. Boccia opened up a whole new world for her “I would give mainstream sports a go and try my best, but I always finished last; starting to play Boccia and winning was like a powerful drug for me, it made me more confident and outgoing, it helped me believe in myself and I was achieving things, not just turning up”. Boccia took her around the world, from New York City to South Korea.
Stacey and her team kept improving and brought themselves into the realm of being medal prospects. Stacey desperately wanted to win a Paralympic medal, and the lonely days of high school turned out to be excellent training because when she was studying at University she would get up in the morning, and train five hours a day by herself in a gloomy, cold hall in the Waikato. “That’s what you do when you want to be the best”.
At 22 years old, Stacey was made team captain for the Sydney Paralympics and it was the best and worst time of her life and she has the tattoo to show for it because “I’m a bit of a show-pony” she says. She was the only female and the youngest player by 20 years, “there was so much pressure and it was the first time it got so much coverage because the late Paul Holmes bankrolled the coverage and brought it on to New Zealand TV, and he even did an interview with me”. “The Aussies put on an amazing show; we stayed in the same rooms, we wore the same uniforms and we ate the same food at the Olympians. It felt like we were real athletes.
The opening ceremony was indescribable – “the hairs on my neck still stand up when I think about it”. There were 100,000 people cheering for us, I just had this feeling of “I made it, I got here, everything just hit me so hard and I will never forget it” Stacey says.
Fast-forward 10 days to the day she calls “the biggest heartbreak of my life”. They were playing South Korea to get into the finals and for the first half of the game “we were getting murdered”. But she and her team pulled it back slowly, with two balls left in the game, both of which were both Stacey’s. She got the first shot onto the white, and the second missed by a millimeter. It took a lifetime for the officials to measure it to see if they would go to a tie-breaker and they did. During that time though the South Korean team had a chance to regroup and pull themselves back together and then they blew Stacey and her team off the park. She still has nightmares about it “I just wonder how my life might have changed, being so close to a Paralympic medal, to be honest it would have been easier to come last”.
Stacey hung up her competitive Boccia ‘balls’ in 2002, and concentrated on her career. “It was too hard to keep up the intensity of training, and I needed my career to pay my bills” Stacey’s first job was as a needs accessor for an agency supporting disabled people, then three years later I started work with the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation.
I never looked back after getting that job, I was with them for 11 years, till last year when I moved from Auckland to Tauranga. It was clear that my body was losing function from sitting in an office all day, a common saying in the disability world is “Use it or lose it” and I wasn’t ready to contemplate life with any less function so I chose to move to Mount Maunganui and am concentrating on my as well as sitting on the boards of the Attitude Awards, Parafed Bay of Plenty (who are running the Bayfair Festival of Disability Sport), and the Tauranga City Council Disability Advisory Board.
One of her top priorities is coaching Boccia. There was a real gap with what sports were being offered for people with “significant impairments”. In Boccia, people’s disabilities are classified according to a spectrum and she laughs that she is classified amongst the most able “it’s kind of ironic because I’m a bit of a munter”. She says that Wheelchair Basketball and Rugby are the sexy sports, she laughs that she is “trying to bring sexy back to the Bay with Boccia”.
When asked what her coaching style is, she says “I don’t do happy clappy kumbaya coaching, I concentrate on winning. Some players have had to adjust to cope with my coaching strategy, but I think it’s needed in the disability world. People with more significant disabilities don’t get pushed, it seems that ‘trying hard’ and ‘doing your best’ is good enough ‘tralala’. But I talk to my players about how to win and we work hard and the players appreciate my hard-arsed non-namby pamby style.
When asked what she says to people out there with disabilities who aren’t involved with sports? “Get off your arse, why aren’t you doing it? Because any one can. If you don’t believe in yourself no-one will”. And she says to feel free to call her for a pep talk if you wish.
When asked what she would do if she was not disabled, she said she would go for a walk on the beach. But she says she never tortures herself with thoughts like that “You can only control as much as you can control so f*** it, you’ve just got to live the life you have”.
