23 August, 2021
FROM MACKAY TO MURDERBALL, PASSION DRIVES PARALYMPIAN AND CQUNI ALUMNUS
She’s set to represent Australia at the Tokyo Paralympics, and wheelchair rugby player Shae Graham says she’s already won the battle against her own self-doubt. Shae, who completed a Bachelor of Business/Arts at CQUniversity Mackay in 2010, has been in a wheelchair since she was 18, after a horrifying car crash left her with spinal cord injuries.
The accident meant the teenager spent eight months in hospital in Brisbane – time that was meant to be a “gap year”.
“I was planning to go travelling, but instead it was time in recovery and rehab, so when I finally came back to Mackay it was a chance to start uni, and get back to all the normal things I’d had planned,” she explained.
While Shae got stuck into studies, the sports enthusiast was adamant that getting back on the field wasn’t for her.
“My brother and a group of friends had been on me for a while, suggesting I try wheelchair rugby – it annoyed everyone that I just gave up on sport because of the accident,” she said.
“But for years I was so sure it wasn’t for me - as an outsider looking in, it looked like they were all trying to kill each other!”
After moving to Melbourne then travelling overseas with her brother, a lost bet meant she agreed to give the sport, known as “murderball” for its extreme clashes, a go.
“I got my first sports chair in 2014, and straight away loved it – the game is highly strategic, fast paced, full contact and ridiculously fun,” she said.
“It didn't take long to set the goal of playing for Australia, I worked hard and got my skills to a point where I was invited to a national team camp, and have now been on the national squad for two and a half years."
"I was lucky enough to spend all of 2019 travelling the world and playing a sport I love," she said.
Shae was the first woman to be selected for and represent Australia playing wheelchair rugby, a mixed gender sport, and is still the only woman on the Steelers squad.
The team is defending its consecutive-gold record, after Olympic glory at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Shae’s also achieved big things off the field, continuing with studies to complete her Master of Information Management, and a Graduate Certificate in Teaching while working as a librarian in Melbourne.
“I developed my obsession with learning while I was at CQU, I originally started a single degree but swapped to double half way through, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” she said.
“Especially before I got back into playing sport, study definitely tapped into my competitive side!”
“Last year in lockdown, being stuck at home and not being able to work was driving me crazy, so getting back into study made a huge difference.”
The pandemic also threw out preparations for the Olympics, but Shae proved her resilience as the Games were moved back a year, and as she and the squad continued training remotely.
“It’s been a wild ride with lots of unknowns, and that’s been frustrating, and scary. But ultimately, it’s been good for my development as a player, and for the confidence I’ll take to Tokyo now.”
Shae and her team fly to Japan next Wednesday 18 August, with five days of competition beginning on 25 August.
Shae still has family in Mackay, and she says they’ve followed her career eagerly – and with a bit of ‘told you so!’ too!
“My brother doesn’t let me forget it was because of him I got into the sport!” she laughed.
“But it’s a good lesson, not to let things hold you back, even if it’s your own stubbornness.”
“You never know when you’ll find your next big passion!”
Shae’s also continuing her passion for learning and teaching, as an Australian Institute of Sport ambassador for The Good Village, an online resource for primary school children to learn about the benefits of physical activity, nutrition, wellbeing and teamwork.