Monday, 20 June 2011
Tigers Oxfam Trailwalker Team
In March I spoke in the Senate about the achievements of the Australian blind cricket team. In that speech I mentioned that Ben Phillips, a totally blind cricketer, would be joining the Tigers Oxfam Trailwalker team to compete in the 100-kilometre 2011 Melbourne Oxfam trail walk. Tonight I inform the Senate of the Tigers' success in completing the 100 kilometres in 37 hours and two minutes and, most importantly, the fantastic work of Ben, who did it all without seeing a single step along the way.
Ben is now totally blind. He was born legally blind and as a child had very limited vision. He went to school and learned to read, but—as the years passed and his glaucoma, aniridia and other eye conditions became worse—his sight diminished. He has been totally blind for around two years now and has only extremely limited light perception.
The Tigers first met Ben while we were training with Nick Gleeson for the 2010 Oxfam trail walk in Melbourne, when Max—a Tigers stalwart—Ben, Nick and I along with another blind walker and two other guides walked a section of the Great North Walk in Sydney. Ben works as a babysitter and is studying child care at university via correspondence—he seems to have a natural talent for getting babies off to sleep! He lives independently in Paddington in Sydney. He plays blind cricket for the Burwood club and is a regular in both the New South Wales and Australian sides.
In the first stage of the Melbourne trail walk the Tigers kept up with the pack, and we met some interesting characters along the way. Ben's bright orange vest with the silver text on the back saying: 'I'm Ben. I'm Blind.' made this congested section much easier to manage as groups overtaking the Tigers would see Ben's vest, say g'day to Ben and wish us well for the 90-plus kilometres to come. We eventually made it to checkpoint 1, which had run out of food by the time we got there—disaster!—but with a quick change of socks we were on our way to checkpoint 2 at Lysterfield Lake.
At Lysterfield we met up with our support crew, Anthony Byrne MP and his staff, who as usual gave our team magnificent support. We set off on the wide fire trail with the goal of reaching checkpoint 3 by sundown. As the fire trail wound back into suburbia, the team pushed up some steep hills around Belgrave. We made checkpoint 3, at Ferny Creek, not long after dark.
After a short break we hit the track again. Many parts of this section consist of slippery, single-file track. Light rain began to fall; heavy rain followed. Conditions were very cold and miserable. We were climbing for most the second half of this section, and we reached the highest point of the trail walk in the middle of the worst storm. Ben said this was especially difficult for him because, when the wind and rain whipped around his ears, the hood on his raincoat invariably muffled directions given by sighted team mates. Ben had no choice but to bat on and concentrate very, very hard—which, of course, he did.
We reached Olinda, the highest checkpoint in the walk, and decided to sit out the storm. When the worst of the storm moved on, so did the team. It was cold, and the wet track was difficult, but at least the wind and rain had eased. The Tigers team reached checkpoint 5 at Mount Evelyn around 5 am. After Mount Evelyn the event follows the Warburton Rail Trail, where Ben put his foot down—he raced along the Warburton Rail Trail, which is built on an old railway line and is wide, flat and consistent underfoot. Checkpoint 6 at Woori Yallock was a quick turnaround; although blisters were becoming an issue, the Tigers were determined to push on quickly.
The penultimate stage includes a climb up to and a walk along a disused aqueduct. It was quite odd that the first street sign that we stumbled upon was a huge sign pointing the way to Sussex Street, proving what I have always thought: they have their tentacles everywhere! We reached the final checkpoint, and some serious repair work was required on blisters. Ben sought assistance from the professionals. He had many blisters, including a whopper on his heel, which made even putting his shoes on a difficult task. The physios and podiatrists had shut up shop; but to Ben's credit he just shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Okay—let's go.'
The final stage of Ben's epic began with the most awkward climb of the 100-kilometre trek. This steep, narrow section of the track is very slippery and has steep drop-offs on both the left and right hand sides of the tracks. Ben needed to concentrate hard and switch his focus and line, as the track poses dangers on both sides. The team handled this stage with military precision. We made it to the top of the hill and onto the fire trail in record time and began the run home. On the last couple of hills, where the track is covered in scree, every step felt like a dagger through the soles of our shoes. But, you will be pleased to hear, we made it to the top of the last hill and began the final precarious descent. Partly grass and partly loose rubble but all treacherous, the surface is as unpredictable as a Benji Marshall show-and-go. I have gone base-over-apex on that hill every year we have participated!
In a final sprint to the finish line, Ben proudly waved his Tigers flag—he had done it. He finished the 100 kilometres in 37 hours and two minutes, and that is a great achievement. Let me quote Ben's own words about this. This is what Ben said:
I've been overwhelmed with emotion this afternoon, just crying my guts out with joy. I can't tell you how liberating it is having experienced years of bullying and discrimination for being blind ... then to go and conquer something most people will never do, and wear a bright vest that says "I'm Ben. I'm blind. Tigers " and do that for 100 km for all to see. It became something positive, I feel valued and special and I no longer need to hide [being blind].
My thanks as always go to Max, who does so much of the organisation for our trail walkers; to John Paul; and to our fantastic support crew: Alex, Helen, Daniel and Anthony Byrne and his staff; and, as always, I pay special tribute to the Balmain Tigers Rugby League Football Club, who have been so generous in their support for this worthy cause, as have all our other supporters and donors—and so many of them have done so now for a very long period of time. As far as Ben's three other team members are concerned, I just want to say this: as far as we are concerned, our mate Ben is a real hero.