By Maree Gallop
In 1850, a man and his family stood on the deck of the La Rochelle awash with sea and salt. The ocean swelled with mystery and secrets as the man looked through the misty air with apprehension. He gripped the ship’s rails and stumbled along the gangway on sea legs created from the deep stretch of ocean traversed from Germany. Staring into the blinding sun, what seemed like a visionary delusion in the far distance was an Australian Flag being raised. The man could never have predicted the future of one of his descendants, an Australian man who married a spirited Kiwi. They had a baby girl in Brisbane. She was named six weeks later, Liesl.
Liesl spent the first three months of life in Brisbane, then New Zealand. When she was seven her family returned to Australia. At Coal Point on the shores of Lake Macquarie, the water glistened and waves lapped at an old boatshed. In the afternoons, weekends and school holidays, Liesl dragged an old windsurfer with rig known as a wishbone, into the lake. Wind blew through her hair as she bounced over whitecaps and salt sprayed her face. She got a taste of the ocean that lay beyond the lake.
The lake was a playground to Liesl and other neighbourhood children. Liesl’s neighbour, Robyn, often arrived home from work to a house with the doors wide open and her three children missing. She’d peer through binoculars at her children sailing over the choppy waves wearing bright yellow lifejackets, then focus her attention on Liesl, her babysitter, sailing an old wooden Moth and wearing a cheap jumper that clung to her small body like a wetsuit. Liesl would throw back her head and call into the wind, her voice floating back to shore. Robyn would set down her binoculars, kick off her nurses’ shoes and plonk herself on the lounge, confident that Liesl would guide everyone home.
In the evening, Liesl dragged the sailboats ashore and delivered the neighbourhood kids home safely. She padded home on water logged feet in time to hear familiar voices over the ABC News that flickered on the television. Her parents and sister greeted her with a welcoming smile.
As Liesl settled into the normal thrum of life in Newcastle, nobody heard the ocean mulling over its deep secrets. The surface was smooth. But as Liesl plunged into teenage life with friends and university, an undercurrent was about to drag her in a different direction.
In 1988, Liesl set down her pen on top of her completed exam and walked from the room. She waved goodbye to the solid brick building, and Newcastle University for another year as she breathed holiday air, sweet and full of promise. A couple of days later, Liesl’s strong athletic legs pumped the pedals of her bicycle as she rode from a girlfriend’s house in the midday sun. Thoughts swam through her mind. The beach, the smell of coconut oil, surfers riding the waves and the yearly contest that was Surfest. A plastic bag swung from the handlebars of her bike, weighted with shoes worn the night before. The road ahead was clear. But the bike swerved. The gutter rushed up to meet her. Her trajectory changed. She somersaulted over the handlebars onto a concrete driveway below.
‘Is there any tingling in your hands or feet?’
Liesl tried to focus on the lady’s voice that carried the knowledge of a nurse. Beside her an elderly woman watched on. Concerned.
‘Yes,’ Liesl moaned.
Sirens pierced the air. Later, the thump of a helicopter.
Liesl’s Mum sat at Liesl’s bedside, comforting her with warm hands. The chaos of life and Sydney traffic buzzed just beyond the hospital doors. The thought of home, university and work were a distant memory for her and her mum. Whilst lying in a dim room the doctor delivered words as sharp as the fragments of bone that were removed from her broken back.
Spinal cord injury – Lie on your back – Two months – Hospital – Six months – Never walk again – Paraplegia.
The words turned and clunked in Liesl’s nineteen-year-old mind, spinning her and her world around. But as her mind and body slowed and rested, the bruising and swelling on her spinal cord reduced. Liesl felt some sensation in her legs. After six weeks, the edge of the doctor’s words softened. Incomplete paraplegia.
‘I will walk.’
At Toronto High School, Liesl had studied books, played basketball, ran cross-country and sailed on Lake Macquarie for sport. She absorbed everything. She couldn’t have known then that her knowledge and ability to read the wind and water would flow through her life. She understood changing weather patterns and how to respond to make her boat sail faster. Now, from her hospital bed, Liesl had to draw on that knowledge and respond to the changing conditions of her life.
During hospital rehabilitation, a physiotherapist took Liesl to Mt. Druitt to a basketball stadium full of sweat, strength, competition and wheelchairs. She met people who worked, drove cars and lead valuable lives. Liesl found a way to respond. She already knew the rules of the game. She already had the skills to play. Liesl propelled herself home to Newcastle.
The buildings at Newcastle University were the same as the day she’d left, but looked different from a new angle, in her wheelchair. The basketball stadium carried the smell of life and identity. Liesl rolled through her studies of human and physical geography and a diploma of education, all to the rhythm of a bouncing basketball, and in an environment that had not yet embraced the diversity which she was about to impress on the world.
In 1990 Liesl ventured across the ocean, spinning wheels of opportunity. The Woman’s World Basketball Championships in France presented new beginnings and possibilities. In the years that followed she became a teacher of geography at Brisbane Water Senior College and played Paralympic basketball with the Gliders, representing Australia in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996). But in 2000, Sydney hosted the Paralympics. On home soil, Liesl wheeled out in front of family and friends. Her school students poured from buses and waved with inclusive hands as they embraced the Paralympians that created magic. A silver medal around Liesl’s neck shone into the eyes of the world and whole communities became alive with ability and change.
