When a paediatrician diagnosed Para athlete Mali Lovell with ataxia – a rare form of cerebral palsy which affects a person’s balance and co-ordination – he told her parents ‘she’ll ‘never be an Olympian’.

Dave and Mel’s chief concerns were to ensure their daughter would eventually attend a mainstream school, speak, rather than rely on sign language, and walk without a frame. To ensure that Mel had Mali push a wheelbarrow loaded with bricks to the top of the family’s steep driveway. It was an act of love . . . but tough love . . . as Mel instructed her crying daughter again and again to go back up the hill ‘one more time’.

“Mali (photographed with NSWIS strength and conditioning coach, Billy Macklin) had been having therapy since she was nine months old with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance,” said Mel during a visit to NSWIS. “She’s always had to work hard at everything, and we’d go there twice a week for her occupational therapy and speech therapy because she was using sign language to communicate.

“We used the Toy Library where you could borrow toys to make the therapies more interesting, and there was a little wooden wheelbarrow. We have a 50m long driveway and she would have these little AFOs (ankle-foot orthoses) on her, and they helped to strengthen Mali’s ankles as she pushed the wheelbarrow up to the top.

“She cried all the way up, and while I felt terrible, I’d say, ‘keep going’ and she would. She just kept going.

Mel Lovell

“It makes me sound like a horrible witch – but it had to be done. In the end we needed to put bricks in the wheelbarrow [for balance] because she’d otherwise fall over. I know it makes me sound terrible, but we had to do it.

“Back then not doing it would mean Mali would be in a walker, not being able to speak. It had to be done because . . . it had to be done.”

Lovell won the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships silver medal for the 200m T36 sprint event. She plans to do Australia, her family, and coaches Kate Edwards and Melinda Gainsford-Taylor proud at the 2024 Paris Paralympics.

“It’s very special,” Lovell said of the love and support she enjoys from her family. “They’ve loved watching me run ever since I started, and I’ve loved every minute of training. I want to train hard. Train hard, do my best.”

Ahead of this Friday’s International Women’s Day, the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) has sought the passionate testimonies of some of our highest achievers to provide their raw insights into what gives them the strength and the character to continue pushing themselves when others give up.

While NSWIS has handpicked the insights of just eight of its athletes, there’s literally hundreds of just as equally stirring stories among the women who are either scholarship holders or who work at the Institute where they provide the athletes with world class support.

Mali Lovell is a NSWIS Woman of Wonder.

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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