When Dylan Alcott took out his fourth consecutive Australian Open tennis title in the quad wheelchair singles, those who knew him weren’t surprised.
“From day one he was a fighter. You could tell he had that determination to make it, even as a tiny baby,” his father Martin Alcott told 7.30.
He well remembers the day his second son Dylan was born.
“He had a lump the size of my fist on his back and I remember the obstetrician saying, ‘Oh, look, that should be OK, it might just be a lump of fat or something like that’,” he said.
“Obviously history has told us that wasn’t a lump of fat.”
The lump was actually a tumour wrapped around the newborn’s spine.
Martin says the first surgery to remove it was a delicate and nerve-wracking procedure.
“We kissed him when he went in for that first operation, in all honesty not knowing if we’d see him 13 hours later,” he said.
“That was how I found out about the extent of what his disability would end up being.”
Dylan’s parents were told he would never walk, but what they couldn’t have known was that despite his disability he’d go on to win three Paralympic gold medals, five grand slam titles and change the way Australians saw disability.
Sport ‘changed my life forever’
As a kid, Dylan’s brother Zack said he was determined to join in, playing cricket, skateboarding and generally being an annoying little brother.
“He was always really competitive and I think that really played into where he is today,” Zack said.
“He kind of had that, ‘I’m not going to be left behind’ mentality.”
As the brothers grew up, that mentality was tested as Dylan went through a tough time at school, where some of the kids called him names.
“Some people started calling me ‘the cripple’ everywhere that I went,” Dylan said.
“I think it’s got a real negative connotation that you’re broken, less capable, unachieving, and for two years of my life I started believing them.
“I became really embarrassed about the fact that I was in a wheelchair, and it was ruining my life, to be honest.”
Finding Paralympic sport changed his life.
“Not only did it get me fitter, but I also met people who were just like me, other people in wheelchairs who were smiling, happy, maybe even married, travelling the world, doing things that I didn’t know if I could do,” he said.
“I didn’t know any positive role models with disability [until then], so it was a real eye-opening experience for me.”
Alcott out to make ‘disability sexy’
Now, Dylan wants to be a role model for other young people with disabilities.
He’s set up a foundation to help them get into sport or study through scholarships and mentoring.
“I want to help young people with disabilities who are just like me, who feel marginalised and who are embarrassed about their disability, you know, achieve their dreams in whatever they want to do.”
He also wants to change the world around them.
His organisation, Get Skilled Access, consults with businesses to make them more accessible for staff and customers with disabilities.
“I’m trying to make disability sexy and fun so people understand and want to care about it.
“People with disabilities like me, I want to be a client, I want to travel, I want to bank, I want to go to restaurants and I want to do these things but sometimes the customer service and the access isn’t good enough for us to do that.
“So we’re just trying to improve these organisations to not only help the disabled community get out and spend their money, but also get these organisations ready to employ people with disabilities, which is a real big passion of mine.”
Dylan himself has no trouble finding work.
As well as his international tennis career, he’s a motivational speaker, Triple J radio host and runs the Dylan Alcott Foundation as well as Get Skilled Access.
He thanks his disability for that.
“I love the fact that I’m in a wheelchair, I’m really proud of it and it’s given me a lot of my opportunities in life,” he said.
“And if I can increase the number of people with disabilities that feel comfortable to go to a music festival, to attend the Australian Open, to start playing tennis, to get a job, whatever it is, that’s why I do what I do.”