Even before Golden Slam winner Dylan Alcott made his name in tennis, he was a Paralympic basketball champion. And this week, the 30-year-old was back shooting hoops in Melbourne, with a fellow Paralympian and former mentor.
“Without Dr Lisa Chaffey I don't think I would be where I am today, if I'm honest,” he says with characteristic modesty.
“I was this fat kid with a really bad haircut, and she got me down and I started playing basketball in [Melbourne’s] Dandenong. She has a similar disability classification as me, and she is an absolute superstar.”
Alcott’s achievements this year are now written into the history books. - singles title wins at each of the four Grand Slam events - the Australian, French and US Opens, and Wimbledon, plus gold in either the Olympics or Paralympics, in the same calendar year.
For Alcott, gold came in the quad wheelchair singles finals at the Tokyo Paralympics in September.
“I am easily the luckiest person and one of the luckiest Paralympians,” he says.
“But the reason I get out of bed is not to win gold medals and Grand Slams, it's to change perceptions. So that people like me, people with disabilities, can get the opportunities they deserve.”
Alcott and Dr Chaffey have now joined forces again, to help women with disability transition from sport into top jobs.
The pair met at All Nations Park in Melbourne this week to discuss their new plan.
Paralympians Dr Lisa Chaffey and Dylan Alcott. Source: SBS
“We want to work with at least 40 women, and help land them the positions that they deserve,” Alcott says.
“Women can have such a great impact in business - especially women with a disability.”
Their new six-month program - Wild Collective - is run through Alcott’s startup Get Skilled Access.
“Dr Chaffey is among 50 people working for us, and the vast majority have lived experience with disability," he says.
“We want to lead the way and set a gold medal example about what organisations should be doing for all women in leadership, and especially for women with disability.”
Alcott was born in Melbourne in 1990, with a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord. Doctors operated to remove it but it left him with paraplegia.
He started playing wheelchair tennis as a boy, and quickly rose up the world rankings.
In 2004, aged 14, he took up wheelchair basketball, and made his debut in the Australian men’s national wheelchair basketball team, the Rollers, two years later. He went on to win gold with the Rollers at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.
Alcott returned to wheelchair tennis in 2014 and his storied career followed. He is joined only by Steffi Graf and Paralympian Diede de Groot in achieving the Golden Slam.
The Melbourne University commerce graduate is now focused on building his own businesses. As well as Get Skilled Access, he also owns Able Foods, which provides ready-made meals for NDIS participants.
Alcott lives in Melbourne’s East Hampden with his partner, psycho-sexologist Chantelle Otten. He says stepping back from Paralympic competition gives him more time to spend with loved ones.
“I feel like I’m nearing the end of what I want to do in tennis, and being a good partner to Chantelle, being a good family member, and doing the [disability advocate] work is what’s important.
“My real purpose now is changing perceptions about people with disability so they can live the lives they deserve to live.”
The reason I get out of bed is not to win gold medals and Grand Slams, it's to change perceptions. - Dylan Alcott
The statistics speak for themselves. Despite a record number of women competing in the Paralympics this year, fewer than half of all women with disability, 47 per cent, are employed in Australia. And women in sport face extra challenges, as Dr Chaffey well knows.
“Being a female athlete with a disability is incredibly difficult. People don't expect very much of you. They have a low expectation of your skills,” she says.
After being part of the silver medal-winning women’s national basketball team at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, the 50-year-old is now an occupational therapist.
Dr Lisa Chaffey is an occupational therapist. Source: SBS
Born in Geelong, Victoria, Dr Chaffey recalls her own struggles to build a career as a young woman with disability.
“When I enrolled at university to train as an occupational therapist, I needed a meeting with the dean to determine if I was allowed to go, because of my disability.
“Since then a lot has changed but more needs to be done for sporting women. Men leave sport and are drawn into coaching or decision-making positions, but women don’t seem to have that pathway.”
She describes Wild Collective as the “first leadership program run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities, including a cohort of 10 women with intellectual disability, which is a very exciting prospect”.
A survey of 1,000 Australians due for release next week, commissioned by disability support provider Hireup, has found that 68 per cent of Australians believe access to employment is difficult or very difficult for people with disability.
“It is a significant and ongoing issue,” says Hireup CEO Jordan O’Reilly. “Fewer than half of all people with a disability in working age are employed, compared with 80 per cent of others.”
“There is an overriding misconception within the business community that people with disabilities need more supervision or support.
“That leads to many missing out on employment opportunities.”
Jordan O'Reilly CEO of Hireup. Source: SBS / , Supplied Hireup
Dr Chaffey hopes to support women competing at a high level to transition into senior roles, utilising their leadership skills in the business world.
“This is the beginning of a movement. So right now it's women in leadership in sport, but next time it might be women in the arts or women in business,” she says.
For her part, Dr Chaffey is incredibly proud of Alcott’s sporting success.
“Young Dylan Alcott was charismatic, he was a positive kid and great to coach. He was always striving for that little bit more.”
He in turn credits his success to Dr Chaffey’s early mentorship, and his new goal is to repay that debt of gratitude many times over.
“To reconnect with her now is so special, and there's no better person to lead this program.
“There are so many great Paralympians who came before me, who didn't get the recognition they deserve, if I'm honest.
“And we want to leave the sport in a better spot for the next generation of young athletes with disabilities.”