How para-athletes are helping teenagers find a way through no-man’s land

A one-of-a-kind project linking Year 9 and 10 students across the state to Paralympians is inspiring teenagers not to give up, even as they face their own struggles.

The Sport for Thought project sends high-performance athletes from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland to meet with school students in the area to give them a sense of the world beyond the playground.

For young people, who might at times feel that the odds are stacked against them because of their location or background, the para-athletes are a guiding light on overcoming adversity.

Tania Stevenson heads the university’s High Performance Student Program.

She said it was built around supporting young people as they reached 14 to 15 years of age.

“Year 9 has always been considered, anecdotally and through research, as a bit of a no-man’s land,” she said.

“They’re just going through a massive sort of physical growth spurt as well.

“It’s all things they’re experiencing for the first time, the reality of hitting the workforce, do they like school, are they academic or are they not?”

It’s at this critical time in growing up that the athletes come in to share with the students how much they battled at the same age, and how it was never enough to stop them from competing at an elite level.

Teens connecting with struggles
Paralympian Jacob Templeton said his vision impairment gave him an opportunity to share his own struggles with the students.

“I think having a disability means you’ve probably overcome some things that many others haven’t,” he said.

Templeton, who won bronze for Australia at the Commonwealth Games and set a world record in the S13 100-metre, 400-metre and 200-metre short course freestyle swimming events, says he uses humour to connect with the students.

“We find ways to make it pretty light-hearted, and throw a few jokes and there [such as] walking into a pole, or funny little accidents that I’ve had throughout my life,” he said.

“It eases them a little bit so they can listen, and they seem to love it.”

The program began in 2016 and has grown to include 14 schools. Some of the program’s former students have since taken up studies at the university.

From tiny town to sprawling campus

Kilkivan State School, which is about 50 kilometres west of Gympie, has about 100 students from Prep to Year 10.

When the Sport for Thought program came to his tiny town, Billy Davies was one of those listening.

Weeks later he found himself at the university’s Sippy Down campus waiting to meet with other program participants.

He said living with Type 1 diabetes felt limiting, but now he was meeting others who were striving despite facing their own challenges.

“It’s just lovely to see that even people who do have it worse than me are still achieving the goals they want in life and accomplishing their dreams,” he said.