The reigning women’s 800m T53 world champion talks about her journey into Para athletics, the struggles of a postponement and the importance of sport.
When Madison de Rozario first started in wheelchair sports, it didn’t go to plan.
“I remember going and trying [wheelchair basketball], I was so uncoordinated. [I was] not able to catch a ball, definitely not able to catch the ball and roll a chair,” she recalled during On Her Game podcast last month.
De Rozario, who developed transverse myelitis when she was four-years-old after catching the flu, had grown up playing sport with her sisters. However, she was pulled aside by the team’s coach and told she wasn’t “an asset to this team” but the 12-year-old was offered the chance to try a track chair.
“I tried it out in the parking lot of the basketball stadium and it was way too big for me, I had all this form on the sides trying to keep me in this chair,” she said, “I was so bad at it but I just loved it because it was so independent and it was so much faster than my everyday chair."
Since then, de Rozario has made a name for herself in the sport winning three Paralympic Games and 10 World Championship medals.
‘She saw something I didn’t’
At the age of 14, de Rozario lined up along with 3,950 athletes as they walked out into Beijing National Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.
“All you can see is flashing cameras, the music, there are thousands of people on the track with you from everywhere in the world. It stands out in my mind, it's something I will never forget," she said.
“To be surrounded by so many people who wanted to excel and be the best. It's not often you are in a village of people who want to push themselves to every limit physically possible.”
At her first Paralympics, de Rozario raced in both the T54 100m and 400m event and while she didn’t come away with an individual medal, as part of Australia’s women’s 4100m T53/54 team, the teenager took home silver.
However, de Rozario recalls one particular moment from the Games. It was after the 100m final, Canada’s Chantal Petitclerc, who has won 21 Paralympic medals, had just received gold while the Australian teenager had crossed the line last.
“She was going back to the Canadian tent and past the Australian tent, she double backed saw me and handed me her bouquet of flowers she just received and essentially said, 'These are for you until you get your own',” de Rozario recalled.
“Thinking back about that now, it's such an unreal moment. Someone like Chantal saw the 14-year-old me and saw something in me I hadn't seen myself."
The year that was 2018
After struggling in the lead up to London 2012 with injuries which saw de Rozario question if she wanted to continue racing, a raft of changes was made. By 2014, being forced to step away from wheelchair racing because of injury saw de Rozario reassess everything and start falling back in love with the sport.
At Rio 2016, she won her first individual Paralympic medal – a silver in the 800m T53.
However, the highlight of de Rozario’s career to date came in 2018. It started at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April. She came away with gold medals in both the T54 1,500m and marathon, but it was the support that Para athletes received throughout the Games that made for an even more memorable experience.
The Games saw a record 38 Para events contested alongside able-bodied athletes.
“It changed so much and having people who had never seen our sport fall in [love] with it was one of the most amazing things that came out of those Commonwealth Games,” de Rozario said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to be Australian, for how much we threw everything into those Games and backed our athletes. I think it’s a challenge for para sport because we don’t necessarily get visibility but when we do, people do love it.”
2018 Getty Images
Off the back of a phenomenal performance at her first Commonwealth Games – which made her both physically and emotionally exhausted – de Rozario flew just days after the Closing Ceremony to compete in the London Marathon.
“I remember being there and wondering ‘what am I doing here?’,” she laughed. “If I can place top five, I will be so pleased.”
However, it was a lack of familiarity with the course that ended up being de Rozario’s biggest advantage. With a kilometre to go, the pace of the leading group, which consisted of six racers, slowed down.
“Basically, there hadn’t been a sprint finish in the women’s wheelchair marathon in years,” de Rozario explained.
With 600m to go and admitting to ‘not having the best short sprint’, she decided to go for it. She just narrowly held the lead over American’s Tatyana McFadden. The result saw her become the first Australian to win the elite women’s wheelchair race at the London Marathon.
The mental side of a postponement
It wasn’t just the postponement of the Paralympic Games that changed de Rozario’s outlook for the 2020 season. While the delay has allowed her to reset and provided an opportunity to create a huge amount of base work – something athletes normally don’t get due to their schedules – mentally, it has been a bit of challenge.
“Not having something to train for is really challenging and not knowing how well you are doing,” de Rozario said.
“Not knowing how well your competitors are doing is kind of just playing games with my head a little bit."
To see how her competitors were faring, she would go on social media to check their progress.
"My psychologist basically told me to stop doing that because I was getting 'What if they've made massive leaps and bounds?', she's like 'Do you know that?'," de Rozario explained.
"Basically, she said: 'It will be what it will be. All you can do is what you can do'."
Para sport can help change perceptions
Growing up in a supportive family, de Rozario never noticed the difference between her sisters and herself.
“I never once thought there wasn’t something I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it,” she said.
But in the early stages of high-school, she realised that the world didn’t agree with her and with that, the 26-year-old doesn’t want others to have the same feeling.
“I want kids with disabilities to grow up in the world where they don’t hit a point where they realise that the world doesn’t think they are capable of everything.”
The 2018 Commonwealth Games was a starting point for this change, especially within Australia. Sport has the possibility to change the way society views not just athletes with impairments but in everyday life through elevating profiles of individuals so they have a voice whilst more pathways are created.
“I don’t think kids with disabilities see people who look like them very often in the high profile places and we can shine such a bright light on that through sport,” de Rozario said.