And Stacey continues to push her capabilities. She’s a bit of a party-animal but has only been able to dance in her wheelchair. She was at a party recently where she couldn’t take her wheelchair in, and she said the music was so good she thought “I can do this”. At the beginning, she held her sisters arm, then let go and danced all night. We can’t wait to see her bust some moves at the Awards Celebration during the festival!
Blind Sports Ambassador
I started the Bay of Plenty Blind Sports Club because I was frustrated with the lack of adaptable sports being offered in Tauranga for the blind community - it was pretty much just cups of tea for old people!
I managed to con a few people to come along to see how sports can be altered for the blind. My brother is also visually impaired and plays a lot of sport in Auckland so he bought a few friends down one weekend to show us how things could work.
I have 3% sight in my field of vision, which means I can only see clearly about the size of a pin-head straight ahead. I have reading glasses because just like everyone else, that 3% degenerates as I get older too.
As I walk my eyes move all over the place because I’m trying to scan the area and take everything in. I’m sure it looks unusual because I don’t use a cane and don’t have a dog, people wouldn’t realise I have anything wrong with my eyes.
My parents took me to get my eyes checked when I was about three because I was just so clumsy, I was tripping over everything. My brother has the same condition as both our parents are carriers of a specific gene.
People that I’ve worked with for years didn’t even know I was blind until I started fundraising in the office to raise money for blind sports. I don’t really tell anyone because I’m pretty independent and stubborn; I try my best not to let it limit me too much.
If I could educate the general public on anything it would be that there are so many different types of blindness, not all blind people have guide dogs, or use white canes and not everyone is completely blind.
One of the biggest limitations is that of course we can’t drive, so we are very reliant on other people and on public transport, which isn’t that great around here. We understand that getting out and doing things can take so much effort that its often easier to stay home. But by getting involved with Blind Sports and meeting other people, we can work together to solve these problems.
It’s helpful to catch up with other blind people because often you don’t hear about different funding or support that may be out there. There’s a lot of help out there if you know where to go.
There are lots of people doing amazing things despite their blindness or low vision. I know I really like meeting people like this, it helps me to overcome more obstacles. It’s easy to wrap ourselves in cotton wool, and for others to wrap ourselves in cotton wool, but just like everyone else, we can do so much more than we think! I walked the Tongariro Crossing recently it was an awesome achievement to do that!
Sometimes it can be hard for parents to let their kids go as they want to protect them. Once they see that are sports are all totally adapted for the blind they soon start to let go of the apron strings and let the kids do things by themselves. Sports can give kids such independence…….whether you’re visually impaired or not!
We have about 350 people on our database from between Katikati and Te Puke, and we encourage anyone with sight issues to get in touch. We are really open to new ideas. Call us!
Wheelchair Rugby Ambassador
“How people speak about you after you’ve broken your neck is a bit like eulogies at a funeral – everyone blows wind up your butt!” says Neil, who broke his neck playing rugby 30 years ago. He hears himself tell his own well-worn story and wonders, was I really that good or was it just hype?
At 17 years old, Neil was a promising rugby player, and was two weeks away from trialing for the NZ Secondary Schools team when he broke his neck playing rugby. The year before he had missed an NZ U19 team – they said he was too young and they picked Josh Cronfield. Neil says it’s been interesting watching Josh’s career and wondering what might have happened.
But no matter how much he tries to play it down, Neil sounded like a star. He was a talented rugby player, he had after-school jobs that allowed him to buy two cars and he was chair of the school council. He lived in Turangi and he says “if you’re going to break your neck, then living in New Zealand, playing rugby and coming from a small town the best place for it to happen. The community rallied around my family and I; they set up a trust and helped me get an adapted car amongst many other things helped me and believed in me to get on with it”.
Neil doesn’t recall feeling sorry for himself, he quickly he started to look ahead rather than behind and recalls a nurse saying “Neil, it’s been two weeks since your accident and you haven’t had that moment where the reality of the situation hits you”. Neil said he quite quickly turned his mind to how he would be able to represent NZ at the Paralympics. Neil only remembers crying twice, first when he told his Mum he was sorry.
