Fighting spirit

Mark Rothfield | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 6

Paralympian gold medallist Liesl Tesch has overcome the odds to claim one of sailing’s highest accolades …

With a murder of magpies perched at her feet and on her arm, Liesl Tesch silently regards the view from the porch of her waterfront cottage. Beside her chair, her father’s ashes rest for eternity in an antique chest, while plants from her late mother’s home take bloom in the surrounding garden.

Tesch looks equally grounded. She belongs here.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea.

CALM BACKDROP

‘Home’ is the NSW Central Coast hamlet of Woy Woy, a place that means ‘much water’ in the local Darkinjung dialect.

They could hardly call it ‘much excitement’, for the scene is as idle as it is idyllic … boats bobbing on a ribbon of dappled blue water, framed by the concrete arch of nearby Rip Bridge.

It’s not the most glamorous place to find a globetrotting sailing star. Until now, Woy Woy’s one and only international star was Goon Show comedian Spike Milligan – Tesch is equally successful, if less celebrated, on the international stage.

More would doubtlessly have heard of her, but for the fact that she wheels and deals in the world of ‘disabled’ sport. Her achievements over six consecutive Paralympics are overshadowed by able-bodied compatriots, yet a tougher competitor you’re unlikely to meet.

Tesch’s medals are forged from the same precious metals as those of the Olympians. They mean the world, these gold, silver and bronze trinkets, with effort and emotion invested in every one. Each is the sum of a multitude of parts, a complex construct of fate and time.

She likes to let strangers touch her medals, to let them be inspired, but mostly Tesch shares them with those who have supported her throughout the highs and harrowing lows of a rollercoaster life.

Most bittersweet of all is her Paralympic gold medal, the globally-recognised symbol of success and sacrifice, which was finally draped around her neck in London in September, 2012. It came in almost unimaginable circumstances …

Physically spent after her first day of sailing with skipper Daniel Fitzgibbon, Tesch climbed into bed with a hot-water bottle. In the middle of the night, her sister Trudii rang from Australia.

“Mum’s died …” News that cut like a scalpel. “I’d spoken to Mum the night before and her last words to me were, ‘Bring home gold or you’re rats@$t’ – typical Pam Tesch humour,” Liesl says.

“I’d prepared myself for the fact Mum mightn’t be there when I got home, but I certainly believed she’d live until the end of the Games.

“What do you do?”

What do you do?

What Tesch did, ultimately, defines the ‘X factor’ of an elite athlete: “Dan came to me and said, ‘I completely understand, the Games are over’. But I said, ‘No way Fitzy, it’s just the beginning. I’ve got to do it more than ever’.”

Tesch ‘skyped’ her cousins, who were at the hospital in Newcastle, and asked to see her mother’s body. “Seeing her, dead, on the iPad, was possibly a closure,” Tesch explains with strained emotion. “I’m pretty much a realist so I said goodbye to her, then sat there crying.

“My Mum and Trudii were on the journey the whole time. Mum, to her last day, wished my injury had happened to her. She needed the medal; it was as much hers as mine.”

After the ninth race, Tesch sat down with her iPad again to do some result calculations and realised, regardless of races 10 and 11, their lead was unassailable.

Gold. Relief.

“When it came time to get the medal with Fitzy it was almost irrelevant for me,” she recalls. “I was just so happy for Dan when I heard the national anthem playing.

“Afterwards, we both just went to our rooms because we were so tired. It kicked in three days later that we’d won and I was finally able to come home and deal with the Mum thing.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Tesch’s parents were, by her own admission, “alternative”. Her dad was architect-trained, but “never worked for money in the capitalist society” and her mum was a potter.

Born in Brisbane, Tesch moved to New Zealand as an infant and grew up on a surfing beach in a home-made caravan … along with Trudii, five cats, three goats and a pig.

“Every now and then Dad would get some labouring work on the railways, but we just survived. We roamed and went where we could be,” Tesch says. “We fished, we grew vegetables, there was bush tucker and we ate roadkill.

“The rabbits were unreal as long as they weren’t too squashed … I can remember picking them up and thinking ‘rabbit pie!’.

“We’d cook outside on a gas stove and live by the light of the day, going to bed when it grew dark and getting up at sunrise.”

The family moved to Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle, when Liesl was seven, but the bohemian lifestyle continued unabated. The only rule was that the sisters had to be home for the ABC News.

Tesch remembers a windsurfer with a timber wishbone and also commandeering a Laser owned by neighbours. School sport involved an old Skate dinghy.

“Our yard always had a putt-putt being restored by Dad and there was usually another moored on the water,” she says. “The only family holiday I’ve ever been on was putt-putting around Lake Macquarie, camping in the bush. How heavenly is that?”

Tesch confesses to being a less-than-compliant student with a propensity to speak her mind. But growing up free of limitations instilled a belief that anything in life was possible.

Then the impossible happened.

CRUEL FATE

At 19, Tesch crashed her mountain bike. She wasn’t being reckless and there was no car involved. It was the middle of the day and she was sober as a judge when her front wheel struck the gutter, catapulting her over the handlebars.

She landed hard on her bottom, crushing the L1 vertebra and severing the nerve.

A nurse living nearby found Tesch and ensured she was kept still while an ambulance was summoned. Initially she couldn’t move anything from the waist down, but once the swelling eased some of her feeling was restored.

