Hello my trusty readers, and welcome to my first interview with "woman extraordinaire." I am doing this series of interviews to promote amazing women who have disability in their lives, who achieve in business, motivate, and inspire those around them..
Marayke Jonkers is a retired Australian Paralympic swimmer, motivational speaker, and a founder of Sporting Dreams an organisation which helps athletes with disabilities. She is definitely an Extraordinary Woman!
Describe your personal situation and your business . . .
My dream to swim for my country began when I was a small child and saw the Olympics on TV. When I saw all of the athletes wearing their national uniforms and and winning medals I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life- to be one of the best swimmers in the world and travel the world competing in the sport that I love. My journey to becoming any athlete was slightly different to those Olympians who I saw on TV that day, because I had become a paraplegic at just eight months old in a car accident. When the doctors told my mother I would never walk again she decided to teach me how to swim instead. By the time I was 2 1/2 I could swim across the pool unaided and right the way through school I loved racing against the able-bodied kids in the swimming carnivals. Since then I have been fortunate enough to realise my dream of competing at the Paralympics three times- at Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Games winning two bronze and a silver medal in breaststroke and individual medley.
My career as a swimmer spanned over 19 years including 10 years on the Australian team. Some of my favourite memories include breaking my first world record ( 100 m butterfly), breaking over 70 Australian records and being named Australian flag bearer at my final competition at the 2010 world championships. Above all the best memory has been the friendships that I formed through swimming and the incredible sense of fitness, drive, commitment and self belief that it gave me. I thrived on setting goals to go faster and achieving them.
In 2009 I set myself probably my craziest goal - to compete in a triathlon. At that point in time no one else in Australia was doing para triathlon, I didn’t even know that it was a sport in other parts of the world ( Para triathlon has just been included in the Rio 2006 Paralympic games and is fast gaining popularity and support around the world). But back then I had no one to ask how to do it, so I had to figure it out for myself. I entered an able-bodied triathlon race, and called the race organisers to let them know I was planning to use a wheelchair. I think they were initially very wary about the ‘ safety risks’ of me doing so, but I find with most things in life if you’re 100% committed to sorting it out there is a way to make it happen. And so it began, my training for my first triathlon. For most people undertaking their first triathlon the biggest concern would be building the fitness to get through three disciplines. Well for me the biggest challenges that I could see had nothing to do with swimming or cycling, but rather how to get my wetsuit on and off quickly in my wheelchair in a grassy field, how to get across the sand into the water without my wheelchair being bogged, and how to quickly transition from one piece of equipment to the next.
Oh and then there was running. I think most people have probably run a step in their life when they are late for the bus or something, even if they had never been an athlete. But I had never even sat in a racing wheelchair until the day before my first triathlon. I hadn’t been able to borrow one from anywhere, and buying one second-hand didn’t happen until the last minute. Let me tell you it’s nothing like an everyday wheelchair. For starters you have these giant boxing gloves on so you have no fingers to do things, and you punched the wheels rather than push them,, then you are seated so that your head is positioned facing the ground and you have no idea where you are going, and you can be either pushing or steering but not both at the same time! Eventually I mastered this and not only finish my first race but went on to become a regular competitor at able-bodied races. The real breakthrough came when I discovered para triathlon on the Internet and started to compare my times to other athltes using wheelchairs. Exactly one year to the day after I competed in my first race, I competed in the Para triathlon world Championships in Budapest, Hungary where I won a bronze medal.
I retired from competitive sport at the end of 2011 after sustaining career ending overuse injuries to my upper body. I’m fortunate enough to stay involved in Paralympic movement through the foundation I started five years ago, Sporting Dreams. Sporting Dreams was born in 2008 after I won the inaugural Cosmopolitan magazine ‘ fun fearless female award.’ Five finalists were flown to Sydney to be made over by the magazine’s hair and make up artists and dressed by stylists before the winner was announced at the red carpet event, so I already felt like I had won long before they presented me with a $10,000 cheque- being a ‘girly girl’ the whole experience was a fantasy come true. I used this cheque to start Sporting Dreams and have been fundraising ever since. Over the past five years we’ve provided grants to over 70 athletes helping towards the cost of purchasing equipment as well as training and competition. Last year we launched a Hall of Fame to celebrate four of our grant recipients being named in the national team for the London 2012 Paralympic games.
Away from sport I have two university degrees in public relations and journalism as well as social science. My absolute passion is travel, and I love to visit historical sites - even some of the most inaccessible and remote locations. My personal philosophy is that lateral thinking solves most access problems and it’s a great philosophy to have when travelling. for example when I visited Egypt I realised my wheelchair would become bogged in the sand at the pyramids.. so I began to to think hard about how to solve this problem when the solution came wandering over the sand dunes with the sharp sunshine behind just like something out of a movie . . . it was a camel train!!! Shortly after that, Charlie Brown the camel, sat down next to the tour bus and I transferred from a wheelchair onto the camel for my walk around the pyramids! To explore the cobblestone streets of the Greek islands I used a quad bike.
