“No, I don’t get disability parking.” James smiles before duck-diving his surfboard under a wave at Maroubra beach. “Not everyone who’s disabled gets parking.”
It’s a beautiful afternoon for a surf. The clouds are tinged with violet, and a light westerly blows foam and salt across the breakers.
James Talbot is a University of Sydney graduate, having completed Economics with Honours in 2015. He is also an Australian para-athlete. A set wave approaches from the horizon, and he paddles quickly to catch it. He is agile and strong, a regular at his local break. The wave eventually fades away and he paddles back out.
“People don’t seem to care what my disability is,” he continues with a laugh. “They just want to know if I get free parking.”
At 21, a motorbike crash in the forests of Vietnam nearly killed James and disabled his right hand.
“The doctors said that if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet I would have died.” James says. “I don’t remember the crash, or the ten minutes before. I woke up in a rural medical centre. The doctors didn’t think it was bad, so they casually put on a cast and sent me on my way.”
After catching a plane back to Sydney drugged up on Vietnamese penicillin, James went to his local hospital for a scan. “All my doctor could utter was a very reassuring ‘Shit that’s not good, mate’.”
He then informed James of trapped nerves, ligament damage, dislocation, broken bones, and an incorrectly applied cast.
“When the drugs wore off and the doctor lifted my hand above my head, I couldn’t stop screaming, yelling, swearing at everything. I felt bad for my mother who was in the room.”
The doctors quickly diagnosed James as having a permanent injury. “I had such little strength and movement in my right wrist that I couldn’t play sport or scratch my back. It was incredibly frustrating.”
Nevertheless, the physical restrictions also handed him a new opportunity.
“Back in high school I was quite a good rower and had considered moving to America to row for one of their universities. After the accident, competing became much harder.” A huge portion of rowing skill comes down to precise and well-timed wrist movements. “It wasn’t until early this year that I found out that I was eligible to compete in para-rowing.”
With limited training, James got back in the boat and came second in the 1000m sprint at the national championships, putting him in contention for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“It’s certainly the dream. I’m rowing on the water or the erg five times a week, and getting to the gym for a further four sessions.” he says. “If I could get there it’d be awesome.”
There is a lull in the waves as the tide starts heading out, and I ask James what disabilities are common among his competitors.
“It varies.” he says. “There are people who are vision impaired, people with missing fingers, amputees, and people suffering from cerebral palsy. It’s a really great mix of people overcoming personal limitations, often imposed on them by their own communities, and proving to the world what they’re capable of.”
And his chances for the Paralympics?
“Well, that’s the issue with para-sports. In abled-body sports you can very closely monitor everyone around you. Here, you just don’t know who is going to turn up in your race one day.”
James will compete in the national team selection trials at the end of the month.
“If I make it, I’ll get to go to Florida to compete,” he says. “That’s assuming the entire Australian Olympic rowing team don’t have similar bike crashes.
“Until then though, I just want to be positive and have fun. I’m passionate about coaching and passionate about rowing. I’ll just keep ticking along at both and see how I go.”
We eventually leave the water and trudge back to the car. It’s a hot day and the bitumen is boiling. I lament the walk ahead.
James laughs. “Wouldn’t mind a disabled park right now.”