Later, in 2009, the direction of the wind changed. A strong gust pushed Liesl onto a 54-foot yacht bound for Hobart. Her wheelchair clunked as she rolled down the wharf toward the Kale but as Liesl sailed on Sydney Harbour and through the Heads, the briny ocean and the wind rushed through her mind. She was captivated by the beauty of the water. A mirage for the intense race that lay ahead. Sydney to Hobart. Blue water roared as it swamped the deck amid a mass of quivering rigs and thrashing sails. The ocean slapped her face and her hands and mind worked the intricate strings of the Kale. Liesl was where she belonged.
Aboard the Kale, Liesl was inspired by the courage of Sailors with disABILITIES. She harnessed the wind, fell in love with sailing again and met her partner, Mark, a boatbuilder who understood her thirst for knowledge. Her voice developed a new accent of adventure and confidence. It rode the peaks and troughs of the ocean as her ancestors did and ricocheted around the world. An Australian sailor with Olympian qualities by the name of Daniel Fitzgibbon watched Liesl Tesch on television. A five time Paralympian basketballer, sailing on a yacht. Dan had a sharp eye and a passion for sailing. He recognised something special and sensed success and tracked Liesl down.
Boxing day, 2010. Liesl googled “SKUD 18” and read a book on “how to trim the gib” and she met Dan for the first time. Liesl offered her hand to shake Dan’s, but he couldn’t reciprocate due to his quadriplegia. Liesl looked at the mainsail and contemplated on how much more she needed to learn. Out on the water, the mast tipped sideways and the sail swept the surface of the water as the boat breached twice. Dan showed Liesl what he was capable of. Liesl had the time of her life.
‘Do you want to sail in Miami next week?’ He asked.
Liesl debated in her mind for a moment, thinking about Mark. I have got a new partner. But he is offshore. ‘Yes!’
A week later Liesl and Dan were in Miami sailing in a nifty 18-foot sports boat with a weighted keel. Dan sat strapped at the back in a seat like that in a racing car with two straps diagonally across his chest. He steered the boat like a genius and canted from side to side in his seat by sucking and blowing on a tube connected to a battery. Liesl was strapped in the front. She worked 17 ropes, trimming the sails, wearing a life jacket and carrying a knife, in case they capsized.
As they sailed on water as smooth as glass, the conditions changed quickly. In a heart-beat, a gust of wind came down across the water, toward them. Wind slapped the sails with a deafening force. Liesl and Dan were in survival mode, they couldn’t hear each other speak. But the gust passed as quickly as it came and they sailed on to win. They won their first three regattas. Liesl found the water beautiful in its ability to change. The reflection of the water was about to be mirrored in her life. She was about to leave the basketball stadium behind.
The London Paralympics beckoned. Liesl and Dan practiced as much as possible in Pittwater and Weymouth. Her life became a whirlwind, sailing in the two-week school holiday breaks. A plane ride to England followed by a bus, train, cab, sailing, and then in reverse, to arrive home in time to teach a class on Monday morning. They developed a powerful partnership. A combination of astute tactics, advanced communication and natural instincts led them to the race of their lives in the London Paralympics 2012. But Liesl’s human skills and emotions were put to the toughest of tests. On the first day of racing Liesl entered a room and received the news that her mother had died from bone cancer. A lady handed her a scarf that belonged to Princess Sophie. Liesl clung to the scarf, and her mother’s dreams, “mum’s just want the best for their kids.” She found an inner strength and sailed with a dream, and professional finesse. She and Dan made no mistakes and secured an unassailable lead to win gold at London. On the podium at Weymouth they were presented with their medals. Amid a moment of pride and joy, Liesl searched the crowd. Her partner, Mark, her neighbour Robyn, from Coal Point and a group of supportive friends were there. Her thoughts were with her mum.
Liesl accepted the unpredictability of nature’s course of events and sailed into Rio Paralympics 2016. The challenge of the race in Rio meant everything. The future of Paralympic sailing beyond Rio had changed. New boat classes were to be introduced, none of which would accommodate Dan’s ability. The deafening news from the official committee had surfaced in Miami, on a gust as unexpected as the one they’d sailed in there.
In Rio, Liesl and Dan faced the most complex conditions in the massive mouth of a bay six times the size of Sydney Harbour. Her knowledge of geography was worth its weight in gold. They studied the tactics of their opponents, the overlay of the wind and the underwater topography. Currents moved around according to the shape of the bay, incredible tides ebbed and flowed and meteorologist’s reported adiabatic lapse phases that only her old climatology lecturer could explain.
Liesl’s mind was filled with wind and water. She and Dan sailed into history together on a two-person SKUD 18, “a beautiful fast glamor boat with an Australian Flag spinnaker hanging out the front.” In a moment of incomprehensible joy, beneath an ancient mountain known as Sugarloaf, Liesl stepped onto the podium in stylish custom made boots, adorned in green and gold. Her hair flowed freely as a gold medal was placed around her neck. Her face reflected a pride foreign to anything she’d previously known. And from a vision created long ago, a dream became a reality. The Australian flag was raised.