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It takes a family to realize Paralympic dreams
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21:33, September 12, 2008

Natalie Rotumah stood on the stand and covered her mouth with her hands, her face stiff and tense. As her daughter was about to run on a Paralympic track in the Bird's Nest, the mother prayed that she would run well and not fall.

Less than 20 meters away, the daughter, Tahlia, prepared herself for the sprint, loosening up her unsteady right leg. When her name was announced through the speaker, she raised her right arm, supported by a splint, to greet the spectators. She saw her mother, flashed a smile, and then refocused herself on the race.

The starting gunshot was fired, and the mother exploded into cheering, so did her husband, three other daughters and Tahlia's aunt. Tahlia pushed herself ahead, staggered at some point, and managed to pull the race off with a good run. The mother still had her eyes on her daughter who lingered at the finishing line congratulating her competitors. For both, it was a moment of relief.

Scenes of family support like this are common at the ongoing Beijing Paralympic Games. For the Paralympians, or probably any other sportsman, it not only takes hard training or carefully planned diets, but also the backing of a family, to realize their dreams.

Tahlia, 16, was born with haemiplegia, which affects her mobility on her right side. But the aboriginal Australian high school student, from Tweed Heads South in New South Wales, has worked through the impairment to become the country's elite runner in the sports for the disabled.

"I'm very honored to be part of my country in such a way. I thank my family and friends. They think so highly of me. I felt like I've won a gold medal just being here," Tahlia told Xinhua after the race on Thursday.

It was her Paralympic debut, and almost her whole family were here to bear witness. The mother Natalie forked out 20,000 Australian dollars from their house deposit to fund their Beijing trip. "We support her any way, any time, 100 percent," Natalie told Xinhua from the stand.

"And basically that's why we are here. It costs a lot of money, but this is something we wanted to do," she said.

The family waited on hot afternoons outside the athletes' residential areas to meet Tahlia, and planned to stay through the Sept. 6-17 Games to watch her races.

About 40 minutes after the race, Tahlia was brought back by her coach to the stand to join her family. Natalie seated her daughter on her lap, and wiped the sweat off her head. The sisters reached over to congratulate Tahlia, and squeezed together for photos to capture the brief moment of reunion before the youngster returned to warm-down exercises.

Tahlia failed to enter the final of 100m T37 category. But her mother looked at the bright side. "We didn't come here only looking for medals. We are proud that she is here to compete," Natalie said.

Families of the athletes get no medals for their sacrifices, but they are always there at moments of triumphs or defeats.

Last month, an emotional and weeping mother was a fixture of American swimmer Michael Phelps' eight-gold Olympic feat. The picture of an American shooter Matt Emmons burying his head in his wife's arms after a devastating last shot and emerging with a stoic attitude toward defeat also testified for the role of the family.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics is also a stage for family affairs. Some runners who are visually impaired have their spouses as guides on the track. The wife of a South Korean champion shooter not only provided emotional support but took up the role of an assistant to load her husband's gun.

Chinese swimmer He Junquan said he felt heavily indebted to his family because he never found time out of a busy training schedule for birthday celebrations for his four-year-old son.

From her childhood, Tahlia was accompanied by her family to develop her physical abilities through swimming and rugby, and to doctors for plastic braces to hold her right ankle and foot.

"When she was younger, she gets a new AFO (ankle-foot orthosis) two or three times a year. You can see that because the braces were rubbing her," Natalie recalled.

"She had two braces in the last 12 months, and when she is about 17 and a half, she might have to get another new brace for her leg," she said.

When Tahlia decided to take up athletics seriously in 2006, there was more chaperoning. Her grandmother hired a private coach for her, and the parents ferried her around to national and international meets. Her family supported the teenager to rise through the ranks quickly and take home two silvers at the Far East and South Pacific Games in 2006 in Kuala Lumpur.

The 11th-grader now multi-tasked in schooling and athletics. She trains at least five times a week before the Paralympics. She also does swimming, depending on how full her week is.

"Juggling between the school and athletics is hard on a 16-year-old," Natalie said.

"You can tell that she can be very emotional and very irritable. That's when we know, and we just try to be there and support her," she said.

Sponsorships are also harder to get for the disabled athletes, compared with able-bodied ones.

Tahlia received 9,000 Australian dollars for 2008 from a sponsorship through NASCA (National Aboriginal Sports Corporation Australia), but she has to reapply if she wants to continue with her training.

Natalie said she had reason to be optimistic about Tahlia's future, because the Australian government has started to pump in money to fund different schemes for athletes with disabilities.

"She is only 16, and she's got a lot ahead of her. She is already talking about London in 2012," Natalie said.

When Tahlia returns home, she will enjoy two weeks holiday and allow her Paralympic moments to sink in. "She is certainly an inspiration in her own community, and her younger sister wants to be like her. She is a runner also," the mother said.

Tahlia will run her second race in 200 meters on Saturday, and her family will again be in the Bird's Nest to cheer her on.


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