Meet Tony Howe – Former Paralympic's Coach and Wheel Black
Tony is Head of Disability Information and Lead Access Consultant at Independent Living. Tony’s lived experience enables him to provide people with a range of solutions to choose from to assist them with living a good life. With a background like his, Tony certainly is the embodiment of living a full life, never letting his Muscular Dystrophy limit him.
Tony loves sport and has coached Wheelchair Rugby and represented New Zealand in this sport at 2 Paralympics.
I sat down with Tony to learn a bit more about his involvement with the Wheel Blacks and how sport has enhanced his life.
Tony, I understand as a small boy sport was never really an option for you. What was it like as a child with a disability?
My first memories were as a 2-year-old tripping and falling – when others my age could run. So, I always knew I was different (plus my family have a history of Muscular Dystrophy). My walking disintegrated from age 15 and by 25 years old I used a wheelchair exclusively.
At school, sports teams want the fastest and most skilled players, so I was never selected. As a result, my involvement was limited to holding the finish line tape or squeezing the start gun.
Sporting organisations saw me as an accident waiting to happen. I was a young gung-ho guy wanting to participate, but the risks were too great for the organisations. They didn’t want to expose me, and what exposure I did get led to self-doubt and negative response from others.
As a result, I was forced to adopt a ‘sideline supporter’ role.
How did you come to be involved in Wheelchair Rugby?
I can thank a social worker! She introduced me to DRC (now Independent Living) in my early 20s. The DRC staff member asked me to become a DRC volunteer, which I did and that led to me becoming a staff member at Independent Living, which I am to this day.
But she also encouraged me to go to the Laura Fergusson Trust gym to do wellbeing exercises and to retain strength as my ability to walk declined.
There, I met Russ (another Independent Living staff member) who was going through a life changing injury, and others with impairments and major accident injuries. The common theme was they all wanted to get more from their world. They did not let disablement rule their lives.
One guy I met there really changed my life! Gary McMurray introduced me to “Murderball” as a rehab exercise. Murderball was used in spinal injury units in old hospital wheelchairs to encourage strength and mobility. Gary sold the concept to me, but it took me 6 months to build up the courage. I took an able-bodied friend with me to the Otara spinal unit to watch Murderball – or wheelchair rugby as it became known. We both fell in love with it, resulting in me becoming a player and him as a referee.
What effect did participating in Wheelchair rugby have on you?
The opportunity to hang out with other young guys doing what young men love helped me to view my progression into a wheelchair with some positivity. I discovered I could still do things with my body – I could play sport without fear of falling, without people pandering to or trying to protect me. Wheelchair rugby is a full contact sport, so on court we smashed one another!
I was surrounded by lots of young people striving for more – no opportunity to feel sorry for myself when so many others had lost ability in a split second through an accident. It made me take a good hard look at myself, to stop feeling sorry for myself, and realise what I was capable of.
We started travelling nationwide, competing against others with inspirational stories – relationships developed, kindness and friendship amongst so many who each struggled in some way themselves, but never let that hold them back. It turned living in a wheelchair into a positive rather than a negative.
This, coupled with my work at Independent Living, meant I got more vocal, I’d set goals for myself, and it gave me a further sense of purpose.
What was your involvement with the Wheel Blacks?
I was a player for 6 years from shortly after the inception of the game here in NZ through to the formation of a national wheelchair rugby team that would quickly be worldwide known as the NZ Wheel Blacks. .During that time, I just missed selection for the first ever World Cup as a player in 1995 at Switzerland, where NZ went in unranked and came home with a bronze medal.
On retirement from playing, and at the encouragement of fellow team members, I applied for and was appointed as Coach for both Auckland and the Wheel Blacks national team. I held that position for 5 years including taking the team to Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 where the team won Bronze at both Paralympics.
Following my departure, the team won gold at Athens 2004, so I like to think my time as coach contributed positively towards that success.
I also held positions as player Selector and as an Administrator for 12 years, looking after governance aspects and regional co-ordination. It felt good to give back in some way.
What are your best memories from participating with the Wheel Blacks?
Traveling to international events like the Paralympics really opened my eyes and has left me with lasting memories. Not only did I represent my country and win medals, but I also got to meet some truly amazing people.
Cristeen Smith was New Zealand's best track and field Paralympian at the time, and was a champion wheelchair rugby player as well. For the Torch relay for Sydney 2000, I handed the torch to her. It was a surreal experience – just as good as winning any medal.
At Sydney 2000, Boche (akin to Bowls) had 10,000 people watching!! And many of those athletes had to fight to be able to compete. The severity of their disabilities sometimes meant society or institutions had written them off, yet there they were competing on the highest world sporting stage!
At Atlanta 1996 Paralympics, I watched a blind man and his guide dog walk the entire distance from the village to a transport station crossing busy roads and navigating crowds of people in a completely unfamiliar setting. The teamwork between the man and the dog demonstrated so much confidence and mutual trust between the two.
At Atlanta, I also met a Congolese woman with the same disability as me. All she had was an old hospital wheelchair. It brought home how lucky I am to get the support NZ offers, not just the disability funding support but also the Kiwi ‘can do attitude’.
I would not have had these opportunities if I had not got involved with Wheelchair rugby.
Finally, any advice for the Wheel Blacks as they commence their campaign for Paris 2024?
Give everything you have, don’t leave one stone unturned as you will regret it later.
Enjoy every second of the buildup and come back with no regrets.
And most of all – good luck!
Independent Living is delighted to be a partner of the Wheel Blacks, as they strive to reach Paris Paralympics 2024.
If you are interested in supporting their campaign for Gold, or are interested in participating or watching wheelchair rugby, visit https://www.wheelblacks.com/