“I was at a swimming carnival with about 300 kids. There was a retaining brick wall that collapsed, it kind of broke up into little chunks but there was a metre of it that landed squarely on me and snapped my back.” Paralympian Daniela Di Toro.
Paralympian Daniela Di Toro is an Australian tennis champion and one of life’s super gals.
She’s competed at five Paralympic Games, is the 2010 French Open doubles champ, a former singles world number one and has played at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon.
At just thirteen she was at a school swimming carnival when a brick wall collapsed, her body bore the brunt and she lost the use of her legs.
Inspirational is an over-used word but when it comes to Paralympian Dani, it fits.
Martine Harte: Dani, the stats on your Wikipedia page are beyond impressive what do you name as your greatest sporting moment?
Daniela Di Toro: That’s hard because in 25 years there are so many things, really small things that were big for me. No doubt my very first Wimbledon was exceptional, in one of those “can’t quite believe I’m here moments.” I remember being at the old Wimbledon club and looking out at court 3 and being so whelmed you know and feeling so grateful particularly to all the women who had gone before me.
Can you take us through what happened in 1988?
Daniela Di Toro: Yeah I was at a swimming carnival with about 300 kids. There was a retaining brick wall that collapsed, it kind of broke up into little chunks but there was a metre of it that landed squarely on me and snapped my back.
I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t feel my own touch, had no sensation through my legs and pretty much instantly knew I was in trouble.
I was 13 at the time and ended up in hospital for about 4 months and was again very fortunate to meet some very cool people in hospital and I had a network of supportive family and friends. I have a wog family and they know how to do grief pretty well and despite their own grief they were very supportive.
I got out in 4 months and after that played my first wheelchair tournament in Australia.. within a year I was travelling.
Who was instrumental to you throughout this period, because you were only 13-years-old?
Daniela Di Toro: I’ve always been a pretty independent, precocious kid, I was also the youngest person on this ward so being surrounded by lots of different people who were experiencing a lot of different things, hearing some of the things they were going through I made some pretty clear choices.
I realised that anger and blame and self-loathing just wasn’t really that productive and that was a really easy choice.
Then meeting two men in particular, Brian McNicholl is a multiple medallist, he’s a weight lifter and an exceptionally beautiful man, he came in to see me early on. It wasn’t a big deal; it wasn’t a big conversation but he was the first person I met who was out there doing stuff. At the same time I was very fortunate to have Sandy Blythe as my recreational officer at the time, he was captain of the mens wheelchair basketball team.
I got to spend four months with this man who really got that I wanted to get out of hospital with all the tools necessary for me to live a rich and independent life. He would do total asshole things like we’d go to the art gallery and he’d just throw me out of my chair in the middle of the foyer and just watch and laugh as I was getting back into my chair! Lots of people can’t do that transfer, it’s not an easy transfer when you can’t move any of your legs and you don’t have any butt muscles and you’re as embarrassed as hell… I was so fortunate to have him in my world.
The accident happened in the march and by june you were playing wheelchair tennis, seriously?
Daniela Di Toro: Yeah well I played my first tournament in August. I played in my everyday chair and it was hilarious when I think back but what I did see was the number one woman in Australia. She was beyond talented. I played a lot of tennis before my accident and was all about the serve and volley really so watching this chick play I was like, “oh man I can do that, give me a bit of time, I can beat her!” I later played in the Aust open and I did beat her.
Most people are dealing with so many issues that we’ll never know about. Sure we can say so much of that is a result of so many of us having our basic needs met so we’re actually kind of free to let our minds and our bodies be in a very different place that lends itself to different ailments: emotional, physical, mental spiritual. I think it’s all completely relative, I’m not here to judge anyone’s issues. It is healthy to get a bit of perspective when you are feeling those things to remember we are very fortunate.
I think that is what pulled me through so much of it; the constant reminder that regardless of what I’m experiencing I am deeply fortunate compared to most of the people I’m sharing the planet with. I ‘got that’ when I was in hospital as a 13-year-old kid, I got that I could have easily been a quadriplegic and be sucking through a straw.
Once I started travelling I got that I could have been born in some of the countries I was travelling to and would not have received anywhere near as much general support and opportunities I received simply because of where I was born. So I think it’s healthy to get a little perspective no doubt.
Some of your answers have referred a little to spirituality, how important is spirituality in your life?
Daniela Di Toro:: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I’ve always been a questioning kid. I was raised in the catholic church …. the answers weren’t quite cutting it for me, you often see hypocrisy when you have a serious injury particularly when you are so young. My family was asked many questions like, “Why do you think it happened?” People would even take it upon themselves to write letters to me and my family saying, “You deserve this, you’ve done these bad things.”
That’s a sad indictment on people…
Daniela Di Toro: Yeah it was pretty intense actually, I didn’t see a lot of it, there are lots of people out there with lots of different ideas, some are more deluded than others.
I found myself asking why? Catholicism didn’t really help me answer those questions. Certainly there are great stories about how to be a good kind, considerate human being but in terms of understanding it didn’t really help, so I kind of gravitated towards Eastern philosophy, ultimately to a bit of Buddhism.
It’s all a question isn’t it? Where you find the answer is in various places, I find it just as much in my backyard as I do if I go into a meditation class.
I have a lot of pragmatism, it is how it is, and it’s ok. Even though it’s really challenging, there is much to be learnt from suffering and pain actually..
Dani is now a certified Chinese Medicine Practitioner with a plan to open her own clinic with some friends she met through her course.
She also works with Foundation 97 .. check out the Facebook page here
GOT FIVE? Read fascinating chat with Australian Diamonds World Cup captain Laura Geitz here.
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or Sandra Sully Tap here.
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