Palmer executes sharp turn enroute to Rio
Written by Dave Sygall
Photo by Anthony Johnson
Curtis Palmer was never one to sidestep an opponent. Not now. Not back when he could walk.
''It's amazing what you put your body through as a 15-year-old,'' he says. ''I watch under-15s rugby league now and think it can't be anything compared to what we used to do. We used to put our bodies on the line and not think about it. The whole 'actions before consequences' thing, you know?''
Palmer is a New Zealand wheelchair rugby legend. He won Paralympic gold with the Wheel Blacks in 2004 and competed at every Games since 1996, except for 2012. He missed London because he was waiting to become eligible to play for Australia, where he spent much of his youth and where his life changed one grey winter's day at Brookvale Oval.
It's been a low-key return, not least because Palmer wants to seal his place in the Steelers, the reigning Paralympic champions, many of whom he once tormented, including coach Brad Dubberley. ''When I first started playing back in 1995, he was my idol,'' Dubberley says. ''But after all those years, for him to come to us now has brought challenges … getting used to playing with someone we've competed against for so long. He's had to tread carefully since coming over.''
There are others to win over. Ryley Batt, Australia's wheelchair rugby superstar, has a long memory. ''When I was younger, I was a bit overweight,'' he says. ''Curtis used to say on TV that I loved fish and chips and was the fat boy of the team. So it's funny now having him on the Australian team and being a teammate with him after hearing those things.''
Palmer's next chance to earn trust will be next month, from September 18 to 20, in a Tri Nations series on the forecourt of Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral against his former outfit, New Zealand, and the powerful US, who recently regained the world's top ranking. It's an opportunity for the 36-year-old to advance his quest to represent the Steelers in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Palmer's life in Australia began in 1987, aged 10, after the family's corner store met hard times and they relocated to Orange on a friend's advice. Palmer's parents moved on a Friday and had jobs the next Monday, he says. Palmer had played rugby union in New Zealand, but took up rugby league in Orange and showed plenty of promise.
In late 1991, he moved to Sydney to attend St Paul's Catholic College in Manly, played for the Harbord United Devils and was soon selected for the local Harold Matthews Cup junior representative side. He was selected for the Independent Catholic Colleges, NSW Combined Catholic Colleges and was players' player at the national championships. NRL clubs Balmain, Manly and Parramatta sought his signature for their under-17s.
''Rugby league was my life,'' he says.
Then a big day arrived for the undefeated Devils. It was the grand final against the Cromer Kingfishers and in the Brookie crowd were many of his friends and family. He was determined to put on a show.
''I was always known as an aggressive player who punched above his weight,'' he says. ''I loved to put the big boys on their arse. I always thought I was 10 feet tall. So I took the ball from dummy half, we were 10 metres out from our try line, and I had visions of scoring the winning try. But coming towards me was Max Krilich's son and another young man.
''My idea was not to out run them or sidestep them or hit the deck or anything, it was 'f--- this, I'm going straight through these guys'. I put my head down, tried to get in between them, but I misjudged it and ran into one of the guys' side, his hip or something like that.
''Instantly, there was the shock of the impact, which was quite bewildering. I hit the deck and all sorts of weird and strange feelings came over my body. It was like a concussion or something and I thought it would just take some time to shake it off. But there was a whole lot of commotion going on around me and then everything stopped.''
The budding league star was taken to Manly Hospital and transferred to Royal North Shore later that day. He doesn't remember getting the ''you're never going to walk again speech'', as he describes it. He just figured it out for himself as time wore on.
''I was never angry at rugby league. I still have a deep love for game. I never dwelt on it … I just thought, 'These are the cards I've been dealt', and wasting my time thinking that I wasn't going to be a rugby league player was never going to help me. I missed it, I missed kicking the footy around with my mates. But the reality was that I became really busy with other things. I realised there's life after death, kind of thing. I'd always followed my passions and when I got into wheelchair rugby I found it took away the pain and all the bullshit.''
By 1993, Palmer made the Australian team, but the lack of application and organisation in the set-up annoyed him. The New Zealanders, he says, were cohesive and better backed. In 1996, he returned to his home country to start a career that included stints in the US, and soon cemented himself as one of the world's best players for his level of physical ability.
By 2011, however, New Zealand wheelchair rugby was in the doldrums and Palmer, recently single, jobless and with money in his pocket, set off traveling with the intention of returning to Sydney to rekindle old friendships.
''I thought about the Aussie team, saw that they were doing really well and, being an Australian passport holder, I had an opportunity to switch allegiances, with a one-year waiting period,'' he says. ''I was 36, NZ was ranked ninth and I couldn't see how things were going to change. I wanted more out of me and my sport. It was a tough decision. It was selfish, I guess, but you have to be like that sometimes.''
Palmer contacted Dubberley, who was supportive and, in January he joined his first training camp with an Australian team in a decade and a half. Batt, the world's top player, says Palmer ''definitely has the hunger and fire. Now that he's playing for Australia, we are we're a stronger unit. He's definitely going to shine.''
Dubberley says Palmer's experience is precious, but he'll have to adapt to the different style the Australians play. ''And, he's got quite a few New Zealand tattoos on him,'' the coach says, ''So it'll be good to see them get covered up.''
Palmer says he doesn't want to ''rumble the cart'' for his new teammates. ''I have to prove to them that I'm as committed to the Australian team as I was to the New Zealand team by training as hard as I can and playing with the same passion. I think I'm getting there.''
Article and video courtesy of Dave Sygall and the Sydney Morning Herald
Twitter - @davesygall