A heart for encouragement

Priya Cooper is a Paralympian World Champion Swimmer who also earned the title of Young Australian of the Year for Sport in 1999. She won an amazing nine gold medals spanning Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000. She’s also competed in a range of other sporting events, winning medals and breaking world records across the globe.

Since her time on the swimming circuit, Priya has become an inspiring leader in disability services, having sat on a number of high profile boards and as an Ambassador for various organisations. She is currently Deputy Chair of the Disability Services Commission, part of this role has been working with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS); President of WA Disabled Sports Association; and on the Board of the Ability Centre.

She is also a Perth suburban mum of two with a heart for encouraging mothers to live their best lives.

Born with Cerebral Palsy, Priya has had limited use of her legs for her whole life. Cerbral Palsy is a neurological disorder which affects a person’s movement. It can affect people in many different ways and there are also many different types of the disorder.

“I’ve got cerebral palsy and it only affects my legs,” she said. “Pretty much for most of my life I’ve walked around without a wheelchair, but as time’s gone on I’ve got a chair and it makes life easier. I struggle to get around walking now.

“Cerebral Palsy is a banner and a lot of stuff fits under there,” she added. “I’ve always just looked at it like, ‘oh yeah I have a disability.’ It has never really bothered me; I was born with it.

“It’s a neurological disease; my brain doesn’t tell my legs to work like yours do, the signals are going a bit skewiff. Some people with Cerebral Palsy have it in their hands or have their speech affected. Anything that gets sent through your brain needs to get sent through the right channels. It’s different for everyone.”

Choosing to focus on her abilities, Priya has taken up opportunities to live a life of which others dream. Having the benefit of a supportive family and network, her introduction to sport was not that different from any
other kid in Australia.

“Growing up, I was in the pool all the time – as you are in Australia,” she said. “When it came to school, swimming was something I could do and I was good at it.

“I’d race against my able-bodied peers, but when I hit high school our school sports teacher suggested I look at disability swimming. I’d never heard of the Paralympics, never heard of anything like that! I’d been training in a club, but never thinking it was going to go anywhere, I just enjoyed it.

“Within quite a short space of time I was competing at my first Paralympic Games, which was Barcelona.

“I was still 17, I didn’t even know where Barcelona was. So it was a bit of
an eye opener.”

After winning three gold and two silver medals in Barcelona, Priya thought her life would just go back to studying and getting on with things. But instead she became immersed in the elite sporting world – and was loving it. She remembers that time as a great learning curve.

“I don’t know how to describe it because it’s just my life really,” she said. “It’s [winning gold] an awesome feeling. I never thought I was very competitive, but then as time went on I realised I actually was. So I learnt how to use that to deal with it and put it into my swimming. The feeling is amazing.

“Now, when I hear the national anthem, the kids sing it at school, you think of it a bit differently. You put in all this hard work over a long period of time and a lot of hours and you’ve got the result that you wanted. Obviously sometimes I got the result I didn’t want, but at the Paralympic Games, more than often I got what I had expected.

“If you’re swimming in the race and breaking a work record, that’s achievement because you’re marking yourself against the time you’ve done, and the medal is a bonus.”

After all the highs of her wins, it eventually came time for Priya to step back from competing and move into her second career. She had wanted to be a journalist in her younger years, even gaining a degree in the field. Even though she knew her sports career could land her a great job in the industry, her new passion for disability work was leading her into grassroots advocacy.

“Through doing the pathway I’ve done, which is sport, I’ve actually discovered disability. I was born with one, and I’ve always had one, but I never really thought about it. I just lived and did my thing.

“When I got into Paralympic sport my eyes really opened to the whole world. Australia would turn up and we’d have all this whizz bang whatever, and you’d see some of the smaller countries turn up and you see their equipment, you’d see their wheelchairs. The effort that some of these small countries put into how they deal with people with disabilities was very different as well.

“I moved to Sydney to work for Channel 7. When I moved back my decision was that I don’t want to work in the ‘sport’, as such, area. I wanted to work at the grassroots getting people participating, the cohort that aren’t getting any attention. That’s where I’ve moved into work wise and that’s then triggered me into disability services and those sort of areas. Because I’ve got lived experience, I’m interested in it and I can obviously speak on it.”

After her youngest son was born, it was discovered that Priya’s form of Cerebral Palsy was hereditary, as he was also born with the disorder. Priya said part of her focus now is on guiding him on his own journey.

“In the beginning I didn’t deal with it terribly well and it was very hard. When he has his struggles, that’s when I find
it hard.

“Obviously I can understand, but he’s very, very different to me. Everyone’s on their own journey; he has to do things the way he’s going to do it.”

Priya’s current business, which she runs with her husband Rod, is ‘Success is a Choice Global’. Rod also uses a wheelchair after an aircraft accident severed both his legs. He too, is a Paralympic swimmer. Together, they engage in motivational speaking encouraging others to work towards living their dreams.

“My experience is that it’s just who I am and I happen to have a disability. Yes, there are challenges, and there’s also
good things.

“My experience is not the same as somebody else’s experience. Someone might have a real hard time dealing with it and coping day-to-day. Some of the experiences are not good, as is with everybody, but sometimes it is.

“Through parents and things like that I was encouraged to focus on the things I can do and not focus on the things I can’t do. And that’s what I did.

“Be positive about what you’ve got that you can offer. Always see the good in people and try to give back. For example, my medals and my story; it’s not about that, it’s not about the medals. It’s about how you can make a difference to someone’s life from that.”

To find out more about Priya’s journey or her business, Success is a Choice Global, visit successisachoiceglobal.com.

Heather Dowling

 

Celebrating Ability

International Day of People with a Disability is held annually on Sunday 3 December. Good Samaritan Industries (GSI) celebrated the day on Friday 1 December at their Canning Vale warehouse with dancing, games and a formal awards ceremony. GSI is a Uniting Church WA agency providing and supporting employment for people in WA living with a disability.

They awarded a total of 40 scholarships to Year 11 and 12 students with a disability who applied for assistance – setting young people on the road to further training and employment to build bright futures.

GSI also awarded Sarah Potter Awards to seven members of staff with a disability who have shown a positive attitude towards their disability; contributed positively to the morale of their immediate workplace and shown a genuine interest in the welfare of others.

Find out more about GSI at goodsamaritan.com.au.

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