• Belinda Mason's photograph of Uncle Kevin Coombs for the Unfinished Business Exhibition of Indigenous people with a disability. (Outback Academy/Belinda Mason)Source: Outback Academy/Belinda Mason
Wheelchair basket-baller and Wotjobaluk elder Kevin Coombs has been inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame and honoured through the awarding of an annual ‘Uncle Kevin Coombs Medal’ to a member of the Paralympic team.
By
Karina Marlow

14 Dec 2016 - 1:28 PM  UPDATED 9 Nov 2020 - 10:57 AM

At the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome, Australia’s first Indigenous sportsperson to compete at the Paralympic Games took to the court for wheelchair basketball.

Kevin Coombs would go on to compete with the ‘Rollers’ in four more Paralympic Games (1968, 1972, 1980, 1984), captaining the team for two.

With great ball skills and pinpoint passing Kevin commanded respect from his teammates but it was his devastating shooting ability that left his opponents behind. In 1974, he led Australia to a Silver medal in the Commonwealth Games as captain and won Gold at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in 1977 and in 1982.

When reflecting on his best memories from a lengthy career, Kevin chose his last international game at the FESP Games as a standout. "We played Japan in the final and I was on the bench as I was a bit slower [44 at the time]."

"I came off the bench to put in nine goals to seal the game. We won that day, a great win... one of the best of my career."

"We were on par with the Boomers in those days, but later the Rollers were the first team to win a Gold medal in basketball in Atlanta in 1996 and again in 2008 at Beijing."

He also picked up a treasure trove of medals with his team at the National Championships, winning two Gold, two Silver and two Bronze medals.

Not content with an athletic career spanning over 24 years, Kevin continues to be involved in the sport of wheelchair basketball. He began as assistant coach of the national team at the 1972 Paralympics, coached of the Goodwill Games team in 1988 and led the Victorian Junior team to a Gold medal in 1993.

"Some of my highlights were meeting Prime Ministers, Presidents and even royalty. When I was captain of the Paralympic team I presented Prince Charles with wood-chop axe as a gift and scared most of his security," Kevin said.

"When I was captain of the Paralympic team I presented Prince Charles with wood-chop axe as a gift and scared most of his security."

As an ambassador of the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, he was one of only nine people to have an avenue in the Olympic Village bear his name. Kevin Coombs received on Order of Australia Medal in 1998 and was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Off the court, Kevin has also been active in community work, volunteering with other people with a disability and those who are affected by homelessness, alcohol and other drugs.

He is currently Patron of the Outback Academy Red Dust Heelers led by members of the current wheelchair basketball team who support social inclusion and sports initiatives for people with a disability.

"We’re always looking out for other Aboriginal sportspeople and so that’s why I got involved in the Red Dust Heelers to give a pathway for Indigenous athletes to have go at wheelchair basketball."

To be honoured by the Australian Paralympic Committee in this way is the icing on the cake for him.

"It was just a fantastic feeling, I’ve been involved in the office in Melbourne and its been a really good relationship I’ve had and opened up doors for me… I'm nearly as famous as Andrew Gaze down here," he said.

Although Kevin was unwell and unable to attend the ceremony in 2016, his grandchildren gladly stepped up on the night to receive his award: "it was lovely for the APC to give them the chance to do that," he told NITV.

The ‘Uncle Kevin Coombs Medal’ was awarded to sailor and fellow wheelchair basket-baller Liesl Tesch by the two captains of the Paralympic team, Kurt Fearnley and Daniela Di Toro. Kevin strongly approved of the choice saying “she’s a terrific Paralympian and a lovely person really."

Running back in time with a Paralympic champion
Peter Kirby was a champion runner, by the age of 19 he had competed in the 1984 New York Paralympics, where he won five medals and was the first Aboriginal Australian to win gold for the athletics.
Australia's Indigenous Paralympians receive long overdue recognition
Australia's Indigenous Paralympians have each received a well-deserved honor: a plaque in recognition of their cultural and sporting achievements, which will now permanently hang alongside plaques for Indigenous Olympians at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence.

 

NITV and SBS are the official National NAIDOC Principal Media Partner and  the official Education Partner. For information on how the network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander excellence go here.

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