• James Gribble started Empower Golf Australia after a life-chaning accident left him a quadriplegic. (Supplied)
He was an investment banker chasing sport-filled adventures. But at the height of it all, an accident left him a quadriplegic. This is how James Gribble turned tragedy into triumph and started a social enterprise along the way.
Philip Ly

SBS Small Business Secrets
17 Sep - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep - 2:03 PM

Every now and again ordinary gives way to extraordinary, and for James Gribble it was a moment he'd never forget. 

The founder of Empower Golf Australia lived the high-life in corporate London, but life took a turn during a trip of a lifetime to Africa in his late twenties.

“The day I had my accident, I'd been on a long run and I must've been dehydrated,” Mr Gribble said.

“Later that night all I remember is feeling a little bit lightheaded and wanting to put my head down on the bench in front of me, and the next thing was I found myself blacking out.”

He fell backwards from a stool he was sitting on, with the impact of the fall breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic.

Just days before, he was gorge swinging across Victoria Falls.

As he waited for a helicopter the only thought he could muster was whether or not he’d be dead the next day.

“I was petrified that if I went asleep I might not wake up,” Mr Gribble said.

Twenty-four hours later in hospital, he realised the more he had to live for the more he had to lose.

“When you have a catastrophic life-change, really your mind goes to your biggest passions and one of those for me was golf.”

It was there that he started visualising playing rounds of golf.

After four years of intense rehabilitation through recreation movement, he was able to take his first step again.

His journey inspired him to create Empower Golf Australia – a hybrid not-for-profit that facilitates and promotes golf for less able Australians.

The passion he had for the sport continued, but something else registered when he saw potential in an untapped opportunity.

“Golf is the largest ball sport in Australia, by far and we have more golf courses per capita than pretty much anywhere else in the world,” he said.

“Given one in five people in Australia has a disability you'd expect so much more people would be playing sport with disabilities, but that's just not the case, unfortunately.”

Empower Golf Australia is now in its third year and employs five people with a disability.

Volunteers also help in reaching up to 4,000 Australians a year through golf clinics, private lessons and supplying golf equipment.

Mr Gribble expects turnover to be from $300,000 to $400,000 for 2017, but it's so much more than a business.

“The greatest thing we do is allow people to access all benefits and enjoyment that come with golf, whether that's for recreation, rehabilitation or just getting back out into the community and being part of society, which is sometimes actually difficult for people with disabilities,” he said.

People like ex-golfer Katrina Chisholm, who hasn’t swung a golf club in seven years.

In 2011, her multiple sclerosis and transverse myelitis worsened and limited her mobility, but with Empower Golf she was able to stand and hit the ball, an act she assumed she would never be able to perform again.

“I'm ecstatic because it's something I never thought I'd be able to do it again,” she said.

“It's a gamechanger really because when you're sitting in a wheelchair, you're almost invisible to people,” she said.

“Being able to stand up and hit a golf ball is brilliant and you no longer become invisible.”

Her experience and others like hers strengthen James' future resolve of Empower Golf Australia.

“We've always wanted to have golf end up as a social enterprise, which is self-sustainable and we're well on our way of making that happen hopefully within the next 12-18 months,” Mr Gribble said.

“We rely partly on donations and philanthropic support but we also have a fee-for-service model, but try to keep the barrier for entry as low as possible.

“We want golf to be biggest disabled sport in the country and we want to be a big part of making that happen… to be part of the conversation to have golf enter the Paralympics.”

And he's already proven anything is possible.

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