In our A Drink with Jeffseries, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. This time, he caught up with Paralympian Paul Nunnari.

Racing wheelchairs, with their carbon fibre frames and aerodynamic design, are an engineering marvel. But equipment alone does not set Paul Nunnari apart. Nor does his steely determination or muscle-bound arms . I reckon it’s his grace.

From his humility and community spirit, to the way he acknowledges defeat as much as victory. Indeed, barriers are the only thing he seems to treat with disrespect.

So, I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that we’d be chatting about disabilities when we met for a drink this month. That topic is of little interest to Paul. He’s far more interested in abilities. Not as a slick motivational poster slogan, either, but as a pragmatic truth. Ability, to any Paralympian, knows no bounds.

Grace is the icing on the cake, as Paul has proved time and time again as an international sportsman, government policy advocate, family man, local patriot, charity ambassador, and even a TV star on Australia’s Got Talent.

For our drink and chat, he rolled into Aquafit’s Cafe Blue in his normal every-day wheelchair, not the long racing one. We were warmly welcomed by Sonia, the larger-than-life supervisor of Cafe Blue, and I ordered one of her famous coffees, but Paul went with an ice-cold dose of H20.

What was clear, however, was how “at home” Paul feels at Aquafit. As we grabbed the narrow window seat overlooking Rydges, The Cube, and the Catho, Paul climbed onto the seat and positioned his chair to support his legs as he leaned back looking relaxed.

I asked him how often he visited Aquafit.

“Pretty much every day,” he shot back with a grin. “I try to train every day, mostly at evenings, but sometimes I also squeeze in a session during the day.”

For Paul, I suspect the gym is not just a place to build muscle or burn calories. It is a place of focus, where he can push himself to be his very best. A place where every drop of sweat reaffirms the notion that anything is possible.

Paul, himself, points to the facility itself and its staff. “I’ve trained in a lot of gyms over the decades, and I have come to the conclusion that Aquafit is one of the best gyms — if not THE best gym — I’ve ever trained in. The fact they’ve got a pool here is a bonus. But the real difference is the staff, always so helpful and supportive.

“Other gyms I’ve been to, people don’t register. I mean, you’re just someone who is using their equipment. But here, I see the staff truly interact with members. People matter.”

That became particularly clear to Paul when he dropped into Aquafit last year as part of “Fred’s Push”.

That annual event is named in honour of Fred Borg — a former Catholic Club director and the founder of the 24 Hour Fight Against Cancer, who died in 2016. It involves Paul pushing his racing wheelchair from school to school across the Macarthur area raising awareness for the local charity walkathon. In last year’s push, he also popped into Aquafit and was blown away by how many staff came to welcome him.

(I was actually an eyewitness to that occasion as I usually join Paul’s convoy, even organised a couple of them.)

Paul’s community passion is one of the reasons I suspect Campbelltown Catholic Club has sponsored him for more than two decades. Paul’s long sporting career includes three Paralympic Games — 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens. He won a silver medal in 2000 in the men’s 4×100 m relay event.

Many of us still remember the local pride we felt as Paul was awarded his medal and waved to the cheering crowds.

He has often spoken about the heart-pounding moments that happen just before a race. The electricity in the air and the sense of anticipation, when the whole world is reduced to just him and the track. “At that moment it’s all on you; you’re fully responsible and in control of that part of your destiny.”

Paul loves that agency.

He says in a world where the emphasis often falls on finding cures or treatments for disabilities, he advocates a different approach — a focus instead on removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in society.

“When I was injured as a kid [struck by a car as an 11-year-old], it was very much treated under a medical level of disability. If you couldn’t be fixed, cured or healed, there was this attitude that your outlook on life was very limited. But, via the Paralympics and other things, I see it now far more now in terms of a social model. It’s not about disability being a deficit, or even a negative.

“Why should I be fixed, cured, or healed. Let’s instead look at the other side.  What are the infrastructure barriers? What are the attitudinal barriers? What are the communication barriers? How can we can get rid of those barriers to a broad range of disabilities, whether cognitive, sensory or physical. To ensure every person, no matter what, can achieve what they want to achieve. Disability can be seen in the context of visible or non-visible. It’s not about sympathy, but opportunity.”

Paul also gets a lot of satisfaction from his job as the Director of Inclusive Infrastructure with the Department of Regional NSW. That takes in a wide range of activities, from policy and legislation, to hands-on decision-making for major events.

“Things like the Parkes Elvis Festival, or the Tamworth Country Music Festival, the Deniliquin Ute Muster, or Mundi Mundi Bash. Just making sure that even at a bush location with little infrastructure, and everything being flat-packed in, we can still ensure a person with a disability can do something as simple as access a toilet with dignity.”

