The Australian wheelchair racer is ready to give her all at Tokyo 2020, not just for herself but everyone who has supported her
When Eliza Ault-Connell takes to the Olympic Stadium track in Tokyo it will mark 15 years since her Paralympic Games debut.
The Perth-born athlete was encouraged by her three children to pick up wheelchair racing once again.
“After watching the Games with my children in 2016, they basically encouraged me to jump back in a race chair and do a race so they could watch something,” Ault-Connell, who had both her legs amputated due to meningococcal disease in 1997, told Tokyo 2020.
“But the second I jumped back in that race chair, they said, ‘I'm going to go to the Paralympics’. They knew that Tokyo was the next Games, and they were just like, ‘Mum's going to go to Tokyo’.”
It is set to be a blockbuster Paralympics for the three-time world championship medallist, as she sets her sights on competing in the 100m, 400m, 1500m and marathon. For Ault-Connell, it’s meant training six days a week two times – possibly three times – a day, sometimes with a gym session in between to be the best she can.
And while Tokyo 2020 is set to be a special event for herself and her family, there is also another important reason.
“I think Tokyo is going to be an incredibly special Games, particularly given what's happened over this past year. The fact that this could be one of the greatest celebrations that we've seen in our generation, the world will be able to come together again and celebrate through something that is just incredibly universal,” Ault-Connell explained.
“I mean, sport, no matter what language, what ability, what disability, skin colour, race, all of those things, sport is what unites us. And with Paralympics and Olympic Games being in Tokyo and just knowing the amount of pride I think Japanese people feel towards hosting the Games, I think that it will be something that will be just an incredible experience to be part of.”
2018 Getty Images
From Athens 2004 to Tokyo 2020
Known then as Eliza Stankovic, the 22-year-old competed at the Athens 2004 in five events, winning a silver medal in the women’s 800m.
Ault-Connell continued to make a name for herself, winning bronze at both the 2006 World Championships and 2006 Commonwealth Games. However, 12 months out from Beijing 2008, she fell pregnant with her first child after being told she probably would not be able to have her own children.
“[It] was very unexpected… immediately I just knew that there was no way that I wasn't going to take that opportunity with two hands and become a mum.”
After almost a decade away from elite sport (to focus on motherhood) and despite never officially retiring, Ault-Connell commenced her return to Para athletics. And first up was the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she won silver in the marathon T54.
“I put everything I possibly could into it [competing at Commonwealth Games],” she said. “I was a 36-year-old, mother of three, 10 years out of the sport.
“I won't deny the immense amount of pride yourself being able to achieve that goal.”
Being able to share the journey with her children, along with winning a medal pushed Ault-Connell to pursue her second Paralympic Games. Despite the difficulties she faced in trying to earn qualification times, she was able to secure a spot on Australia’s Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Team.
However, Ault-Connell kept quiet about her selection knowing she would receive a giant novelty ticket in the mail.
“I waited until that day and I left it on the kitchen bench for the children to come home to after school and just to be able to watch their faces as they went about, came inside, started talking to be looked at the bench, looked at the ticket, looked at me and just said, ‘we're going to Tokyo’,” she recalled.
Not doing this alone
Speaking with Tokyo 2020 late last year, the mother of three, feels that she has become a better athlete compared to when she first started.
“I actually feel that I'm a far superior athlete this time around and that is partly because of life experiences, having children and taking time away from sport. What that has actually given me now coming back into the sport and the discipline, the balance, there's so many elements that now I see as my strength moving forward that excites me about the future.”
“I thought I was a great athlete in my early 20s. I thought I was giving it my all. Whereas now, you can't cheat yourself out of anything.”
She also recognises the fact that she loves the process of training and wouldn’t be able to do what she does without loving each moment as she focusses on Tokyo 2020.
Ault-Connell’s also acknowledged the overwhelming support she’s received from her local community of Albury-Wodonga, on the New South Wales/Victoria border, and her family.
“To be able to do what I do, I feel very blessed that there are these people that are my cheerleaders and that are in my corner and allow me to continue doing what I do,” she said.
And if the Australian Paralympian is able to win a medal, it won’t just be a moment that recognises her dedication but also to every single person who has helped her in journey.
“It will literally be hundreds of people that I am doing this for when I'm in Tokyo and I'm going to race the smartest, the physically hardest races I can possibly give and give my all to be able to make that happen because I want it for myself, but I also want it for my children, I want it for all of the incredible people that have supported me on the journey.”
It might be seven years away but there could be an Ault-Connell competing at Los Angeles 2028.
Just like her mum and dad – Kieran Ault-Connell, a two-time Paralympic gold medallist – their eldest daughter is an aspiring long jumper with hopes of competing for Australia.
“She quite often says to me, ‘wouldn't it be so cool if I get to compete in the L.A. Olympics and you get to compete in the Paralympic Games? We could be mother and daughter’. I think she hasn’t really quite done the maths and worked out how old I’m going to be,” Ault-Connell laughed.
“I may need to consider more sedentary type sport, but I wouldn't that be the most incredible experience being able to share a passion with your child at that level?”
However, the 39-year-old has learnt to never put anything out of the realm of possibility.
“I've done things in my life that I never thought I would be able to do. Been to places I've never thought I would be able to go to and share moments with people so great that I never say never, because as wild and as crazy as something like that may seem.”
“I've seen that wild and crazy things can happen.”