Medal-winning Paralympian Will Stedman credits the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award for helping him win two medals at Tokyo.
He won silver in the long jump and bronze in the 400m.
The Duke of Edinburgh died earlier this year but left behind a legacy that is alive and well and life-changing for thousands of young adults around the globe.
The Gold Award is the final level of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. It aims to broaden the person’s experience of life and enable them to make choices as a responsible citizen in the opportunities available outside of work.
So how did Will get involved in the award and how did it help him achieve his Paralympian dream?
He signed up because some of his friends did.
“I wanted to be included with my friends. I was already doing a lot of what was required to participate anyway, it felt like an extra recognition for my work and a support to achieve my goals”.
Growing skills and serving the community
The enjoyment from growing his skills and serving the community prompted him to sign up for the final stage, the Gold Award.
It includes community service, recreation, an “adventurous journey” and a residential project. The outdoor elements particularly appealed to Will.
“The gold adventurous journey especially was significant; it increased my passion and motivation to spend more time in the outdoors going forward.”
Will says the award has helped build his confidence.
Another part of the award was the residential segment. He was able to count his experience training for and competing at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
The Paralympics provided ‘amazing sense of belonging’.
“My experience for my gold residential was intense and inspiring. We were away for six weeks total, training across Australia and America pre the Rio Paralympics, then three weeks in the Olympic Village, Rio.
“It was amazing, a mini city of athletes. There was lots of training but equally opportunities to meet the athletes and experience the village, like its football [field] size food hall. It was an experience like no other. In the Paralympics disabled people are the majority, it was an amazing sense of belonging and community.”
At Rio Will won bronzes in the 400m and 800m T36 events.
Parental support to overcome disability
Will was born with cerebral palsy in New Zealand in 1999.
He has reduced strength and muscle control on the left side of his body.
“As a baby my parents noticed I was limited in my mobility. For example, I could only roll one way. They worked so hard and got help to improve my capabilities and mobility, and I was able to gain much more movement and co-ordination.
“After we moved back from Australia when I was five, I got heavily into sport. Sport is a huge passion of mine, obviously. I loved football and cricket and expanded into cross country before taking on athletics.”
London inspired own games goal
When his mother had a three-month sabbatical they travelled to London, where the 2012 Paralympics were taking place.
I was so inspired. I had never seen people like me, with my disability, achieving like this.
“I could finally connect my disability with my potential and what my goals could be. I signed up for my award at bronze level just after this transition to athletics.”
He started training seriously in 2015 and a year later qualified for the Rio Paralympic Games where he competed in the 400m, 800m and long jump, all in the T36 category. He won bronze medals in the two races and came sixth in the long jump.
Balancing gains from training with the risk of injury is always a challenge. The week before the Tokyo Paralympics Will received a stress fracture in his back.
“It was a big mental adjustment and required big changes for my training, with a physical recovery plan put in place.”
Five years of hard work led to Tokyo but there was never any guarantee of medals, especially coming off an injury but Will won silver and bronze. At the long jump things weren’t going well and he was in sixth place. He gave the last jump everything he had and finished in second place with 5.64m.
“It was incredible, especially in the long jump where I felt I hadn’t had a great jump. I was so shocked to discover it was good, and I had won [silver].”
Life in the Tokyo village had similarities to Rio but was different due to Covid.
“There were a lot of protocols around wearing a mask everywhere, social distancing, sanitising etc.
“We had to stay in sport ‘bubbles’ meaning that we could only hang out with people in the same sport as us, which was quite different to Rio where there was a lot of interaction between the sports in the New Zealand team. In the dining hall, every seat was divided up with Perspex and gloves were to be worn.
Grateful games went ahead
“Having said that, there was still the familiar feel of a Paralympics village with the dining hall, all the different countries and the fact that there were thousands of athletes with disabilities all there for the same purpose. It’s pretty awesome. Tokyo 2020 was a great experience and I was really grateful that the games actually got to go ahead.”
To others thinking of tackling the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Will says it “sounds cliché, but just go for it.
“The different elements of the award all contribute to who you are and what you can achieve for your life ahead. It’s such an invaluable recognition for the tough process of growing yourself, what you are doing in life and your potential.”
Will, who attended Middleton Grange School in Christchurch, is currently studying electrical engineering at the University of Canterbury.
Recently released from MIQ, he can now focus on wedding plans for January 2022 with fiancée Annika.
Karen Ross, the national director of the Aotearoa New Zealand Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, says the awards were introduced to this country in 1963.
Second and third generations tackle award
Second and third generations of Kiwis are now coming through the programme, “proving there is obviously something very compelling about it”.
Karen says it combines the Duke’s timeless vision for young people, the self-sufficient New Zealand way and our famous adventuring hero Sir Edmund Hillary’s spirit of adventure at its heart.
“The award, and the kaimahi behind it, embrace Kiwi values, Māori and environmental journeys within their core programme.
“The Duke of Edinburgh has played a crucial role in supporting young people to survive and thrive despite the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, and we will continue to build on his legacy. In a year full of trying circumstances, loss, tough times and isolation, there is certainly hope,” says Karen.
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