The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games will have the biggest para-sport program in history: here’s what you need to know

Danni Di Toro has pretty much done it all in his 30-year sports career.

The 47-year-old has competed in seven Paralympic Games in two different sports, co-captaining the team twice, winning Paralympic silver and bronze and winning multiple wheelchair tennis Grand Slam titles rolling.

It is therefore remarkable that the beloved member of the Australian Paralympic team can still mark a first in her career, as she prepares for her first Commonwealth Games.

Di Toro is delighted to have a new experience at Birmingham.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

“To actually be able to have a real rookie experience in something is really cool and super refreshing,” Di Toro told ABC Sport.

“Any opportunity to be exposed, to get more people to see what we do, if that gets people with disabilities involved in sport, that’s amazing.

While the Paralympic Games are the premier elite sport competition for athletes with a disability, the Commonwealth Games are the only multi-sport event with an integrated para-sport program.

Manchester 2002 was the first Games to include this element, with 10 events.

This increases with each Games, and Birmingham will have the largest para-sport component in history, across eight sports and 42 events.

This is a significantly reduced schedule compared to the Paralympic Games, which means there are not as many classifications available and a smaller number of events in the selected sports.

Check out our guide to Tokyo Paralympic Games classifications.

Australia will send a record number of 74 para-athletes, alongside eight guides, pilots and managers, with representation in each of the eight sports.

Australians in action in Birmingham

Paralympic gold medalist smiling with the Australian flag after winning gold in the women's marathon
Madison de Rozario will be one of the biggest names in the Australian team. (Getty Images: Alex Davidson)
  • Para-athletics: TTwo-time defending champion Madison de Rozario will headline the Australian squad alongside Evan O’Hanlon.
  • Para-track cycling: Jess Gallagher was the first Australian athlete to win medals at both the Winter and Summer Paralympics. She will participate in the event in tandem with her guide, while Beau Wootton and his guide will participate in the men’s event.
  • Para lawn bowling: Defending champion Jake Fehlberg is one of six Para “Jackaroos” on the team.
  • Para-powerlifting: Hani Watson and Ben Wright will carry Australia’s hopes in a sport where competitors’ upper body strength is put to the ultimate test.
  • Para-table tennis: Di Toro is one of six Australian athletes, including Chinese-born Paralympic superstars Ma Lin, Lina Lei and Qian Yang.
  • Para-swimming: This will be Ellie Cole’s last meeting before retiring while William Martin, Col Pearse and Katja Dedekind are part of an exciting generation of rising stars.
  • Paratriathlon: Gerard Gosens, Sam Harding, Jonathan Goerlach and Erica Burleigh will participate in the debut of the para triathlon category for the visually impaired.
  • Wheelchair Basketball 3×3: This is the first time that the condensed versions of basketball and wheelchair basketball have been included in the Games.

Di Toro the beating heart of the Paralympic team

Paralympic athletes with arms around each other smiling for a photo
Di Toro (right) led the team alongside wheelchair rugby star Ryley Batt (left) at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.(PA: Dan Himbrechts)

Di Toro will compete in para table tennis, a sport she only started in 2015, after a successful career in wheelchair tennis.

But her appeal extends far beyond the playing arena – she is the heart and soul of the Australian Paralympic Team and is one of the key figures responsible for shaping its current culture, alongside its Rio 2016 co-captain Kurt Fearnley and Chef de Mission Kate McLoughlin. .

“We want to feel like we’re part of something bigger than our own moment or outcome,” she said.

“And that feeling has always been there, but there’s never really been a language around it, and there’s never been a real commitment to creating those opportunities to foster that, to start going a little deeper what does it mean to be a Paralympian?”

Wheelchair tennis player hits the ball with her racket
Di Toro had a long career as a wheelchair tennis player before switching to table tennis.(Getty Images: Lucas Dawson)

The trio decided to refer to the team as a “mob” and embed the values ​​of loyalty, pride and ferocity.

Di Toro said that from the mob’s inception in 2016 until now, the difference within the wider team is clear.

“I feel like I’m surrounded by leaders, and if I’m one of them then it’s amazing, but I’m just one of them,” he said. she stated.

“And really it’s my family. So it’s not even about leadership, it’s about being a good family member.”

Di Toro’s significant presence in the Australian Paralympic movement goes even further.

A woman in a wheelchair holds a microphone and speaks while wearing a medal around her neck.
Di Toro recently won the Paralympics Australia President’s Award for Respect, Honor and Integrity.(Australia Paralympics)

She is Head of Athlete Welfare and Engagement for Paralympics Australia and Vice Chair of the Athletes’ Commission.

And she encourages her fellow athletes to use their platform to make the changes they want to see in the world.

Sabljak makes sure athletes are heard

Ella Sabljak is one of those athletes who uses her voice.

She will take part in the debut of 3×3 wheelchair basketball in Birmingham, an opportunity which she says helped reinvigorate her love of the sport.

Two women in wheelchairs smile at the camera.
Ella Sabljak (left) and Hannah Dodd (right) will represent Australia in 3×3 wheelchair basketball after competing in the full version of the sport at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The 30-year-old is the head of education for Paralympics Australia and another member of the Athletes’ Commission.

She said events like the Commonwealth Games play an important role in changing perceptions about people with disabilities and breaking down barriers, particularly in the work she does with school children.

“I think it’s really important and crucial for kids to see that we’re around able-bodied athletes,” she said.

“Often it’s the language around Olympians, and Paralympians are often overlooked, not necessarily consciously.

“These are the people who say Olympians rather than Paralympians, or Olympians and Paralympians.

Sabljak also helps make space for athletes in his sport around the world.

A portrait of a woman wearing her basketball union and smiling.
Sabljak is also a primary school teacher and Head of Education for Paralympics Australia. (Provided: Ella Sabljak)

As the Tokyo Paralympic Games approach, the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation has surprised athletes by introducing new classification rules.

This meant that some athletes, such as Australia’s Annabelle Lindsay, had their disability ruled ineligible to compete.

Annabelle Lindsay holds a basketball above her head as she sits in a wheelchair.
Annabelle Lindsay in action for the Australian Gliders during a game against Turkey.(Provided: Annabelle Lindsay)

“When that happened, our athletes were a bit blindsided by the classification debacle, because there was no connection between our federation and the athletes,” Sabljak said.

He promoted the creation of the international players’ commission, with Sabljak representing the Asia-Oceania Zone (AOZ) to ensure players are involved in future decisions.

She doesn’t just stop there, she also wants to set up a player task force for the AOZ and in Australia as well.

“One of my main priorities will be to make our area one of the safest areas for our female athletes,” she said.

“I know some of our female athletes don’t necessarily feel safe in some of the countries we go to. So if we can put guidelines and protocols around that, that will be a huge step forward, as well as have information and education around the welfare of athletes.

3×3 Wheelchair Basketball begins on July 30 AEST in Birmingham, while Para Table Tennis begins on Wednesday August 3 AEST.

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