Some of us can feel hard done by our whole lives because we were born with a weak chin or a predisposition to baldness. Dylan Alcott, on the other hand, came into the world with a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord that would rob him forever of the use of his legs but only briefly his passion for living and drive to excel.
“I spent the first three-and-a-half years of my life in hospital but the best thing my family did was never to wrap me in cotton wool,” says Alcott, who on this forbidding Melbourne morning is rallying against a wall in an underground carpark. “They never cared about the fact I had a disability so I took the view that if they don’t care, why should I?”
Alcott lost his mojo only in his first year of high school, where friends became less patient and bullies crawled out of the woodwork to taunt him. Suddenly self-conscious and embarrassed, he struggled for a while until grabbing an opportunity in the shape of competitive sport. “I don’t say this lightly: sport saved my life,” he says.
What he’d been missing up until then, he realised, was inspiration. On television, he had never seen people in wheelchairs and hadn’t known what he could aspire to be. “But when I started competing, I met people who were like me,” he says. “They were loving life, getting fit and chasing their dreams.”
Not content merely to be in the mix, Alcott aimed to excel in both basketball and tennis. With his combination of stellar eye-hand coordination and an inexhaustible work ethic, there was no stopping him. “I’ve trained every single day since I was 14 years old to be the best in the world,” he says. The first big reward came in 2008, when he was part of the gold medal-winning Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team in Beijing.
Since 2014 he’s focused on wheelchair tennis, winning five grand slam titles, including this year’s Australian Open. In the final, where he dispatched American David Wagner in straight sets, Alcott put an exclamation mark on some of his untouchable strokes with cries of “C’mon, baby!” Think Lleyton Hewitt on wheels.
SET AN EXAMPLE
Alcott can’t – or won’t – slow down. Last year he launched the Dylan Alcott Foundation with the goal of helping young people with disabilities break into whatever field excites them. “There’s this misperception that a disability is a death sentence,” he says. “It’s not true. Look at the life I’ve led. I mean, there are parts of it that are tough. I can’t run. I can’t kick a footy. I can’t go to the beach. And that annoys me sometimes. But for every one thing you can’t do there are tens of thousands of things that you can. My advice to anyone is to get out of bed focused on those.”
In April, Alcott launched an all-inclusive musical event called Ability Fest. Held in Melbourne it drew 6,000 people and raised $200,000 for his foundation. Meanwhile, he’s using a growing media profile to try to change society’s perceptions of disabled people. “The best way to do that,” he says, “is to show us dominating what we do, killing it, nailing it, so people stop feeling sorry for us and start employing us. And dating us.”