At a lunchtime wheelchair basketball demonstration at the University of Sydney in 1997, Jackie Lauff and Liesl Tesch met playing sport together.
As a very active youngster, Liesl Tesch was heading towards a career in conservation until she crashed her bicycle and broke her back in 1988, when she was 19 years old. As part of her rehabilitation a physiotherapist introduced Liesl to wheelchair basketball, and having played representative basketball with her University, it wasn't long before she was selected to play for NSW and then Australia.
It didn't take Liesl long to realise the benefits of sport for people with disabilities, and the unique power of wheelchair basketball to break down barriers having able-bodied people jump in a wheelchair and play too. She spent much of her later university life promoting sporting opportunities for people with disabilities whilst studying a Bachelor of Science and Diploma of Education.
Jackie Lauff was then in her 2nd year of Occupational Therapy studies and failed to return to her lectures that afternoon. As an able-bodied student, Jackie embraced the game of wheelchair basketball and immediately realised the value of sport to complement traditional rehabilitation. Jackie's passion for sport and development was sparked during a university placement in Fiji in 1999 with the Fiji National Games for the Disabled, and solidified during an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) placement with the Suva 2003 South Pacific Games Organising Committee.
Jackie and Liesl joined the organising committee for the inaugural Australian Women's Festival of Wheelchair Basketball in 1997, the first all-female wheelchair basketball competition to be held in Australia. Jackie played in a wheelchair along with a number of other able-bodied competitors. They have continued to play wheelchair basketball, with and against each other, for the past 14 years.
Jackie and Liesl at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Closing Ceremony
In 2009, Liesl and Jackie's professional lives merged with an idea to develop basketball opportunities for people with disabilities in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia. Liesl mentioned the idea at a motivational presentation while Jackie, in her role as an Inclusion Officer with Basketball Australia, connected with local Alice Springs organisations and started to develop community partnerships. Together they sourced 12 new basketball wheelchairs and delivered a series of coaching, refereeing and disability awareness workshops in Alice Springs, the first project coordinated by the co-founders of Sport Matters.
Later that year at a women's wheelchair basketball demonstration during an International Women in Sport Conference in Sydney, the pair were invited to deliver train-the-trainer basketball workshops in South Africa. The opportunity to combine their energy and experience into an international sport for development project was a dream come true.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, Jackie and Liesl were invited to deliver training, leadership and awareness programs in disadvantaged communities through a number of partner organisations in the Northern Territory of Australia, Timor-Leste and South Africa.
The Tipping Point
A visit to South Africa in 2010 was the first time Jackie had a chance to combine her experiences of sport, development and disability together. The final session of a workshop in Cape Town was a turning point for Jackie. Each participant stated their commitments to action following the workshop and then challenged Jackie to do the same. She acknowledged her own capacity to create social change, to empower others, and to change attitudes. The experience affirmed how powerful sport is, especially in places like Mitchell's Plain where there is very little access to education, employment, and health care. It reinforced her commitment and belief in the power of sport to change lives and ignited a passion to do so on a much bigger scale.
Liesl was invited by AusAID to deliver a wheelchair basketball demonstration at the First Meeting of State Parties on the Convention on Cluster Munitions hosted in Vientiane, Laos, in 2010. En route to Laos, Liesl wheeled down the ramp at Bangkok airport where she was met by landmine survivors from all over the world. It hit her with great intensity that these people living with disabilities had never been given the opportunity to participate in sport, something that is their human right and an opportunity to achieve so much more in life. Liesl felt compelled to bring sport to people like those at the bottom of the ramp and to create sporting opportunities for everyone, for life, especially those living in developing communities.
The time had come for Jackie and Liesl to combine their skills and experiences to create a vehicle for social change with an international reach. They consulted a range of individuals and organisations in and around Australia and slowly their new NGO began to take shape.
Sport Matters was officially registered in September 2011 to make a difference to people's lives using sport as a tool for development in Australia, the Pacific, Asia and Africa.
Jackie is the CEO of Sport Matters and is about to embark on PhD studies to build a stronger academic evidence base for sport and development.
Liesl is a Sport Consultant for Sport Matters and plans to win a Gold Medal in Sailing at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Sport Matters Co-founders on Table Mountain in Cape Town in 2010.
Liesl's determination to be the best female player in the world led to her selection in the Australian Women's Wheelchair Basketball team "The Gliders" for the Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing Paralympic Games.
The disappointing loss in the Gold Medal game at the Sydney Paralympics (winning Silver) didn't last long. During the Closing Ceremony, Liesl was invited to play wheelchair basketball professionally in the Italian Men's League. Twelve months later she moved to Spain and became the first woman in the world to play her sport professionally. Liesl spent five years as a professional athlete playing for teams in Spain, Italy and France.
Liesl's passion for travel has taken her places where others onlydreamofgoing. And as herconfidence and expertise inwheelchair basketball grew, Liesl sought to find, create or improve her sport as part of her journey.
In one of her first adventures Liesl tracked down the Jamaican rehabilitation hospital and played wheelchair basketball on an outside court with old wooden backboards and grass growing high through the cracks in the cement. As the day turned into night the game continued into the moonlight, and a passion for possibility was born.
In the sweaty midday heat of Quito, Ecuador, Liesl played a pick up game with guys in hospital wheelchairs she met in the street. In Bolivia, she was invited to referee the national titles and coach a newly established team Brazil.
Liesl in action at the Beijing Paralympic Games
In Kenya, Liesl united female players on the court for the first time in the history of the nation, and soon after the war in Sarajevo, helped drive the newly-formed women's team who went on to create enormous change and advocate for access to transport and tertiary education for people with disabilities in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
After qualifying as an Occupational Therapist, Jackie spent little time in traditional OT roles. Instead she chose a convoluted career pathway combining her passions for sport, development and disability. She has worked in various roles on a number of international multi-sport events including the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, Melbourne 2005 Deaflympic Games, and Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games.
She travelled the world chasing new opportunities and challenges and managed to squeeze in some post-graduate study along the way. With a desire to learn more, and never one to sit idle too long, Jackie enrolled in and completed two Masters Degrees simultaneously. The Master of Adapted Physical Activity took her to Belgium and Norway (the first OT to complete this course and only the second Australian), whilst tackling post-graduate International and Community Development by correspondence with Deakin University in Australia.
Her experience and international networks led her to Germany to deliver international seminars with the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) and the Freie Universität Berlin. She was also one of a handful of expatriate staff employed by the Beijing 2008 Organising Committee where she worked as a sub-editor for the Paralympic News Service.
With a commitment to both practice and research, Jackie has presented at numerous international conferences including:
- International Symposium of Adapted Physical Activity (ISAPA) in Rio Claro, Brazil
- Special Olympics World Congress in Shanghai, China
- To Remember is to Resist: 40 Years of Sport and Social Change Conference in Toronto, Canada
- ICSEMIS Pre-Olympic Congress in Guangzhou, China
Jackie addressing an international sport leadership seminar in Berlin, Germany