“They’d stick pins in my legs and one day I could feel it – it was unreal. I yelled, ‘Do it again!’,” Tesch says. “I still can’t really feel hot or cold with my feet and in winter my feet are stone cold because there’s not enough circulation.

“My brain says ‘move feet,’ but my feet don’t respond. I can’t feel the muscles that are controlled by that nerve.”

Tesch is deemed an incomplete paraplegic. With the help of orthotics, she can walk short distances, ride a bicycle and drive a car. Only when her legs fatigue is she confined to a wheelchair.

As a super-fit person in the flush of youth, the adjustment was difficult.

“Two months of lying in bed thinking you’d never walk again is not good for anyone,” she recalls. “An injury is a make-or-break moment and you need the resilience and support structure to push through or it’s a hard, hard path.

“Who you are prior to the injury makes a big difference to how you manage. And being 19 was in some ways a good thing because I hadn’t found my path in life.”

THE BASKETBALL YEARS

To while away the recuperation, Tesch would shoot hoops with a foam ball against a small Perspex backboard – a gift from a university basketball team-mate. Eventually her physiotherapist suggested wheelchair basketball.

“They took me out to Mount Druitt (Western Sydney) where people were playing,” Tesch says. “I was wheeled into this big stadium and there were all these people in chairs going fast and having fun.

“They had lives and cars and jobs and possibility. They weren’t useless and hopeless. Life wasn’t over, there was sport.”

Tesch would catch a train to Mount Druitt to play on Thursday nights, returning home at 3am the next day. With her shooting ability and fearless nature, she quickly rose through the ranks.

Five consecutive Paralympic Games ensued, netting two silvers and a bronze. Underlining her ability, in 2001 she signed for the European professional men’s league, which brought stints living in Madrid, Sardinia and Paris.

After Beijing, Tesch travelled to Mount Everest base camp, via Tibet, and the experience was a powerful tonic. A chance email from Sailors with disAbilities was waiting upon her return, asking if Tesch would try out for the Sydney Hobart.

“I’d never done anything more serious than sailing a friend’s trailer sailer, but as I wheeled down the wharf at the Cruising Yacht Club I felt like I was coming home. It’s natural, it feels right … water is part of me.”

Tesch was recruited for the 2009 Sydney Hobart and she featured in a documentary shot aboard the yacht. Daniel Fitzgibbon watched the film with keen interest – as the silver medallist at Beijing he wanted to go to the next level.

He phoned Tesch. Another fragment of fate. “I drove up to Pittwater to meet Dan,” Tesch says. “I’d been reading up on trimming a jib, but as I’m shaking Dan’s hand for the first time, I’m thinking, ‘Oh @#$%, I didn’t read up on how to trim the main’. Then I realised it also had a spinnaker.

“We went for a sail and it was fine. Dan just said, ‘Do you want to come to Miami next week?’ I was on school holidays so I said, ‘Absolutely!’.

“We won the regatta in Miami and then two more in a row. It was unreal.”

Tesch believes Fitzgibbon was Olympic-bound before being paralysed in a swimming accident on Sydney Harbour. He reads the wind like a Slingsby or Belcher, she says, and is tactically astute.

“Being trapped in the body of a quadriplegic means Dan has the patience of a saint, and he’s also a fantastic communicator. I’ve been trained to be the monkey at the front of the boat.

“I have to stay in my chair, but I have a pedal that releases the spinnaker ring, the jib sheets are in front and the vang and Cunningham are double-sided.

“Dan has a canting chair that he controls with a sip-and-puff mechanism – when he blows his chair will tilt to one side; when he sucks it will go the other way. He steers with two poles.”

Tesch adores setting the kite in strong winds and exploiting that innate Australian surfing experience to coax the SKUD18 onto waves. Her favourite memory is sailing in France in 27 knots “with half the Mediterranean hitting me in the face”.

With Fitzgibbon strapped in with Velcro, Tesch carries a knife to cut him free in an emergency. The prospect doesn’t faze her.

Rio 2016 remains firmly in the pair’s plans, although they are currently taking a hiatus from racing.

For her day job, Tesch teaches geography, Aboriginal studies, business studies, commerce, work education, business services and Japanese at Brisbane Waters Secondary College, Woy Woy.

If that’s not enough, she has spent the past two years building a project called Sport Matters into a fully-fledged, not-for-profit aid organisation. ‘For everyone. For life’ is its mantra.

“I’ve spent a lot of time working with people with disabilities in developing countries, using sport to get them out of their houses and into the community,” Tesch says. “No-one has been using sport to address development issues like health and education and hygiene … it’s more than just sport, it’s social change.”

The Sport Matters (sportmatters.org.au) launch was held recently on a Sydney tallship, with representatives of the Australian Olympic Committee attending in a show of support.

Tesch runs the organisation from the home she shares with partner Mark Thomson, an able-bodied and affable volunteer from the Sailors with disAbilities yacht …“who answered all my inane questions.”

There are plans afoot to buy an old yacht to sleep aboard during Pittwater regattas and eventually cruise to Tassie.

But today, perched on her porch, the 44-year-old is content to stop, tend her veggie patch and feed the maggie clutching her arm. A trace of the eccentric, free-range child remains, but Tesch has finally found security – a steady job, a mortgage, a partner and the gold medal so long yearned for.


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