Neil started to play wheelchair rugby quite soon after his accident, when he was only marginally able to use a power chair. At school he was used to being picked first for a team, but this time he was picked last and was useless on court – that night alone in bed was the second time. He said it was a tough but a transformative moment in his life; experiencing both sides of the popularity spectrum. This is something he instils in his children, to have empathy for both sides, and not to focus only on winning because eventually there will be someone better than you. Neil says “you just can’t get carried away with yourself because you just never know what is around the corner”.
He is pleased it came natural to him to keep fit, and it’s so important to keep on top of health, because when you have so little functionality, if you lose something, like hurt one muscle, then it can seriously affect your mobility. It’s a fine line though, because those times he’s worked hard towards a goal and he has gone too far and hurt himself. He says, “I’m getting better at looking after my body but it’s not easy”. He says he is most often in a little bubble and doesn’t think about his disability – it’s just how I am now, but every now and then he catches a glimpse of himself in a shop window and realises why people treat him like they do”.
While he was in the spinal unit, he was wheeled over to the gym and he saw people playing Wheelchair Rugby and he knew instantly that this was the game for him. He expected he would play for New Zealand, and he would push and push, often over 10km’s a day which would take up to six hours. Neil never qualified to represent New Zealand and in hindsight perhaps he spread himself too thin. Because of his physical limitations, Neil was determined to use his brain to the best of his ability. “I loved being physical, but I also started University and it was probably too much”. In those days, the University facilities weren’t easy for a tetraplegic, the hostel was an old army barrack and he kept getting sick including getting pneumonia, which isn’t surprising when you learn he was showering in bathrooms that didn’t have complete windows, so it was literally freezing in winter.
It took Neil three years to pass the first year of his Bachelor of Technology, and seven years to complete his four-year Bachelor of Technology Degree, majoring in Product Development.
Neil was fiercely independent both before and after his accident, he was adamant that he wouldn’t end up living with him Mum for the rest of his life, which meant he had to work hard to gain his independence. And to be independent as a tetraplegic often means asking for help from friends and strangers. He says initially a problem for him, after a while realizing people are always happy to help him and he’s grateful for that.
Neil met his wife at University, and after finding the 9-5 grind of work too difficult on his health, he started dabbling in property development, which he still does to this day. The houses Neil designs and builds through his company Cudby Homes aren’t built for disabled people, they are homes anyone can live in. Neil says ‘be accessible to everything gives the houses a really nice feel that able-bodied people appreciate too, they perform better for a wider population”
Neil is careful not to tell people what to do or how to live their lives because “who says my way is right? You have to live in a way that’s right for you”. But he is an impressive person, for example he was one three people with spinal injuries to be the first in the world to hand cycle 1000kms to Everest base camp, an absolutely incredible achievement.
When asked what his advice is to anyone with a disability who is not currently playing sports? He says “I know there are barriers to people with disabilities playing sports, some are in their heads and others are legitimate logistical issues. When you have or acquire a disability you experience a lot of rejection and failure so it’s hard to put yourself out there in front of others. But I encourage people to give us a call and to come along and keep coming. We will find a way to get you into a sport that suits. There are so many opportunities and pathways thanks to Parafed BOP” Sport makes you strong in so many ways.
As for the festival, Neil is excited about the players and their supporters coming along and says “we expect to see a lot of people from the disability sector, but also the general public too. Wheelchair sports in particular are incredibly exciting to watch and we have many able-bodied people following Wheelchair Rugby because it’s really physical and noisy”.
Neil is on the board of Parafed and says it offers for people with disabilities the option to play and stay at the social level, or to choose to take a pathway that can lead to the Paralympics.
