Uni Life

Young, Newcastle Paralympian’s Make Australian History

Representing your country is one thing but representing your country as a Paralympian is truly an inspiration. Laura Rumbel speaks to University of Newcastle students Dylan Littlehales and Brodie Smith who represented Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. 

Twenty-one-year-old Dylan Littlehales is a rising star in para-canoe, first making his Australian debut at the age of fifteen. Member of the Avoca kayak club, Littlehales first hit international waters in 2015 at the ICF Canoe Sprint and Para-canoe World Championships in Milan, Italy. At age 18, Littlehales went on to win his first international medal, a bronze, at the 2018 ICF Canoe Sprint and Para-canoe World Cup in Szeged, Hungary.

The young paddler from the Central Coast was born with congenital fibula hemimelia, a rare limb deficiency in his right leg but this hasn’t stopped him from representing Australia in two Paralympic Games by the age of twenty-one. Littlehales first represented Australia at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and last week missed the podium by a photo finish at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Photo Credit: Paralympics Australia

Finishing in 4th place in the Men’s 200m Kayak Single in Tokyo, Littlehales was disappointed by missing bronze by .1 of a second when Great Britain’s Rob Oliver flew out of the gates and beat the young Aussie. “Before the final, I was in third seat, half a second in front of fourth. I was going into it thinking there’s no way I’ll miss the podium here, I should be coming home with a medal.”

In contrast to most of his competitors, Littlehales is at least nine years younger and weighs ten to fifteen kilos less than his counterparts. “I’m 21 at the moment, so I’ve still got a lot of time to develop. You don’t really hit your peak in kayaking until you’re about 26-30.”

With World Championships in Canada next August, Littlehales said the goal for next year is “to definitely get on the podium and enjoy some time off for now.” Also in his 4th year of studying psychological science at UON, the young Paralympian has plans for a future career in sport psychology.

Twenty-three-year-old Brodie Smith was titled as ‘the rookie-to-watch’ at the Tokyo Paralympics and Smith did not disappoint leading the Aussie Belles into their first ever quarter final. The vision-impaired athlete from Maitland first started competing in 2018 for the Aussie Belles goalball squad. But it was her performance as the highest scorer in the World Youth Championships which led to the Australian Youth Team winning gold in Hungary in 2017 which marked her international debut. The women’s goalball event made its Paralympic debut in 1984, the sport played by people with a vision impairment, where players must wear eye-shades and peg a ball with bells in it down the court and the defending players must throw their body in front of it to stop it from being a goal.” In simpler terms, Smith describes goalball as “reverse dodgeball.”

Photo Credit: Paralympics Australia

The goalball star first started playing the sport from around the age of fourteen and hasn’t stopped since. Due to COVID restrictions, it had been 18 months since Smith had last competed. “To be able to get out on the court and compete again reminded me of why I started to play in the first place.”

The Australian Women’s Goalball team made history in Tokyo, winning their first ever Paralympic game in over 25 years against reigning world champions Russia. However, the Aussie Belle’s went down 10-6 in the quarter final against Turkey who ended up winning gold. “We didn’t give them an easy win, we made them fight for it,” said Smith.

The Aussie Belle’s left Tokyo proud of the effort they put in during the tournament. “It wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but we still had a really great tournament.”

Apart from now being a Paralympian, Smith will soon also be a teacher after finishing her degree of Secondary Education at the end of the year. “I’m hoping to get some casual teaching work starting from next year.”

With plans to possibly retire after the Tokyo games, Smith doesn’t think she can give the sport up just yet and hopes to compete in 2024 in Paris.

Feature image by Alesia Kozik via Pexels

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