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25 August 2021

In Melbourne in 1988 a tragedy happened that rocked the city.

At a school swimming carnival in the outer south-eastern suburban enclave of Dandenong, a wall collapsed on a group of young students.

A number of children were badly injured, but 13-year-old Daniela "Danni" Di Toro was made a paraplegic in the accident and has spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Not long after the accident, Di Toro was introduced to Paralympic basketball champion Sandy Blythe, who inspired her to take up wheelchair tennis.

Now 46, Di Toro last night was Australia's flag-bearer at the Tokyo Paralympics opening ceremony.

Tokyo is her seventh games.

Her first five were as a champion wheelchair tennis player and before Rio 2016 she switched to table tennis.

Her tennis booty is extensive.

She has 11 Australian Open titles, two US Open titles, two French Open titles, along with a silver and bronze medal from the Sydney and Athens Paralympics.

But, for a die hard athlete whose motto is: "Go hard or go home", she says her greatest sporting moment was as a spectator at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, cheering on her teammates after being knocked out in the first round.

I was at those games and can attest at how brilliant it was to see our athletes compete in such an incredible environment.

It has left an impression on me long after the Paralympics finished.

But I'm pretty sure that last night, when Di Toro was set to carry the Australian flag alongside her co-captain, two-time Paralympic rugby gold medallist Ryley Batt, might take the cake as a career highlight.

This is the 16th Summer Paralympic Games and Australia is expected to perform exceptionally well.

With 179 athletes in Tokyo, it is the highest number of athletes we have taken to a Paralympics being held overseas.

Our Aussie athletes will compete across 18 of the 22 sports and in 10 classifications, including limb deficiency, vision impairment and intellectual impairment.

Many of these athletes have come to sport after acquiring a disability from an injury or illness.

For anyone who thinks the Paralympics is in any way inferior to its sister Olympic Games, you only have to look to our 2021 team.

They are the giants' shoulders we stand on.

As well as Di Toro and Batt, swimmer Ellie Cole is expected to bring home a swag of medals.

Tennis legend Dylan Alcott will most likely sweep the field in wheelchair tennis.

Then there are the newcomers, like Alexandra Viney, who have overcome amazing odds to get to Tokyo.

First time Paralympian Viney is competing in the para-rowing, 10 years after surviving a high speed car crash caused by a drunk driver.

A couple of weeks ago I met with Di Toro's table tennis teammate Trevor Hirth, who is also competing at his first Paralympics, and who was preparing to go into lockdown ahead of his departure.

I have also had the pleasure of meeting superstar wheelchair rugby players Josh Hose and Ben Fawcett.

Both these men, who happen to live in my Maribyrnong electorate, are at the pinnacle of their sport.

It will be an honour to follow all their journeys in the coming 10 days. As Australia is held hostage to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympics first and now the Paralympics are a salve for our weary hearts and minds.

Australians are being asked to dig deep.

We are all experiencing the pain of the inertia of COVID-19.

It is a strange time where we are being asked to stand still to do something.

In my time working with people with disabilities across Australia, I have had the opportunity to meet many of our greatest athletes.

Tonight I will support our athletes at a fundraiser being held by former Paralympian and NSW Labor Party member Liesl Tesch.

Like so many of our athletes, Liesl continues to give back to the sporting community that saw her win five Paralympic medals across five games; three for basketball and two gold medals for sailing.

Now it's time for us to get behind all our Tokyo Paralympic team.

Many people with disability are often treated as though they are burden, especially those on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The Paralympics is a moment for us to celebrate people's differences and champion their achievements in a world-class context.

Why is it only 12 days every four years that we can build the future where people living with a disability are treated the same as everyone else?

I, for one, am going to be glued to my television set for the next couple of weeks.

Do yourselves a favour, especially anyone in lockdown, and go on the journey with our Paralympic team.

This was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 25 August 2021.