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Sport, Health & Wellbeing

Canberra's own Para-athlete of the Year

2021 was a tough year for most – but for others, like Bachelor of Sport Science student and para-athlete James Turner, it was a year of success, triumph, and celebration.

James – who won Para-athlete of the Year at the Canberra Sport Awards this year – also had great success competing in the Tokyo Paralympics and the National Championships, all the while managing to juggle his studies at UC.

“In Tokyo I actually managed to win gold and break a Paralympic record in the 400m,” James – who finished the race with heat stress – says.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the time I was looking for, I was hoping for a bit faster.”

It’s clear that James is a high-achiever, and working with his Cerebral Palsy (CP) is often a difficult task – one that proved tricky in his 100m race in Tokyo.

“I managed to bungle the start of the race – being coordination impaired, balance is very hard, and the start is the hardest part of any race,” he explains.

“The guy in the lane next to me twitched right before the gun went off and I told myself not to react to it, but of course it’s hard not to, and so when the gun went off I was already three metres behind the rest of the pack.

“I ended up with a silver – which is still great – but obviously the end-goal was a gold.”

For James, he tries not to let his CP get in his way, but it’s not always as easy as it might appear.

“Movements are hard for me to do, it’s hard for me to walk, hard for me to balance, my endurance isn’t as good as an able-bodied counterpart,” James says.

“Even my depth perception isn’t good – basically, it’s almost like competing drunk.

James’ journey to university hasn’t been a simple one. He began a degree in engineering at the University of Wollongong, before realising the high contact hours and intensive subjects didn’t mesh with his training schedule.

When he made the move to Canberra to train at the Australian Institute of Sport,
UC was the obvious choice – and James hasn’t looked back.

“I’ve  found that my sport science degree really plays in to what I’m doing at training – I’m going to uni during the day to learn about what I’ll be doing at training that night,” James says.

“I’ve been taking it slow, I’ll only be doing one subject next semester. I’m actually using this degree to supplement my plans to become a personal trainer, so I’m also going to be doing a personal training course next year.”

It’s clear that James is a lover of all things sport and exercise. In fact, there was a time in his life where he had to choose between a career in soccer and his athletics opportunities.

“I played soccer for the Pararoos – which is Australia’s CP soccer side. I got into that program when I was about 12 years old, playing for the NSW team, and started playing for the Pararoos when I was 15,” James says.

“We went all over the world, and that was my first foray into higher level sport. It was an amazing community and great bunch of guys.”

While he was thriving on the soccer field, James had no idea he was being watched as a potential para-athlete for Australia.

“I actually got a call from athletics saying ‘hey you used to run the 800m, can you still do that?’,” James says.

The rest? History.

“I guess it was a bit of a choice between the two. I’m not allowed to play soccer anymore, I’d love to, but the risk of injury is just too high,” he says.

“The other problem with soccer, is there’s no funding. I wouldn’t be able to do it full time like I do with athletics – so that’s just the natural choice because I’m able to do a sport that I love full time, and it can support me while I work towards a career.”

James is from the NSW mid-north coast, and has a twin sister – who James says, manages to exceed in every sport she tries her hand at.

It creates a fun, but competitive dynamic between the two – and it’s a key driver when James looks over his sporting career.

“She really is good at everything. You put her in the pool, she immediately breaks a record, you put her on the soccer field, she’s immediately playing at a representative level,” he says.

“So I always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and was always very competitive.”

It’s a streak that’s taken James to amazing heights in his athletics. When he debuted at the Rio Olympics in 2016, he beat his nearest competitor in the 800m by over seven seconds – and obliterated the world record.

He’s also won world titles at the World Para-athletics Championships, and trains along side three of Australia’s best Para-athletes in Vanessa Low, Scott Reardon, and Chad Perris.

So what’s next?

“I want to go all up from here. I want to beat my personal bests, I want to go to [the Paris Olympics]. I just want to get better,” James says.

“And I am still feeling the hurt of that silver in the 100m, so a gold in that would really take the cake.”

Words by Elly Mackay, stock images used.

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