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Louise Sauvage with Ian Heads
'I never thought of myself as being different, or disadvantaged. I'm just me - the way I am. The circumstances of my life put me in a wheelchair - but it has been my own efforts that have taken me around the world, and to the successes I have had.'
Not only is Louise Sauvage perhaps Australia's most famous sportsperson with a disability, she is also one of the greatest track athletes this country has ever produced. In Sydney in 2000 she became a household name after winning a gold medal in the 800-metre wheelchair demonstration race at the Olympic Games and two golds and a silver at the Paralympics. But Louise Sauvage had already been a professional athlete for a decade, competing internationally at the top level of her sport. She was involved in sport in one way or another from the age of three, 'when a Perth mother had trundled her daughter along to a neighbourhood swimming pool a couple of days a week. Just for some exercise and therapy.'
Louise was born with a severe spinal disability called myelodysplasia, which inhibits the function of the lower half of the body, giving limited control over the legs. As her mother Rita puts it, ‘"She had one leg underneath her and one over the top, right up to her shoulder. That's how she was born ... She was four and a half hours old when they gently pulled her leg down. It snapped like a piece of cheese."’ Louise would undergo over twenty operations before the age of ten.
She followed her elder sister Ann into sport, and both of them became stars of the pool, with Louise the only member of their swimming club with a disability. Her sporting involvement went from strength to strength, and she became involved in everything - swimming, basketball and a range of track and field events - competing at national championships and succeeding brilliantly at every sport she took on.
But this vital aspect of her life was suddenly put on hold in 1987 and 1988, a time she describes as 'the worst years of my life'. The scoliosis (progressive spinal curvature) that she suffered from was worsening, and at age fourteen it became necessary for her to have metal rods inserted in her back. What should have been two operations turned into three when one of them went wrong, and lying for months in a hospital bed she started to wonder whether she would ever be able to participate in sport again. For someone as active as Louise it was absolute hell.
Through sheer determination and willpower Louise made an incredible recovery, although the rods in her back now meant that competitive swimming was out for her - so she turned her focus to the track. By 1990 she was competing in her first international competition, the World Championships in Assen, Holland. It was after winning gold and setting a new world record at these games that she made a brave decision that would affect the rest of her life: to make sport her full-time career. Two years later she was representing Australia at the Barcelona Paralympic Games, and arrived home with two golds and a silver to experience her first taste of sports stardom, including an Order of Australia Medal. (She would win countless other awards over the coming years.)
From that point the only way for Louise was up. The next year was her first on the international racing circuit, which meant constant travel to track meets and road races, many of them in the USA and Europe - the pinnacle being the world-famous Boston Marathon. It was in this race that Louise was destined to break the stranglehold of the 'Queen of Boston', US racer Jean Driscoll, when she recorded her first victory in 1997. She went on to win a further three Boston titles in 1998, 1999 and 2001. The undisputed highlight was the unbelievable 'photo finish' in 1998, when she beat Jean by a whisker - one of the greatest moments of Louise's career, and one of the most exciting ends to a race in the history of sport. Another proud moment was winning her first gold medal at the Barcelona Paralympic Games, her first of nine gold and two silver from three Paralympics. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta also hold special memories - Atlanta was where Louise won her first Olympic gold medal in the women's wheelchair demonstration event and the only gold medal for Australia on the track.
But this was nothing compared with the reception that would greet Louise at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. 'Making my challenge with 150 metres to go, out in Lane 3 on the brick-red Stadium Australia track, I felt as if I was almost picked up and bowled along by the roar of the crowd, the breath of the crowd. Almost literally, they propelled me to the line ... to the gold.' She went on to win three more medals at the Paralympics. Two of them were gold, but it was her controversial silver medal that garnered all the headlines, when half the field in the 800 metres final crashed and the Canadian team successfully appealed against the decision to rerun the race. Louise came second to her arch-rival Chantal Petitclerc.
Louise kept a diary throughout the Games, and it is one of the most fascinating parts of her revealing autobiography, which was co-written with journalist and author Ian Heads. The diary reveals the enormous pressure Louise was under during that period, and offers a unique insight into what it means to be an elite athlete in this country. 'Rereading this diary for the first time', she writes a year later, 'I honestly can't believe just how much I seemed to see everything in a negative light.'
For all her success, there have been many obstacles along the way, both for Louise personally and for the cause of athletes with a disability in general. At the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1994, head Australian official Arthur Tunstall called the presence of athletes with a disability ‘"an embarrassment to both sides ... people are going out of their way to assist them and able people are a little bit embarrassed to have them around"’. Despite the storm of protests from the media, the words lingered in many people's minds. (Louise was not a competitor at those Commonwealth Games, as an event for female wheelchair racers was not part of the program. However, she won silver in the 800 metres women's wheelchair race at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, the first major able-bodied competition where full medal events were offered for elite athletes with a disability.) And two years later, at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Louise says that 'I felt like a second-class citizen for the first time in my life. The Paralympic Games appeared to be no more than an afterthought for the city in the wake of the Olympics ... Even the American athletes were ashamed of what their country had turned on!'
It was only with the intense adulation given to all athletes participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games that sport for athletes with a disability in Australia even began to approach the profile it deserves. And Louise was in the vanguard. She has played a massive role in helping to change people's views, and earn athletes with a disability the same level of respect as their able-bodied counterparts. As Louise's great friend Ros Shaw puts it: ‘"It's Louise who has been the role model, the front-runner of everyone involved in sport for people with disabilities. As soon as someone says 'wheelchair athlete' people think of Louie. If any able-bodied athlete had done what she has done - winning over all distances, road and track - they'd be an absolute world superstar now."’
Louise Sauvage is without doubt one of Australia's most talented athletes ever. But just as impressive as her undisputed ability are her humility, determination and tremendous will to succeed - qualities that get her up every morning without fail, rain or shine, for another gruelling training session; qualities that see her through those final metres of a 42-kilometre marathon, her hands red raw from pushing her chair; qualities that help her travel the world year after year, coping with constant frustration, loneliness and isolation; and qualities that make her a ceaseless champion for the cause of athletes with a disability, and people with a disability generally. In the face of constant setbacks, she has refused to let her disability get in her way. She truly lives out the message that appears on the Sydney Harbour Supercat named in her honour last year:
'You'll never know what you can do or achieve until you try.'
"Louise Sauvage - My Story" is published as a paperback edition by Harper Sports, and is available from bookshops and online at Louise's web site.
Related article: Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games - Meet Our Paralympians.
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