Commonwealth Games Australia has today unveiled a team of four vision impaired Para-Triathletes ready to take on the Commonwealth’s best at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
The four Team Members include Queensland’s 52-year-old triple Paralympian Gerrard Gosens OAM, Tokyo Paralympic teammates 31-year-old Sam Harding (athletics) from the ACT and 39-year-old Jonathan Goerlach (NSW), and fellow 39-year-old Tasmanian Erica Burleigh.
They will be joined by their guides Hayden Armstrong (Gosens), Luke Harvey (Harding), David Mainwaring (Goerlach) and Felicity Cradick (Burleigh).
After Para-triathlon made its Commonwealth Games debut with the PTWC (wheelchair) classification at the Gold Coast 2018 Games, it is the PTVI (vision impaired) athletes who have been afforded the opportunity to make their Commonwealth Games debut in Birmingham.
For Gosens, congenitally blind from birth, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games is another chapter in his incredible story of representing Australia on the world stage.
As a man that has climbed Mt Everest, competed in three Paralympic Games, run the 2000km from Cairns to Brisbane five times as well as wooing audiences on Channel 7’s Dancing with the Stars, Gosens had one more item on his bucket list – to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games.
“A totally blind athlete represents the whole vision of belief in Australia and the reason I say that is people say, ‘I can look up and see the Australian flag and I can see the green and gold tracksuit’ but I have never seen them,” reflected Gosens.
“I don’t need to see the Australian flag to feel what it’s like to be an Australian and I don’t need to see the colours of green and gold to believe in what I believe in to represent my country.
“It’s a feeling about being Australian; it’s a feeling about getting out there and giving it your all.
“You don’t have to be able to see them; you don’t have to have vision to have the belief on the inside into what it means to represent your country on the outside.”
The Illawarra’s Tokyo PTVI representative Goerlach, who was eighth in last year’s Paralympics, will join Gosens on the team.
Goerlach has Usher Syndrome – a hearing and degenerative visual impairment – fully diagnosed at aged 15 who first realised he was hearing impaired at aged three.
The 39-year-old father of two finally celebrated a lifelong dream to represent Australia at the Paralympics in 2021, a trailblazer in vision impaired triathletes since leading the way with his first Paratriathlon race in 2012.
“Only in the last couple of months have I been able to get the full focus back after Tokyo,” admitted Goerlach.
“It’s been a challenge in itself and to get back up and be mentally ready for Birmingham but I’m ready for it now. I’ve been training really well and really happy with the team around me.
“The Commonwealth Games presents a really unique opportunity and not too many Para-sports get the opportunity to compete at a Commonwealth Games, and it’s not something I thought I’d get the opportunity to do, which is really cool.
“This being a major Games, with so many athletes from around the world and athletes from so many different sports and being integrated in that environment with able-bodied athletes. It’s a rare opportunity.to see what it’s like and to treat each other equally with a Para-sport medal the same as an able-bodied medal – they all go on the same medal tally.”
For Perth-born Tokyo 1500m Paralympic finalist, Sam Harding, his selection on the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games team has been 12 years in the making for the choroideremia sufferer – a hereditary condition that has resulted in him losing most of his peripheral vision.
After gaining selection on the London 2012 Paralympics Para-track and field team – a shattered Harding didn’t make the starting line in the 800m after contracting glandular fever in the staging camp in Cardiff.
Harding, very much a part of the AIS family in Canberra, set his sights on Rio in 2016, only to have 800m dropped from the Rio program before he finally made his Paralympics debut in the 1500m T13 final in Tokyo finishing eleventh.
But a 2021 dinner with sports physiologist and training partner Avish Sharma saw Harding transition to triathlon on his return – setting his sights on the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
“We went to dinner while we were on a Gold Coast training camp and Avish said I know you can swim now, you’ve had some experience cycling and you’re a good runner so you should definitely try triathlon, it could be your thing,” recalled Harding.
And it didn’t take long for Harding to show why he was “the real deal” with his switch to Para-triathlon at the Oceania Championships in Devonport and the Australian Championships in Stockton (NSW) – winning both events.
Harding, with guide and noted triathlete Luke Harvey scored their first win in their first race together, winning the Oceania title in fine style despite dropping a chain on the bike, which robbed them of valuable time.
The 31-year-old Perth-born Canberra-based athlete had been “flying by the seat of his pants” so to speak after only meeting Harvey at Melbourne airport en-route to Devonport just days before the race in early February.
The pair spent the week getting to know one another, working together on the tandem race bike and getting their tethers (which link them together on the swim and run) made after visiting the local Spotlight store in Devonport.
And the Tokyo Games 1500m finalist also received some encouragement from Goerlach who called him “the real deal” on the eve of the race.
