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Smashing through barriers

Everyone has plans when they're younger and it's very rare that those plans come to fruition exactly as you had imagined them. Plans change and that’s okay.”

Picture an athlete propelling their wheelchair across a basketball court in six seconds. Now picture them aiming the chair at you. And it’s your job to stop them.


This is just another day on the court for James McQuillan. James is the last line of defence in the Australian Steelers World Champion wheelchair rugby team.


“The game is hard to describe,” he tells ANZ News. “It’s like a combination of rugby, ice hockey, basketball and handball.”


The fact James, who works in ANZ’s Commercial division, plays sport at the highest level is something of a miracle and a triumph of hope over adversity given the tragic sporting injury he suffered nine years ago which left him a quadriplegic. It was unclear whether James would ever move again, let alone return to sport after an on-field collision left him with a broken neck.


However after years of rehabilitation and hard work he was again keen to get active towards the end of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2021. He contacted Jason Lees, who ran the Melbourne wheelchair rugby competition, and agreed to fill in for a Monday night game.


At that first October local game, Jason liked what he saw and asked James to come back. After a couple of weeks James was being asked to train with the Australian team.

A lifelong Essendon Football Club fan, the training venue happened to be “The Hanger” – the training facilities Essendon shares with Paralympics Australia.


Within four months he was flying to Texas with the Australian Development team to play in a tournament against The Texas Stampede state team. A couple of months later he was on a plane to Europe where he played his first of games for Australia.


Eleven months after taking up the sport he was playing in the World Championship Final against the USA – and winning. From novice to World Champion in just over 11 months.


“Being able to return to competitive sport and play at the highest level has been a great challenge but without a doubt one of the highlights of this journey has been the people I have met and the connections I have made.”


James’ disability is a C5 complete quadriplegic and his classification in wheelchair rugby is as a 0.5 player. This means he plays a mostly defensive role – trying to create space for the attacking players who do the majority of the passing and ball carrying. The aim is simple. To get the ball to the end of the court. But there is so much more to it than that.


Tragedy strikes


As a young bloke growing up on a dairy farm in Nanneella – about 20 minutes southeast of Echuca - James always loved sport. He loved playing football in winter and cricket in the summer and as a child he dreamt of playing AFL at Essendon and cricket for Australia.


But seven minutes into the second quarter of the first game of the 2014 season in Albury, his life changed forever. Putting his head over the ball he collided with an opposition players leg. The C5 vertebrae in James’ neck shattered and was pushed back into his spinal cord.


The traumatic spinal cord injury left him with lying motionless on the field unable to move anything from the chest down. The severity of his injuries was still unknown.


James was taken to Albury Base Hospital and then flown to Melbourne. He would spend five days in intensive care, five weeks at the Austin Hospital and almost a year in rehabilitation at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation facility in Kew. While the mental battle was the hardest part, the support of family and friends was key.


“All the things I had planned were now in question. Is my beautiful partner Kathryn going to want to be with someone with disability? I'm not sure. Will I be able to finish my physiotherapy degree? I’m not sure. Am I going to be able to travel and see the world? I’m not sure. Will I be able to have a family? I’m not sure. All of these great hopes I had for my life are turned upside down in a split second and my life is now a series of unknowns.”


James was also able to reframe his situation with the support of a friend, Simon McCormick who at the time was working as a chaplain at an AFL club in Melbourne. “I had a great conversation with Simon and he laid it out for me very simply. Everyone has plans when they're younger and it's very rare that those plans come to fruition exactly as you had imagined them.”


“Plans change and that’s okay. My plans were going to have to change but I was still capable of having a great life and I was still going to be able to have great friends and great family around me.”


In those early days it was a spark which changed things. In 2019 James and Kathryn travelled to Europe for eight months, a trip he wasn’t sure would be possible after his injury. In the same week he paraglided above the Swiss Alps he proposed to his childhood sweetheart in front of Switzerland's highest waterfall. The couple married last year.


Creating space


On the sporting field, James also learned from watching Melbourne Demons defender Steven May. The Premiership player helped teach James how to “use space” while playing wheelchair rugby.


My wife and her family are Melbourne Demons tragics, so I found myself watching a lot of Melbourne Demons games. I enjoyed watching the way their defensive zone works. I watched Stephen May and the way he moves and the way he's in control of their set up.”


He was directing traffic and reading the play. The way he would make sure his teammates were in the right position is a concept I’ve tried to incorporate into my rugby.”

Whether it’s on the court or in day-to-day life, James has become a master at navigating the space around him. It’s also given him confidence to advocate for more services for people with disabilities.


If James wants to go to the MCG, the two nearest tram lines are not accessible. So he has to ride his electric bike to the nearest train station at Camberwell. But most Melbourne train platforms are not the same height as the floor of the train carriage, meaning wheelchair users must wait to be let on and off by the driver with a ramp.


“I've had examples of getting on the train, telling the driver my destination, the driver forgetting about me and me ending up at Flinders Street Station. If all the stops were accessible that wouldn’t happen


“When you think about it, everyone is only temporarily able bodied. Whether it’s through a traumatic accident like mine or something that will heal like a broken ankle. Whether you’re born with a disability or your disability comes to you through old age – we can all benefit from having a barrier-free community. So why shouldn’t we?”


For someone who has had to work so hard, James is good at counting his blessings – be it marrying his sweetheart, appreciating mates and family, giving back through advocacy or excelling on the court.


Beckoning him now is the chance to play in the Paralympic Games in Paris next year. And having achieved everything he has since his injury, it would be a brave person to bet against James and the Australian Steelers taking out the wheelchair rugby gold medal.


Jeff Whalley is a Journalist at ANZ.

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