Neil says “I absolutely loved playing Wheelchair Rugby and now I love coaching. It is so stimulating, and I feel such an array of emotions. Being a coach still feels a bit like being an athlete, I’m still trying to get the best out of myself. And I love being a part of the team; as long as they want me to coach, I’ll be there, there is still so much for me to learn”
The festival is a great opportunity to check out the four sports codes that are playing: Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Basketball, Boccia and Blind Sports. Attending the Paralympics and ACC open day on the Sunday is a great way to find out what is available too. “I’m really excited to be a part of the Parafed Board that are helping pull this together. We believe it will grow and grow each year” says Neil.
Wheelchair Basketball Ambassador
Johnny Sligo aka ‘Johnny Blaze’
Just when his future was looking bright his health has taken a turn for the worst, and he recently had his left leg amputated.
All about Johnny
When Johnny was born he was a healthy and boisterous child, but at six months his parents noticed a lump on his back. This turned out to be a fibromatosis tumour growing in his spinal cord and has caused a raft of physiological and physical impairments throughout his life. At one stage, his family was told he wouldn’t reach his next birthday, and in 2012 Johnny was so ill he thought he would die; in the very ward he’s back in now recovering from his leg amputation.
Having one of Johnny’s health issues would be a challenge for anyone. He has nerve damage from the tumour that has left his leg partly paralysed and also shorter, which has led to major ankle and foot issues. He had 18 months of chemotherapy when he was four which had affected his physiology. He had a 2.5kg tumor removed from his abdomen, which caused bowel problems, that were especially problematic in his teens and terrible for his confidence. He has had numerous stents in his aorta, none of which have worked, so he has had two Bifemural Aortic Bypasses – which means you can clearly see two hoses down his sides underneath his skin. Johnny lives in constant pain, particularly in his back.
Strong in the face of adversity
Despite relentless health issues, Johnny has accomplished so much and has experienced the best health of his life in the last two years; life was looking bright! He studied and worked in the accountancy field, and is now pursuing his passion for sport by completing a Bachelor of Sport and Recreation, and in typical fashion he is getting straight As.
In the last two years, Johnny has dropped 20 kgs and committed to a rigorous training programme including swimming, weight training and wheelchair sport. He also has a passion for nutrition, living a healthy lifestyle, and an unwavering commitment to his studies.
“Johnny makes a massive contribution as an athlete, advocate and coach, and as a board member of Parafed Bay of Plenty, which develops sporting opportunities for people with physical disabilities,” says Ian McDonald, Executive Officer of Parafed.
Friend and fellow wheelchair athlete Amanda Lowry agrees.
“It’s amazing to have Johnny bring the high-performance element into disability sport through his studies, he is so generous with his knowledge. He’s lifting the profile and skill level of disabled sport, and that makes him a legend in my eyes.”
Disaster strikes during Wheelchair Basketball Championships
But disaster struck on the 23rd of September this year, after the National Wheelchair Basketball Championships in Tauranga, when Johnny experienced tingling then numbness in his foot. There was a blood clot in his groin which escalated so quickly it resulted in two risky eight-hour operation to try to save his leg. But it wasn’t to be.
“I was in so much pain, I could feel my body fighting and dying at the same time; I’m just so happy to be alive,” says Johnny who admits he’s still not sure how he feels about losing his leg.
His family and friends are proud of Johnny’s attitude.
“I don’t know why these things happen to such a good person but Johnny just deals with whatever gets chucked at him; he never complains about being sore even though he lives with pain every day,” says Karl Austin, his best friend from childhood. “He’d told me he would have to chop some fingers off to be eligible for the paralympics, so we have had a chuckle that losing a leg will definitely do it!”
Johnny took up wheelchair sport a couple of years ago, but wishes he had sooner. “I just didn't want to see myself as disabled, but now wheelchair sport is the one thing that makes me feel unstoppable, no one is better, no one is faster, no one can beat me. It’s everything to me.”
Johnny’s adamant this latest setback won’t disrupt his studies, despite having a long recovery and adjustment period ahead, and he will definitely be looking into his eligibility for the Paralympics and of course the Bayfair Festival of Disability Sports in March 2018.