In 2022, Paul was awarded a Public Service Medal for his “outstanding public service in the field of access and inclusion”. (He didn’t tell me that, mind you, I had to discover that online after our chat.)

Paul is not a big-talker. “I like being unremarkable,” he smiled. “When I achieve things I do like to share them, but not for the recognition, but to show other people what is possible. I’m very passionate about advocacy. Particularly for children with disability, to showcase what can be achieved, and not be limited by other people’s misconceptions.”

Paul is a true influencer. Calm and composed. Teaching, not lecturing. Encouraging and discussing, not bashing people over the head with a rule book.

“Most people these days are actually really good that way. If someone doesnt want to open up and learn about a disability, they are usually the sort of person who doesn’t want to open up and learn about other things, too. Closed minded in general. Those sorts of people in positions of leadership don’t tend to last long.”

But that doesn’t mean Paul is a pushover. I recall from my time as a newspaper editor that Paul made national headlines about 20 years ago as he raised the issue of an airline company making carers pay for accompanying wheelchair passengers. He is happy to rock the boat if that boat needs rocking.

During our discussion, I mentioned the only time I’d ever seen Paul throw a “near-tantrum” was at an event where the Paralympian was posing for photographs with a group of children with a disability. An incredibly insensitive photographer began making inappropriate remarks about the children. Paul was appalled and moved away. The photographer yelled, “I’m not finished yet”, and Paul shot back: “We’re done!!!”.

As an influencer, Paul is still remembered by many for reaching the grand final of Australia’s Got Talent TV show in 2013 as “The Other Superman”. Basically, he showcased a thrilling gymnastic aerial routine — in his wheelchair — using sheer brute strength and athletic skill.

Paul decided to have a go at that after watching his sister Carmelina, an aerialist, in action. Paul hired her coach, the brilliant Melise Avion, to instruct him. (Many local people later saw them both in action, performing live at Ingleburn Alive in 2020.)

Thus, Paul enjoyed a second bout of being a national celebrity, He and Melise even set a Guinness World Record — the most 360 degree rope rotations hanging by one arm in a minute — a total of 77 spins!

Not to mention performances with The Wiggles, and a starring role at World Expo Dubai in 2021. He’s also done his Other Superman routine at The Cube, the proud local man added.

This led us to the obvious question: How does The Catholic Club measure up for accessibility?

“It’s great,” he replied. “They’ve gone to a lot of effort to be inclusive. Its really easy to go to The Cube as a spectator to see a show, but it’s just as easy to be a performer, whether you’re on stage, or in the green room and back of house facilities. No problems.”

Paul’s links with the club go back to his childhood, his parents being early club members. But as a young athlete, the Catholic Club stepped in to sponsor him. “They were great, particularly in the lead up to Athens, providing me with sponsorship to Aquafit. Here I am still using the gym to this day.”

Paul also spoke of his affection for St Paul’s Primary School at Camden (which installed ramps for his wheelchair after his accident) and John Therry Catholic High School at Rosemeadow. ”That was, at the time, the only local high school acceptable for wheelchair users. Places like St Greg’s, where most of my primary school friends went, had too many stairs. John Therry was purpose-built to be accessible. As a child, you want to go into a physical environment where you feel equal; and John Therry was that environment. It was a great school, and I’m glad I went there. It gave me an opportunity to do my best.”

I asked Paul, given all his worldwide achievements, whether he thinks his life would have been so notable if he had not suffered his spinal cord injury.

“Hard to say,” he said. “My love affair with sport certainly began at a young age, and I was a very competitive 11 year old. So, I think that would have translated. But, to what extent? Who knows. At the end of the day, you do the best with what you’ve got.”

That’s why Paul, in each race that he participates in, sends a strong message why inclusion is so important. He is also quick to point out that he never officially retired from wheelchair racing. It’s just that he has other priorities —  but he still holds a great love for the sport.

As recently as January, he won the Men’s Master’s leg of GIO Insurance’s Oz Day 10k — Australia’s premier 10km wheelchair road race.  He has also represented NSW in wheelchair basketball.

His advocacy expands into many other areas, including authentic representation of people with disability across screen and film. The full list of his interests could go on for pages.

As we wrapped up our chat, Paul offered more praise for Aquafit, because of its inclusiveness. “There is a broad range of patrons with a disability that come here to not only to exercise and keep fit, but engage socially, as a way to build confidence. That is a fantastic positive thing the Catholic Club is doing for the community.”

Once again, I think of the word grace.

I reckon Paul serves as a reminder to us all that true greatness lies in the tenacity to overcome obstacles.

Paul has defined his own destiny.