Christie's claiming gold in more ways than one

TS Eliot once wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

I first met Christie Dawes (née Skelton) back in 1994. I was a judge on the NBN Television Sports Star of the Year panel and Christie received the Rising Star Encouragement Award. We shared a table at the presentation dinner and whilst she was a relative newcomer to wheelchair sport, I sensed that a long, illustrious career in the sport lay ahead. Fast forward to 2016 and Christie is now competing in her sixth Paralympic Games.

I’ve seen Christie over the years being put through a gruelling training regime around Hamilton, which circumnavigates Broadmeadow Racecourse. I often cycle past and she always acknowledges my presence, sometimes with gritted teeth through sheer exhaustion.

As the Paralympic Games open in Rio I’m happy to be able to share her story.

En route to a family holiday at Evans Head, Christie’s life changed forever. In very heavy rain, a dog ran out in front of the car at Rainbow Flat. The brakes were slammed on and in a devastating outcome, Christie was deemed a paraplegic.

Christie had always been interested in athletics and was by her own admission “a tomboy”. Her life, growing up at Booragul, was an adventure – hanging out around the lake with friends and attending the local primary school. But she was forced to change schools following the accident due to accessibility issues. Christie was also a victim of bullying.

But life took a turn for the better when St Mary’s High School, Gateshead, threw her a lifeline. The school offered accessibility and the care and compassion needed to overcome the pain of being bullied as Christie learnt to cope with her ‘new normal’.

She describes the Catholic school system as ‘the best thing that happened at that time’. Christie moved on to St Francis Xavier’s College, Hamilton, and vividly recalls her teachers’ caring natures. Christie was selected for her first Paralympics in 1996 in Atlanta. She didn’t record a podium finish but was named ‘Young Paralympian of the Year’.

Following the completion of her HSC, Christie moved to Sydney in 1998 to train full-time with one of Australia’s greatest wheelchair athletes, Louise Sauvage. She enjoyed squad training under coach Andrew Dawes and was subsequently selected for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. 

In Sydney she had a disastrous meet. She realised that the Sydney experiment was only about eating, training and sleeping. There was no balance in her life, hence the poor results.

A move back home was inevitable if she was to achieve further in wheelchair sport. But before returning home, Christie gained a Certificate 3 in Childcare at Crows Nest TAFE, planning for life after the track.

Despite the suggestion there was no balance in her life in Sydney, I surmised there had been one distraction in her training – coach Andrew Dawes, who proposed in 2001.

Following their marriage in 2002, Christie enrolled at Belmont TAFE, undertaking a Diploma in Community Services. Her training program continued under ‘Dawsie’ and the balance that had evaded Christie previously was now achieved. (Dawsie also coaches Kurt Fearnley).  

Christie furthered her studies at the University of Newcastle, graduating with a Bachelor of Education (primary) in 2006. She competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens but with little success.

However, Beijing in 2008 was a memorable moment in Paralympic history with the re-run of the Women’s 5000m event. Some will recall the footage of the crash on the track with Christie heavily involved. Fortunately she recovered to take her place in the 4x100m relay and claim a silver medal.

But life wasn’t only about training with her coach and soul mate Dawsie. In 2011 they became parents to a beautiful boy, Charlie. What a character he is too! Charlie heads off to school next year and you can see Christie’s joy as she anticipates sharing Charlie’s school days.

She added to the trophy cabinet in London in 2012 with bronze in the 5000m event which was satisfying after Beijing. Completing marathons in Boston, London, Chicago and New York each year is part of life.

Christie still tweaks her style and position in the chair to keep on doing what she loves as was evident in this year’s Gold Coast marathon when she smashed the race record. She recorded an A time which was an automatic qualifier for the Paralympic Games in Rio.

What about Rio?  She’s contesting the marathon, 5000m, 1500m, and 4 x 4 relay events – an exhausting schedule but her eyes light up at the thought of the challenge.

I get the feeling that the balance that eluded her in the early days of wheelchair sport now frames her life. She eats well, a ‘cheese and crackers girl’ which provides fuel for the 12-14 sessions she puts in each week. Both families provide the support network that enables Christie to continue pursuing her dreams.

Where to after Rio? Christie admits she’s “a homebody” – Sundays in PJs is the perfect day! As a family they love the beach, coffee on Darby St and chasing Charlie “who has a better social life than his parents”.

Dipping her toe into interior decorating is the next venture Christie plans to complement her interest in property investments. A cruise with friends will provide a welcome diversion from training and they have acquired a new family member in Debby, the greyhound.

Christie lives her life to the full and sees any adversity as a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you imagine. But when it comes to acceptance and achieving your goals, Christie Dawes claims the gold medal.

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Helene O'Neill Image
Helene O'Neill

Helene O'Neill is the Parish-Family Liaison Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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