I wrote my personal bucket placed at the age of 13, long before the now well-known movie brought the concept of a bucket list to public awareness. After reading some personal development books I’ve decided to write a list of a hundred goals to achieve in my lifetime. Top of that list - world win a medal at the Paralympics, travel in Europe, and graduate from university. In the space of six months during 2004 all these dreams came true for me when I graduated from university just before jetting out to the Paralympics were I won 2 medals and then spent a few months backpacking afterwards. A true adventure lover I have tried skydiving, sit skiing the slopes of Switzerland and Australia, kayaking, rowing, handcycling and even ridden a elephant!
My own personal business is as a motivational speaker sharing my experiences as an athlete and using sport as a metaphor for life to help people bring about the changes needed in their life to achieve the success they always dreamed of.
What Motivated you to Start Your Business?
I was motivated to start Sporting Dreams through my own career as an athlete. I realised just how expensive it was to pay for equipment such as racing wheelchairs, as well as to cover additional expenses related to my disability sport, so I start my foundation to help with things exactly like that.
I began my personal business as a motivational speaker during my time as an athlete, as it was something I could do which fitted in around my heavy training schedule and university studies. I enjoy the challenge of preparing a presentation to my clients needs, and is very satisfying to realise that you are changing perceptions towards athletes with disabilities as well as encouraging people to see that they can overcome obstacles and chase after their own dreams. Towards the end of my sporting career I worked in an office environment, but have come to realise that I’m better off running my own business as then I can structure my days and commitments around by fluctuating health needs.
What is the Toughest thing You have had to Deal with in Life/Business and what Got You Through?
The toughest thing I have had to deal with is, without doubt, sustaining an overuse injury to my arms and neck. Having lived as a wheelchair user and elite athlete for 30 years my body has worn out and in 2011 I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and an injury to my neck. I went from being a superfit athlete who is completely independent to suddenly being unable to push my own wheelchair, hold a pen to write, type and use a computer. I spent almost all my time flat on my back in bed in terrible pain. All I could do in the beginning was stare at my ceiling - so even had a TV installed up there to save me getting too bored!
In the past three years what got me through was realising that the mental skills I acquired as an athlete would help me to find ways to make my life easier. Gradually I was able to identify each issue which was making my life harder and break it down into tiny pieces - then find a solution. For example, I was able to access assisted wheels (to help me push my wheelchair). I must say and that the entire process of applying for funding and waiting for the chair took almost a year - but it’s the most life changing piece of equipment I have ever owned! After the wheels arrived I was able to travel to deliver motivational speeches again.
I am no longer able to raise my arms above my head to wash my hair, and paying a carer to do it was expensive, but I found an apprentice hairdresser up the street who could do it relatively cheap once a week. Not being able to type or use a computer was driving me crazy because, before this injury my profession had been in public relations and writing. I eventually learnt to control the computer largely through voice activation with Dragon dictation. I am so grateful that this injury happened at a time when voice-activated technology came in.
It might sound crazy to some people but until this injury I never really noticed that I had a disability. Sure I sat in a wheelchair, but I never really considered it to be a problem - it was just my mode of transportation. I’ve learned a lot about how life can be put on hold while you wait for funding to come through for vital equipment. I also learned I need to win the lotto if I wish to drive the car again, because the cost to convert the car so I can drive from my wheelchair is astronomical! Most of all I have learnt that any problem can be solved with a bit of lateral thinking.
What is the Most "WHAM-BAM" Exciting thing in Business/Life that has happened and How did You Celebrate?
The most exciting playing has ever happened to me was winning each of my three Paralympic medals! My planned celebrations didn’t quite come about. In the Athens Paralympic Village the dining hall had free McDonald’s, which of course I didn’t eat before my race because I was being very healthy and following my nutritional plan. Towards the end of the games McDonalds resembled a florists shop as people flocked there with their medal bouquets and wreaths on their heads for celebratory Macca’s. But after my last race I ended up getting stuck in the elevator at the pool for hours, so by the time I got out and got back to the village McDonald’s had run out of food and closed for the night! So my celebration consisted of finding whatever I could to eat and heading to bed, where I woke up at 2 AM wondering if it all been a big dream. I had to pull out my medals and watched the race replay on my video camera to make sure it actually happened!!
Which Business/Person inspired You and Why?
Growing up I was inspired by athletes - both Olympic and Paralympic - who who were 100% committed towards achieving their Sporting Dreams. I also admire people who have founded and run not-for-profit organisations or promote charitable causes.
Anything Else You would Like to Add?
Thank you Elizabeth for inviting me to be part of this blog post and congratulations on everything you’ve achieved with your motivational speaking business.I have very fond memories of our time representing Australia together and watching you win your silver medal at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic games. I am so glad that you’re now able to pass on your wisdom and experiences to the next generation through your presentations at schools.
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