You may know Dylan Alcott as one of Australia’s greatest tennis players and world number one. But before that, he was the youngest ever wheelchair basketball Paralympic gold medallist. And before that, he was just a regular kid, terrified of talking to girls.
When I was 16 years old, I was about 12 months off becoming a Paralympic gold medallist. I just got into the Australian men’s basketball team for the first time. I was in Year 11. It was probably the first time in my life that I was really happy with who I was. It was the first time I was really fit, I was building confidence, starting to go to house parties, kissing the odd girl, which is pretty cool as a 16-year-old.
If you’d asked me two years earlier, when I was 14, I hated myself. School was hard, I couldn’t keep up with my friends as much; they were playing footy, I couldn’t play, things like that. I really struggled with having a disability, I was really embarrassed about it. There were a few people who used to give me a hard time, and I started to believe them. It was a bit of a tough time.
My brother played sport and I always wanted to do what he did. I love watching sport and I always used to be the team manager or the umpire but then I thought, stuff this, I want to be able to play. I didn’t know anyone with a disability, I didn’t have any friends with a disability, but when I started playing sport I saw people like me, and they were achieving, and they were happy with who they were, and they were fit and they were enjoying themselves.
My family never wrapped me in cotton wool because I was different. How many young people do you see with disabilities where their parents do everything for them? When they get older they’re not independent, they can’t get a job, they don’t develop those social skills. My brother was like, “I’m going to go skateboarding in the street”, so we got a longboard skateboard and I went on my stomach. I was never left out and that was really important. I think it’s a nice lesson that when there’s people with disabilities…don’t treat them differently.
I decided I wanted to be a Paralympian when I was about 10 or 11, seeing it for the first time. Everyone aims high when they’re kids, but I don’t think anyone would have thought it would come to fruition. Then six years later I was a gold medallist. Pretty crazy.
When I went to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, I was shitting my pants. I was still in Year 12. I should have been in my accounting exam, but at that same time I was playing for the gold medal [in wheelchair basketball]. To go there and win gold was just ridiculous. I still can’t believe it really. It probably still hasn’t sunk in.
I loved the team aspect of basketball. It suited me better at the time. There were guys who’d lost their legs, great sports people who’d had accidents and ended up in wheelchairs, or lost loved ones in crashes – all kinds of crazy shit. We were so proud of one another and what we could achieve. How cool is that? At one point in all our lives, we’d given up hope. I know I had when I was 14. So to sit on that podium and to share it with them, was very special.
I’ve got about seven jobs now. I started the Dylan Alcott Foundation, for young people with disabilities. And then I do work on Triple J, on TV, as a motivational speaker and sometimes I play tennis as well. So it’s pretty busy. But if I only played tennis I’d end up hating it. I think it’s really important to do a lot of things in your life, but you also have to look after yourself. I’m getting a better balance… I’m busy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The very first Ability Fest [music festival, launched by the foundation in 2018] was one of, if not the best day of my life. There was something in the air that day, I’ve never felt a vibe like that. I love music festivals, they were the first places I felt included and no-one gave a shit that I was in a wheelchair. But so many people don’t get that opportunity. So this was a music festival for everybody, no matter your age, gender, sexual orientation or ability. We had things like elevated platforms, sign language on stage, sensory areas for people with autism. The response was overwhelming; people who’d never been able to share something like that with their friends and families. I can’t wait to bring that back every bloody year.
My biggest insecurities have probably been in regard to dating. I mean starting dating was probably hard for you, and I reckon times that by about 1000 for me. You’re so insecure about finding a partner who doesn’t care that you’re in a wheelchair. It’s something that I’m probably only just getting over.
Able-bodied people think that you can’t do it, so they don’t give people the opportunity to enter the dating game. And that sucks. I think a lot of people with disabilities never get to have relationships because people don’t give them a chance. It’s such a bummer. So I want to show through my experience, nah fuck that, you can do it.
I wasn’t always as confident. But I’ve learned that if you want to have cut-through in life, you have to back yourself first and foremost. I want to leave the world a bit of a better place for the next generation of young people with disabilities, so it’s easier for them to get a job, get a girlfriend, get sponsored, play tennis, be a Paralympian. That’s why I get out of bed every day, basically.
When it comes to big life moments, I have a top three. Winning gold in Rio for the tennis singles, because I gave up so much to do it. I was there by myself on the court and to be able to pull through was amazing. Starting the Dylan Alcott Foundation and Ability Fest has been lifechanging. And the third most proud moment was when I got on stage at Meredith Music Festival and rapped with Ghostface Killah and the Wu-Tang Clan. It wasn’t planned, I just crowdsurfed, and I rapped it word-perfect.
I would say a few things to my 14-year-old self. One, get a better haircut. Two, stop eating the Doritos and chicken nuggets. Three, most importantly, do not give a shit about what others think about you. I was too worried about the three or four people who used to bully me, but for every one idiot out there, there are thousands of legends. Too many people focus on the negative parts of their lives, not the opportunities.
Interview by Katherine Smyrk, Deputy Editor of The Big Issue.
First published in The Big Issue Edition #578.
Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen.