After a motorcycle accident in Tamworth in 1980 left him paralysed from the waist down, Gerry Hewson didn’t think he’d re-discover the adrenaline rush of tearing around a dirt track on a two-stroke 250cc Suzuki.
And then he rolled his wheelchair to the top of Spit Road … and started on down.
Soon enough he was travelling at barely legal speeds, his lips pared back from his gums like Chevy Chase in Spies Like Us. His gloves were nearly on fire from the friction. Onlookers gasped.
This, thought Hewson, is living large.
“It was great fun,” Hewson tells Beaches Champion. “Until you had to go up the other side!”
Hewson was competing in the 1985 ‘Bridge to Breakers’ race, a half-marathon that once ran from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Manly Beach. It was televised, run by Surf Life Saving NSW as a rival to the City to Surf.
The Spit Bridge buzz was surpassed only by winning a gold medal for Australia at the 1996 Paralympic Games at Atlanta. Seeing the flag go up, signing the anthem with his team-mates … Hewson marvels to this day.
Hewson represented Australia at four Paralympic Games from 1988 in Seoul to 2000 in Sydney. He later coached the Australian women’s team to silver in Athens 2004 and bronze in Beijing 2008 – the same Games that the men’s team won gold with an 18-year-old player called Dylan Alcott.
Like Alcott, they gave Hewson the Medal of the Order of Australia. Gerry Hewson OAM. You can hang a hat on that.
Today you’ll find the man, the Godfather of Wheelchair Basketball in Australia, overseeing games at Dee Why PCYC. The Northern Beaches chapter of Wheelchair Sports NSW holds all-comers games from 4pm to 6pm every Wednesday.
And it is ‘all’ comers – from local Paralympics coaches Koen Jansens and Lisa Edmonds to a mixed bunch of devotees, young, old, male, female, able-bodied or otherwise.
Indeed without able-bodied players, the sport may not exist.
“We want to find new players for this wonderful team on the Northern Beaches,” Wheelchair Sports NSW/ACT chief executive Mick Garnett tells the Beaches Champion.
“It’s free, no equipment or experience necessary.
“We’d love to invite people living with disabilities to come rolling with us.”
The Beaches Champion had a crack one Wednesday and find ourselves strapped into a 25kg rolling bit of titanium and carbon fibre, doing our best against zippy kids, a hulking centre man shaped like a Wallabies backrower, and Garnett himself who plays every Wednesday with his 11-year-old daughter.
After five minutes of upper body exertion, rolling up and down the court, crashing into a kid from the side and being penalised (you can only get in their way front on) and launching one throw at the basket that came up, in the time-honoured way, nothing but air, Hewson smiled and said I reminded him of himself … in 1981, “just going up and down the court without a clue”.
When Hewson first turned up at wheelchair basketball the sport was largely for rehab. The chairs were like the clunkers in hospitals. Heavy metal. Yet the players whittled them down; articulated the equipment for weight, speed and balance. And they went hard.
“Guys were smashing into each other, falling out, getting up – it looked like mad fun,” Hewson says. “When you’re 22, nothing much intimidates you.”
The atmosphere at Dee Why PCYC is anything but intimidating.
It’s all-comers, all ages, all sports ability. It’s free and fun. All equipment is provided. A background in basketball would be handy but not essential. Upper body and lung workout guaranteed.
To play wheelchair basketball – or any of nine wheelchair sports from tennis to lawn bowls to AFL – check out www.wsnsw.org.au.