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Newcastle Herald


Date: 13/03/2010
Words: 1430
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: Weekender
Page: 12
Opportunity knocked the day all-round sportswoman Liesl Tesch fell off her bike and broke her back, writes JADE LAZAREVIC.

School has only been out for one hour but Liesl Tesch is already burning down the freeway towards Sydney.

It's a Wednesday afternoon and the Brisbane Water Secondary College geography teacher has organised to go sailing on Sydney Harbour.

A new-found love of life at sea is the result of Tesch's adventure aboard skipper David Pescud's yacht as she and a crew of 15 others completed the gruelling journey from Sydney to Hobart in December.

The only difference with this crew is that they all live with a disability.

Newcastle-born Tesch, 40, has never backed down from a challenge since breaking her back after coming off her mountain bike, then aged 19, while riding around her neighbourhood at Coal Point.

She fell two metres onto a cement driveway, leaving her an incomplete paraplegic with only partial use of her legs and dependent on a wheelchair for long distances.

The injury could have been worse.

"When I crashed my mountain bike, I was found by the daughter of an old lady who lived across the road. She was a nurse," Tesch says.

"I wasn't moved around, so the fragment of bone that cut into my spinal cord probably didn't do the damage that it would have done had I been picked up and moved around."

Doctors told her she would never walk again.

The news was particularly difficult to grasp for Tesch, who had always led an active lifestyle, growing up at Lake Macquarie swimming, sailing and windsurfing and playing basketball and cycling.

"You name it, I did it," Tesch says.

"When the doctor said, 'You're never gonna walk again' I went to my physio and he said 'Why don't you try wheelchair basketball?' "

Tesch, an accomplished basketballer, played in representative teams at high school and university, but playing the sport in a chair was a new challenge.

First she had to learn her way around a wheelchair.

After enduring months of physiotherapy and rehabilitation - and mastering that wheelchair - Tesch made the NSW women's wheelchair basketball team.

Shortly after, Tesch was invited to trial for the national team, where she first represented Australia at the world championships in 1990.

Known for her aggressive playing style, she became the first woman in the world to play professional wheelchair basketball.

She has competed as a member of Australia's Women's National Wheelchair Basketball League and taken part in five Paralympic Games since Barcelona in 1992, captaining Australia's women's wheelchair basketball team The Gliders and winning two silver medals and one bronze.

The elusive gold medal is in her sights for London 2012.

At 40, Tesch is the second oldest on the team heading to compete at the world championships in Birmingham, UK, in July, but she's eager to chase gold.

"I've won two silvers and a bronze, so I'm after the third one!"

Growing up at Coal Point, Tesch attended Toronto High School ("Tronno" she giggles) and studied at the University of Newcastle (she has a Bachelor of Science degree and a Diploma in Education).

A Novocastrian at heart who makes the drive from her home in Woy Woy to visit her mother at Blackalls Park once or twice a week, Tesch lived in Sydney for five years so she could play wheelchair basketball.

Three years ago she moved to Woy Woy, which offers a halfway point between basketball training, and now sailing, in Sydney and her family in Newcastle.

She plans to buy a house in Newcastle one day.

"Once a Novocastrian, always a Novocastrian," she says.

Before living in Woy Woy, Tesch spent five years based in Europe, where she played wheelchair basketball professionally.

The seed of moving to Europe was planted during celebrations after the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, when she vice-captained the Australian women's wheelchair basketball team.

Tesch, sporting the green and gold-streaked hair she is famous for, spoke with players from men's European teams who encouraged her to play professionally in Europe.

Not in a women's league, but in the men's.

Tesch was taken aback by the suggestion.

"They said, 'Come and play in Europe, Liesl' and I said 'But I'm a girl' and they said, 'But you're good enough', so I moved to Spain and then Italy and France," Tesch says.

"I got paid to do what I love."

In Europe, she played in men's teams in Madrid, Sardinia and Paris.

Being the only woman on the court had its setbacks initially, namely because of "a few sexist blokes", but otherwise she was accepted by the large majority.

"You could always tell how blokes'

"I'm a geography teacher so I think it's actually my job to see the world."

relationships were with the women in their lives just by the way they treated you on the court," she says.

"The second game I put my arm up for the jump ball and a guy reached over and grabbed my boob and I'm like, 'That is so not OK', but my Spanish was shit and I couldn't communicate what had happened, so I just had to play until the end.

"They didn't know a chick was coming to play against them but after that the word had spread around and I was fine."

In the meantime, Tesch began recruiting women who were sitting on the sideline and started a Spanish women's team.

She became a driving force behind the task of establishing a women's wheelchair basketball league in Europe and competed with all-female teams in Italy and France.

After five years in Europe doing what she loved, Tesch returned to Australia to fulfil her commitments as a teacher and to captain the Australian team at the Beijing Paralympic Games.

Swapping life in Paris for Woy Woy? Not easy.

"Being in Woy Woy compared to Europe nearly killed me at the beginning but I also had fallen in love with an Austrian guy in Paris, so I brought him back with me, which was a really good plan . . . but I've since exported him because he wasn't good enough."

She misses the culture and the languages but regularly travels overseas to visit the friends she has made and to compete.

Tesch has visited more than 50 countries and she's even been to Mount Everest base camp.

"I love to travel," Tesch says.

"I'm a geography teacher so I think it's actually my job to see the world."

Travelling is not only motivated by her love of geography but her dedication to introducing sport into the lives of disabled people around the world, working in places such as Bosnia, Africa and South America.

She has been able to have facilities set up and networks provided for disabled women in third world countries.

Her latest effort is organising a disabled sports program for communities in Alice Springs.

Tesch's adventure from Sydney to Hobart is documented in a new four-part series airing on SBS from March 18, Disable Bodied Sailors.

Skipper David Pescud has led the Sailors with disAbilities (SwD) yacht to Hobart many times.

In the notorious 1998 Sydney to Hobart race, when only 44 of the 115 yachts crossed the finish line, he captained a disabled crew.

Five boats sank, six men died and 55 were airlifted to safety, but Pescud's crew was not among them. They won their division.

In 2009, Pescud wanted to bring together a crew who had not done the trip before and had little experience in sailing.

A handful of people with disabilities ranging from paraplegia to blindness were picked to try out for one of 16 spots on the trip.

Tesch earned a place. They completed the race in three days, 20 hours and 47 minutes, with the crew manning the boat in six-hour shifts. The team finished in 29th position out of 94.

It was cold, wet and exhausting but the "most amazing" experience of her life.

"Any chance I get, I'm sailing," she says.

"Basketball trapped me inside for 20 years and now I've got a thing that takes me back, because I grew up on the lake, so I'm back outside again."

It's challenges like these that Tesch believes she would not have had the determination to accomplish had she not had the accident.

"I have no doubt that my life has changed - it's hard to say for the better because of this catastrophe thing - but I definitely take lots of opportunities now because they're there," she says.

"I think if I would have had this accident in other countries in the world there's a good chance I would have been dead, even, so every day I pack stuff in because I can.

"I have to have my head on and my mind open."

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