From birth, Ryley Batt has beaten the odds. Today, in the first of a two-part series, journalist CHRIS WARD goes deep into the Battman’s past to discover how this never-say-die golden Paralympian has become as synonymous with Port Macquarie as our lighthouse.
CHRIS WARD: Ryley Batt is a household name now. Everyone knows about your amazing achievements but not many people know how you actually came to be in a wheelchair.
RYLEY BATT: It was a hard time for me growing up. I was born with limb deficiency, without legs and missing a couple of fingers, I guess it was really hard for my parents too.
When I was born they didn’t know beforehand that I had a disability, so I came out, and bang, you know, it must have been like what’s going on here, so they were in a bit of shock straight from the word go and I think they’ve done a fantastic job in life.
What I’ve always said to them is that they didn’t wrap me in cotton wool, so they’d let me go out with my friends and all that kind of stuff, that a lot of parents with sons or daughters with disabilities would just naturally hold them back from, so I have to thank both my mum and dad for sort of just letting me do what I wanted when I was a kid.
I started on prosthetic legs when I was three or four and didn’t really like the idea of them. They were really hard to walk on, it was like a baby learning to walk, but at four years of age, and it was really hard. I used them till I was in grade 1 or 2 at school.
Eventually, I just wanted to fit in with my friends and they were all on skateboards getting around town and having fun so I wanted to fit in so I jumped on a skateboard too.
I’d go to school with my prosthetic legs, take them off in the change rooms and jump on my skateboard through school, I found it a bit faster to get around.
I used it through school and used to skate around town, but you know, it was a bit dirty and your hands would get all messed up from the concrete, it was like paddling a surfboard.
I actually went in a skateboard competition that was held on Town Green – Innervision Surf and Skate sponsored me. I guess they saw this kid with a disability on a skateboard and I guess they thought it was pretty cool so they gave me a little sponsorship and I thought it was pretty cool getting discounts on skateboards which was good ‘cause I’d go through a few each year and they were pretty expensive.
So I entered myself in this competition and I don’t know if it was a sympathy vote or what, but I actually won one, I think as a nine-year-old, which I thought was pretty cool.
I remember dad would always take me to the skate park and see all these kids going and thinking Ryley doesn’t fit in here, cause I guess you could say there were a few teenagers hanging around smoking and drinking and getting a bit wild, but, I just went in there and cut around the skate park and quarter pipes and used to do the kick flips, of course not with the legs, and the 360-shove-its and grinds and stuff.
About the same time I was having fun skating, my parents were trying to take me to a hospital in Sydney to get me in a wheelchair, but me being this kid on a skateboard having fun I was stubborn, going ‘no way, I’m not getting in a wheelchair, that’s for disabled kids’.
CHRIS: You really didn’t let your disability get in the way of enjoying a normal childhood.
RYLEY: No, up until I was probably 14 or 15 I didn’t think I had a disability at all, I just thought I was a normal kid. Yes, I was different and all that but none of my friends treated me like I had a disability, none of my family treated me with a disability.
I might have bunged it on a couple of times though on our farm on the Hawkesbury River.
Right on the river, to get back up the bank, it was a bit of a walk up there, so I used to bung it on and say it was too hard and mum would have to carry me as a kid, but that’s just laziness I guess, but, I really didn’t want to hop in that chair, so I spent another couple of years on that skateboard.
Eventually there was a couple of little things that got me in that wheelchair. One was school sport at St Agnes at the PCYC, wheelchair rugby, squash and table tennis.
I used to play a bit of squash and crawl around on the court and hit the ball back, but I wasn’t any good, but I had a lot of fun.
Tom Kennedy came, a former Paralympian from Port Macquarie, he came and had 30 wheelchairs there and the whole class got in their chairs, and I sat back and was thinking, ‘you know, this is a sport perfect for me’, but going ‘no way, I’m not going in that chair’. I saw all my friends in them having fun and bashing into each other having a blast. As much as I wanted to join in, it was too embarrassing, I didn’t want to highlight that I had a disability and get in a wheelchair.
A week or so later I went on a family holiday to Harrington. I had two skateboards, one that I used to do comps in and one that had like big monster truck wheels to go off road and have fun.
So on this holiday I went for a surf down the beach on my big skateboard. I threw it in the bitou bushes and crawled down the beach and went for a swim. A couple of hours later, I came back up and went to get my skateboard and someone stole it.
That was another turning point that said, ‘hey, you know maybe I should be getting into a chair this could be a sign’. I look back on my life at these two points and go wow, you know,
what would have happened if those two things didn’t happen? Would I be in a wheelchair today or would I be this grown up guy on a skateboard which could be a bit embarrassing.
A couple of weeks after that I got in the wheelchair and joined in the sport and absolutely loved it. I remember Tom asked me to come around to practice on Thursday nights to see how I’d go. He was the guy that got me in the chair and into wheelchair rugby, so I can’t thank him enough.
He gave me an everyday chair and a rugby chair to mess around with and it just blossomed from there.