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11 August 2021

It's fair to say Peter Bol wasn't high in the public consciousness until last week when his wonderful journey at the Tokyo Olympics played out before our eyes.

Two Australian records in two days in the Olympic heats and semi-finals before a heart-stopping fourth place in the final.

As the first Australian to reach the 800m final since Ralph Doubell in 1968, the whole of Australia was with him.

We were with him as he led the field for more than half the race and we were with him when he crossed the finish line.

We watched as his family and friends celebrated uproariously, packed to the rafters at home in WA. On the east coast we cheered and raised our glasses to him from our homes.

But gold, silver, bronze or fourth, the measure of this remarkable man was in how Peter captured the nation's attention after the final.

"I didn't know if I was going to win, but I knew one thing for certain that the whole of Australia was watching," Peter told Channel 7 after the final.

"That carried me on." "We are a nation of champions. We are courageous," he added.

Peter Bol's story is a powerful one. His family moved to Australia after being born in war-torn Sudan and spending time in Egypt.

But this storyline does not define him. In his own profound way, Peter often delves deeper into the narrative that we, as Australians, all go through.

He knows firsthand about the struggles that many people face when they arrive on our shores, begging us to "get to know the person, instead of the assumptions". This is food for thought for every one of us, Olympian or not.

It's been my pleasure to know Peter and his running mate Joseph Deng (who was unlucky to not be in Tokyo himself) for the past four years. In fact, when Peter broke the Australian record in the Olympic semi-final, it was Joe's record from 2018.

When they arrived in Melbourne from WA to train, they didn't have much, and still don't. It was my honour to help them in a little way to get on their feet, mind the pun.

There were no rivers of gold coming Peter's way as he prepared for the Olympics, just determination, focus and energy exuding from him on and off the track. It's a reflection of his life journey thus far, his values, family and the team he surrounds himself with.

Peter may have inspired the nation but he wasn't alone. The entire Australian Olympic team did something we have not seen for some time. They truly captivated us for all the right reasons.

And they did it in a time when more than half of Australians were in strict lockdown. We may have been a captive audience but more than anything they made our hearts soar as they put everything into doing their best at the Games.

Aside from the wins, and there were so many, it was the camaraderie and spectacular sportsmanship that I think spoke to us at home.

They all did us proud, but I'd like to particularly mention decathlete Cedric Dubler, whose screaming single-handedly inspired his teammate Ash Moloney to a bronze medal. And BMX rider Saya Sakakibara, who broke the nation's heart when she crashed and missed out on the final after vowing to dedicate a medal to her brother who was left with a brain injury from a horror BMX crash in 2020.

Now our attention turns to the Paralympics, which start on August 24. About 170 Australian athletes are headed for the Para Games in Tokyo, with 80 making their Paralympic debut. There's also the fantastic support people who make competing at the highest level possible.

In 2008 I was lucky enough to travel to the Beijing Paralympics, an opportunity that has been among the best experiences of my life. Aside from the masterful athletes, these were a universally accessible games that has always made me wonder what our world would be like if people living with disabilities were treated equally like everyone else.

I have also met and spent considerable time with many of the Paralympic athletes themselves. This week I have caught up with Trevor Hirth, from the Australian Paralympic table tennis team, and will speak to a number of other athletes before they fly out to Japan.

Across Australia, we are heading into an uncertain couple of months as we make our way towards being a vaccinated country and increased freedom.

I encourage all Australians to switch on the TV and watch our Paralympians create history in Tokyo.

Like Peter, most of the Paralympic team have prepared for the games on a shoestring budget, but with a tonne of support from their sporting clubs, communities and families.

They may not be household names today but give it a couple of weeks and there will be new stars whose achievements we will exclaim to our mates.

This was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 11 August 2021.