Daniela Di Toro is a six-time Paralympian and was co-captain of the 2016 Australian Paralympic Team. As a wheelchair tennis athlete she reached world number one in singles and doubles, is a 10-time Australian Open champion and won the French Open in 2010. In recent years, Danni has made the switch to wheelchair table tennis representing Australia in her new sport at the 2016 Rio Paralympics with an eye towards Tokyo 2020. Away from the court, Danni is the Athlete Welfare and Engagement Officer for the Paralympics Australia, a Community Partner of Beyond Blue.
Life was pretty great for me growing up in the South East suburbs of Melbourne. Loads of open space, not coming home till dark, playing all kinds of sport with mates down at the local tennis club or parks, riding bikes, making go carts and building cubby houses. It was an active life with a great community around me. We didn’t have a lot in terms of material wealth but I had a great family and friends and I felt like anything was possible. I was six when I decided I was going to be a surgeon. I was pretty academic and loved learning and reading as much as did razzing around outside. While I didn’t have professional sporting aspirations, I did have a great love for sport and played everything: cricket, basketball, football, ran long and short distance races and was playing local, regional and eventually state level tennis by the time I was 13.
It was 1988 and school swimming carnival time had kicked around again and while I was an avid sports person I wasn’t too keen on swimming unless it was mucking around at the beach. I wanted to wag but was convinced by a mate to go. Towards the end of the day, with most of the events done and dusted, I stayed on to cheer my classmates in one of the final races of the day when three quarters of the retaining wall behind us collapsed on approximately 200 students. About 30 of us were taken to hospital that day. Fortunately I was the only one permanently injured as the wall broke my back, severed my spinal cord and left me a complete paraplegic. I’m sure many still have emotional, mental and physical scars from that day but I feel we were all lucky. It could have been so much worse.
As soon as the wall collapsed I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t feel my legs and knew enough about the human body to know it was either spinal shock or spinal damage so when I was told I had sustained a complete severing of my spine and that I wouldn’t walk again, it was more of a relief to know where I was at. I think those initial moments were more difficult for my parents. Being in a spinal ward with so many other patients of differing ages and different degrees of damage gave me a great deal of insight into what would and wouldn’t be useful for my own recovery. My family were totally devastated and had a great deal of grief and concern for my future. There were lots of tears, anger, wanting to place blame, and a wish to voice their distress in ways that would somehow produce answers for them and make life better for me. While valid for my family, all those emotions and reactions were not particularly useful for me and so I never really bought into them. In the early days my focus was to get upright, get fit, learn how to take care of myself and get home as soon as possible. I was lucky I had great role models around me who also acted as great support networks for my family. Sandy Blythe and Brian McNicholl in particular were elite athletes in their own right and wheelchair users who had a great impact on me and my idea on what was possible for people living with a disability. It was good timing as the first things you are told in that type of hospital setting are the things that you cannot do, that you will never be able to do and what you will have to re-learn all over again. Having these humans in my life early on showed me that this moment in hospital was temporary and there was no reason I couldn’t continue to live a full and productive life.
Once I left hospital, however, things shifted pretty quickly. What struck me early on after my accident was not just how different my life was going to be, but also how it shifted my thoughts about what it meant to live a meaningful one. I felt a real disconnect from my schoolmates in the early days and I didn’t feel aligned in any way to many of the things that were going on around me. In many ways, tennis was my saving grace. Developing my skills as an elite athlete and working to nail school at the same time became a real focus for the next few years.
It wasn’t until a few years later around 17 years of age that my mental health really started to be impacted in ways that became a major concern for myself, and those closest to me.
For me, resilience is the by-product of working through really difficult times and seeing them as great opportunities to learn and grow. Having gratitude for those times of struggle and trusting that I can find a way to work through them when they arise in the future is what makes me resilient. Life provided a great deal of those learnings really early on for me and I guess I have been building on them ever since. It doesn’t mean the tough times don’t arise, but it does mean I have tools I can rely on to work through them.
The pursuit of excellence through sport has always felt like a double-edged sword. On one hand is the ability to focus my attention, my frustration, my wish to improve and make the most of every opportunity. It has provided me with an incredible vehicle to know and challenge myself each and every day. On the other hand, being the best in the world forced me to compartmentalise myself and create a disconnect from the important and healthy triggers that would otherwise be there to remind me to take care of myself, be vulnerable and open my heart and connect to others in an honest and meaningful way. This disconnect and relentless drive for improvement created dangerous times in my life where I experienced burnout, a real sense of helplessness and hopelessness and a genuine wish to not want to be here anymore. Having said that, in more recent times it has also provided me with a community that understands these challenges all too well. This community has provided me with safe places to speak about and address these aspects of my life in ways that have been incredibly healing and have allowed me to use my experiences to support and help others.
As Sandy always told me “Dare to do greatly!” Explore your passions and find your purpose. Look for communities and places that celebrate all that you are and all that you bring. Reach out when you need to and be that person who can hold a space for others when they are in need. There is strength in vulnerability as well as an opportunity for self-awareness and growth. Finding safe places to be vulnerable is key, even if it takes a little while to find the right place for you.
Be brave and explore who you are as a human and what constitutes a meaningful life. Define yourself. Don’t let others define who you are and who you are not. While there are nuanced challenges that go with having a disability, it’s important to remember that you are not 'disabled' and you are not your disability in the same way that you are not your results, your bank account or your job. While being a wheelchair user gives me opportunities to see life in a particular way, I am by no means defined by my wheelchair. I am many things and I am proud of who I am and all that comes with being me. Finding people who are able to celebrate and encourage growth for me as a person is key to my mental and physical health as well as maintaining meaningful relationships.
While it’s important to take the time to understand the various nuances that apply to people living with a disability, I would personally prefer that people ask me directly about what I might or might not need or what is or isn’t appropriate, rather than make an assumption. Everyone is different and things change. It’s like me being invited to go to a gig that is up a flight of stairs and has no accessible toilet. While I have been known to be piggy backed up flights of stairs, I appreciate it heaps when mates are mindful of that and maybe check the venue out before inviting me to go.
I believe more than anything, whether it’s someone with a disability or someone of a different gender, culture, colour or religion that it’s important that we are able to see, hear and be aware of the person first and foremost. When we can see the things that are similar about us and appreciate the differences, then life is truly inclusive.
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