Goerlach admitting that Harding had a deadly run leg and despite the chain mishap, Sam still managed to come out on top, with Goerlach in second place ahead of Gosens.
“I figured if there was a year to potentially have a little bit of a break from athletics….do some cross (racing) and have a bit of a rest almost, it was going to be this year,” said Harding, who said noted Paralympic swim coach Yuri Vdovychenko, had taught him to swim.
“When I moved to Canberra in 2010 I could hardly swim a lap at all and now I’m doing Paratriathlons (and a 750m swim) out in the open water…I’m lucky to have Yuri in Canberra in the pool, my running coach Philo Saunders as well as triathlon coach Megan Hall.
Team rookie and meningococcal B survivor Erica Burleigh, has made the Australian team just four months after her first triathlon.
Inspired by the Olympic feats of fellow Tasmanian, gold medal winning swimmer, Ariarne Titmus, her sporting journey has transformed her life from wanting to become a swimmer to adding cycling and running and combining all three sports into a meteoric rise in triathlon.
The Kingston Beach, Hobart local was just 17 when she was struck down by meningococcal B which left her legally blind after flu-like symptoms led to her plummeting into a coma, on life support – her parents told their daughter may not survive.
Twenty-two years later Erica will represent Australia in Birmingham and has dual Tokyo golden girl Titmus to thank.
“I was certainly inspired by Ariarne – what she achieved in Tokyo inspired me to get into it and I wanted to follow her and become a swimmer, never thinking I would become a triathlete,” said Burleigh, who has also been supported by 2016 vision impaired Paralympic gold medallist Katie Kelly.
“Katie has been a huge inspiration, speaking to her has been amazing and she is mentoring me as well. She has so much experience and really knows her stuff and I’ve learnt so much from her already.”
After completing her first race in Hobart, Burleigh set herself for her first major race in Devonport a month later finishing second with guide Rosie Nash to move towards Birmingham selection.
“It was our first proper triathlon together and we finished second in a field of two but I thought ‘what an amazing event’ meeting all these other people who have all these different disabilities, all with the same drive and motivation that I do.
“Just watching them race was awesome and having that experience and being involved was really cool.”
Triathlon Australia’s Paratriathlon Team Lead Kyle Burns said the team was shaping up to be a great team.
“We have a really good mix and the fact they get to do it fully integrated makes it unique to the Commonwealth Games and they will all relish the chance to be part of the wider team,” said Burns.
“Jonno Goerlach is a proud Paralympian and for him going to Tokyo was a major box to tick for and having his classification included in the Commonwealth Games caps of a pretty big 12 months.
“He is a leader and very big on creating a legacy for PTVI and the wider Para sports who represents the sport and is very much an advocate for all Para sports. He will rise to the challenge.
“We worked with Sam Harding from day one without any pressure (after coming into the sport from athletics) and we thought this was a bonus (to get him on the team for Birmingham) and being the athlete that he is he took to Paratri straight away.
“Sam’s personality is great in the team; it’s infectious. He brings a lot of positives to the team outside his obvious talent in sport.
“Gerrard Gosens has done everything and been everywhere from the Paralympics to Dancing With The Stars, we have had some great conversations – an athlete who can really leave something with the sport when he finishes up and this is a great opportunity for him to do this.
“A chance for him to star on the world stage in triathlon…and I know he will just pick it up and run with it, at the age of 52, an amazing person.
“Erica Burleigh has not been doing triathlon for that long but who has taken it on; someone who has picked it up and she’s just done it and when (Paralympic champion) Katie Kelly retired it left a big hole. But in the short space of time Erica has shown that she has the potential.”
Australian Team Chef de Mission Petria Thomas OAM welcomed the selection of today’s Para-triathletes who are all making their Games debut and in store for a great experience.
“Congratulations to our first Triathletes selected to represent Australia at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games,” Thomas said.
“Birmingham 2022 witnesses the introduction of the vision impaired Triathlon classification to the Commonwealth Games, so it is exciting to welcome Gerrard, Sam, Jonathan and Erica, plus their guides Hayden, Luke, David and Felicity to the Australian Team for their Commonwealth Games debuts.
“This is a special day for all the Team Members, their coaches, their families and supporters, and I know they will be giving it their all and representing Australia proudly in Birmingham.”
Triathlon Australia’s Para-triathlon Team Lead Kyle Burns believes these athletes would be ones to watch in Birmingham.
“We have a really good mix of people, experience and personalities,” Burns said.
“The fact they get to compete in a fully integrated environment makes the race unique to the Commonwealth Games, and they will all relish the chance to be part of the wider team.
“We congratulate the athletes, and their respective coaches on the selection whilst also acknowledging the wider support team behind every athlete.”
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