I wanted Sydney to be the best ever, I wanted the Australian public to witness the world’s most elite Paralympic athletes doing what we do best – competing at our highest level. I had my first chance to show my home crowd what I could do on September 28, when I took part in the 800 metres demonstration wheelchair race in Olympic Stadium – on the same track I had driven around years earlier.
Qualifying had taken place prior to the Games so this was the final. I was so nervous – the only Aussie in the race. I remember entering the stadium to a sea of colour and noise, 110,000 people watching me. In the last 200 metres, as I raced into the home straight, all I heard and felt was the crowd bringing me home to win gold.
I will never forget my victory lap, I wish I had done two, nor hearing the crowd sing the national anthem with me when I was on the dais, knowing the voices of my parents and friends were among that chorus. Nothing beats that feeling.
Three weeks later, I lit the cauldron to mark the start of the Paralympic Games. My role in the Opening Ceremony was a surprise for all, including my family. I went on to compete in three events – the 800 metres, 1500 metres and 5000 metres. I had won gold in all three at Atlanta in 1996 and the pressure I felt to defend my titles was enormous. I put most of it on myself – but I knew the public wanted it as much as I did.
The 800m was my first event. There was a crash in the first 200 metres of the final, which I managed to avoid but I finished in second place. There were protests but the race was not rerun. I went on to win gold in the 1500m and 5000m.
Sydney proved a breakthrough for the Paralympics movement. How proud was I to be Australian when the Games came to life. The media and public embraced the Games. We were seen as athletes and respected as such, and people came and enjoyed it all, the pure sport that it was. Entire schools came to the Games and the noise was deafening in the main stadium but so welcomed. Sydney became the benchmark for all future Games and the movement has grown from the success of 2000.
Sydney was the Games with a difference – because it was on my own soil. My family have supported me throughout my career – I would not have begun wheelchair racing if it were not for that first come-and-try event I attended as a child – and I will always be grateful that my parents and sister had the chance to watch me do what I do best at those Games, and to experience my sport at its highest level.
I am still navigating that track at Sydney Olympic Park, now as a coach with the NSW Institute of Sport. I revel in being part of other athletes’ journeys and helping them achieve their goals, the way I achieved mine in Sydney 20 years ago. How lucky I was to be part of the 2000 Paralympic Games and to still reap the legacy those games left behind.