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What leadership means to a gold medal-winning Paralympian

Gold Medal Paralympian Chris Bond has learned a lot about leadership and overcoming adversity since he met AIM CEO David Pich, thenhead of marketing at CanTeen, a charity that supports young people with cancer. At the time, Bond was a 22-year-old member of the board. At 19, Bond became ill with a rare form of leukaemia and during treatment contracted a severe bowel infection that sent him into septic shock. The infection quickly became gangrenous and with Bond’s life in danger, the decision was made to amputate both his legs below the knee, his left wrist and all but one of the fingers on his right hand. Bond is now a member of the Gold Medal-winning Australian Wheelchair Rugby team (London Paralympics) and is heading to the Rio Games next year. He is also sports partnership manager at the Australian Sports Foundation.

David Pich: Former Canberra Raiders rugby league captain Clinton Schifcofske is one of your heroes. What leadership qualities does he embody for you?

Chris Bond: I met Clinton in 2005 when I was 19 and in hospital. It was a pretty dark time for me, I had always loved footy and my mum organised for the Canberra Raiders to visit. Clinton really took it upon himself to get to know me. He would come back often by himself and just hang out and chat. That he took time from his busy schedule to see me really meant a lot to me and I really looked up to him as a human being, as a man. I then really followed the Canberra Raiders, watching him on field leading by example. He’s not that outspoken, but he’s genuine, so I’d assume his teammates would come to him with any problems they have.

DP: After your illness, you considered swimming but you ended up as a wheelchair rugby player.

CB: I’ve always loved sport and grew up playing rugby league and pretty much every other sport. After I got sick, there was a space missing in my life. I’m a very competitive person – I have a twin brother and we always grew up competing, so I really wanted to get back into sport. I was at the rehab centre working out with 80-year-olds and I thought, ‘I want to see how this new body goes and to try a sport’. The centre set me up with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and I started to go to the gym there. The coach thought the only sport I could do with my disability was swimming. Even though I wasn’t really a swimmer I was open to trying, so I did it for just over a year.

DP: Were you any good?

I gave myself two years, blocked everything out, moved home, moved states, really just went into the unknown to reach my goal of making the Paralympics, and then I was selected for the team.

DP: You’re the sports partnership manager at the Australian Sports Foundation. What does the foundation do and what is your role?

CB: Our key mission is to raise money for Australian sport, from grassroots clubs to pro-sports. We work in partnership with sporting clubs. People can donate to us with a preferred project [in mind] and we grant the money. Basically, I manage all the projects in Queensland and the Northern Territory. I was headhunted for the role. They wanted an athlete, someone who understood sport, who they could teach fundraising to. They had a talk to some of the guys at the Australian Paralympic Committee and they recommended me through the work I’ve done with them in regards to speaking at events.

DP: At 23, you ended up as the vice president of CanTeen. It has a beautiful leadership structure; it’s a young person’s organisation run by young people for young people.

CB: CanTeen’s very unique. It’s all about youth empowerment and nothing says that more than its constitution, which states that the majority of the board has to be young people living with cancer. It was great knowing that pathway was possible when I first started out. I went on a few camps and to a few events and I spoke about my cancer journey. Some of the staff recognised that I might have leadership qualities. I didn’t really have anything else going on in my life – I was doing rehab and I felt pretty worthless and useless. I was always relying on other people and no-one ever asked me for advice. I could never help anyone do anything – and that’s not me. I began to help out planning and organising camps. I worked my way up from representing a local committee to the national committee and then on to the board. We had close relationships with the CEO, who would step us through everything before every board meeting so we were up to scratch. And we had a lot of training.

 

Chris Bond

DP: Becoming a leader is a tough thing; training in sport is a very difficult thing; but you’ve also gone through the turmoil of your health problems – it must have been incredibly difficult.

CB: I think it was, but I guess when something traumatic happens you look at life and what you want to achieve. It gives you that bit more of a push to go and try new things and seize the opportunities, whereas before, due to social pressure or being young, I would have knocked back a few things. But I guess you learn just to go ahead and try to make the most of yourself and take things on.

DP: What gave you the biggest buzz, winning Paralympic gold or getting the OAM?

CB: Winning the Gold Medal. I dedicated two years of my life at that stage to fast-track myself to be on par with these guys and then to be able to perform. I gave myself two years, blocked everything out, moved home, moved states, really just went into the unknown to reach my goal of making the Paralympics, and then I was selected for the team. I was able to play in every game and [being able to] really contribute to our success is a great feeling. I don’t think I’ll top that ever. The way it went down in London with our team was a perfect campaign. We were undefeated through the whole competition, and we won every quarter, every match. I don’t think that will ever be done again.

“I gave myself two years, blocked everything out, moved home, moved states, really just went into the unknown to reach my goal of making the Paralympics, and then I was selected for the team.”

DP: Paralympic sport – what’s your view on its position at the moment?

CB: It is growing – the stats don’t lie. In London, the social media and the internet just went crazy [over] the Paralympics. In terms of attendance, every event was sold out. And we were more successful than our able-bodied counterparts and we came fifth overall. The Seven Network has taken on the Paralympics next year for Rio. It’s the first time a commercial channel will be broadcasting the Games 14 hours a day live, so that’s going to boost Paralympic sport.

DP: Can you remember how you felt in the months before the London Paralympics? How are you feeling now compared to how you felt then?

CB: Back then I was fresh. I’d never been to this massive event and represented my country, whereas now I’m senior, and it’s more about helping my teammates. When it draws near I’ll be as excited as a little kid again. As soon as we’re on the plane going there, I’ll be ready.”

DP: I’m guessing there must be something about retaining a Gold Medal that’s just as exciting as winning the first time?

CB: I like us being number one in the world. I want us to be in the history books as being the best team two Paralympics in a row. That’s never been done in my sport.

Chris Bond

Preparing to take to the court for training

DP: Will it largely be the same team again?

CB: There is a core of main guys, but we’ve got some new fresh guys, which is looking promising. As a senior member of the team now it’s good to see those guys coming.

DP: How is the team spirit?

CB: Team culture is definitely important to us and we make sure everyone feels part of the team, whether they’ve sat on the bench or scored the most goals.

DP: What about the psychological side? You’re a long way since your illness, but some of the guys coming through must be at a different stage psychologically?

CB: The majority in my sport are quadriplegics. A lot of the guys who have broken their necks are usually risk takers in the first place, so they like a high-impact, fast game. Obviously, some of them are just coming through the rehab system so they’re learning to live their lives again. Some of the old hands, who are quads, teach these young guys skills. [In a way] I would say it’s better than any rehab you can get – being around a community of guys who have already done it, myself included. I’m much further on. [I used to think] ‘I’ve done a few things in my life but I’m a quadruple amputee and it’s the worst thing in the world’. But there are guys with high-level neck injuries that are great on the court [but in life] very low-functioning; some of them sometimes need carers. These guys are doing well, but they take longer to do things that most people would find very easy. That humbled me a lot and I’m sure it would humble a lot of guys that come in, especially if they have more function than those they see getting on with their lives. It was then I thought, ‘I’m almost able-bodied, really’.

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