In 2000, Australia won the summer Paralympic Games, earning a whopping 63 gold medals on home soil in Sydney.
Twenty years on, those winners spoke to the ABC as they looked back at the event they say led to a major shift in Australia’s perception of disabilities.
Twenty years ago Paralympian Louise Sauvage was one of the biggest stars of the Sydney 2000 games.
Now she “couldn’t think of anything better” than training the athletes of the future.
The wheelchair racer picked up two gold and one silver to help Australia finish on the top of the competition’s medal table.
The now-47-year-old has moved into coaching, backing fellow wheelchair athlete Madison de Rozario ahead of Tokyo in 2021 — and gold is firmly in their sights.
“I think the biggest highlight for me now and the biggest buzz is being part of someone else’s journey, helping them to achieve their goals,” Sauvage said.
Looking back on the Sydney games, Sauvage said the opening ceremony was a moment she would never forget.
It was a close-kept secret that she’d be lighting the cauldron.
“My family was up in the stands, they had no clue either so it was a big surprise for them too,” Sauvage said.
“It was fantastic just to have that massive honour, it was just phenomenal.”
But, medals and fanfare aside, Sauvage said the Sydney Paralympics changed the way people with a disability were seen.
And it’s that true sense of competition that the superstar coach instils in her athletes.
“Knowing Louise is there and having experienced everything that I want to be able to achieve is one of the most reassuring things,” De Rozario said.
“I think I’m so lucky to have someone in my corner who [knows] all of the emotions that come with racing and training and the extreme kinds of successes and failures, she’s experienced all of it.”
Canberra woman Siobhan Paton has mixed feelings about the Sydney 2000 games. At the time of the competition she didn’t know it would be her first and last Paralympics.
Paton, who lives with an intellectual disability, was just 17 years old and became a household name when she won six gold medals in the pool.
Her beaming face was all over the newspapers and magazines and a postage stamp was created in her honour. Paton was later named “Paralympian of the Year”.
“It was wonderful that I was number one,” she said. “[But] I would have been smiling if I was number two or three, I was ecstatic, it was great that I did this.”
A cheating scandal at the 2000 Paralympics that had nothing to do with Paton put a stop to her swimming career.
Ten members of the winning Spanish basketball team were revealed as not having an intellectual disability. They were stripped of their gold medals and a criminal investigation followed.
While she swam at the world championships in 2004 and won 14 gold medals, Paton was unable to compete in Athens or Beijing.
She said it hit her “very, very hard.”
She spent six weeks in hospital receiving treatment for her mental health and lives with depression to this day.
“I have good days, I have bad days, I have bad weeks,” she said. “I can have bad months, something will just trigger and whatnot, but I cope with it. I live with it.”
Victorian sprinter Tim Matthews was part of a relay team that won two gold and broke various records at the Sydney games.
It was his second Paralympics after competing in Atlanta four years earlier.
He said there was no doubt the Sydney event was a watershed moment for the disability movement around the world.
“I think people with a disability now have a voice and a lot more exposure,” he said.
Like Sauvage, Matthews is now giving back. He’s currently coaching star long jumper and sprinter Kelly Cartwright — who won gold and silver at the London Games — to qualify for Tokyo.
Matthews has also been working as a talent spotter and trainer with Paralympics Australia.
“They realise they’re eligible for Paralympic sport and then [we] work out which sport might be best suited to them depending on their impairment and their classification,” he said.
“Then to see some of those athletes grow and develop and go on to be Paralympic gold medallists is awesome.”
Danni Di Toro
When wheelchair athlete Danni Di Toro pushes into the stadium with the Australian team for the opening ceremony at Tokyo next year, it will be her seventh Paralympics.
At the Sydney 2000 games, she competed in wheelchair tennis and won a silver medal in the doubles.
“Looking back 20 years is like, I feel kind of old,” she laughed. “But it’s so strange, I feel like that was a moment ago.
“The whole country came together to celebrate everyone, celebrate diversity.”
Di Toro has since switched sports and is now a para-table tennis athlete.
She became a paraplegic after a wall collapsed on her at a school swimming carnival.
For Di Toro, who has been competing for more than 30 years, the Sydney games elevated Paralympic sport to a whole new level.
“You’d enter a stadium, [with] 10,000 people for every match,” she said.
“You know, usually your mum and your dad and your dog comes to watch but for the first time ever, there was actually people watching and staying because what they were seeing was extraordinary talent on display.”
Living in Melbourne, Di Toro’s training for Tokyo has been “pretty crazy” due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
Like many athletes, her coach has been joining her over Zoom and she’s set-up a ball machine in her backyard.
Di Toro has her “fingers crossed” that her seventh Paralympics will go ahead.
“It’s going to be a very different games experience, ” she said. ” But if we can get there, it’s going to be an incredible celebration of so many things.”