By Rebecca Peppiatt
Midland support worker Caitlin Dransfield, 30, will be making history next week as the first ever para-badminton player at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
Born with right-sided hemiplegic cerebral palsy affecting motor abilities and muscle tone on one side of the body, Caitlin has overcome more hurdles than most to reach her dream of representing Australia on the world stage.
For the first time ever, badminton is being represented at the Paralympics and for Caitlin it means a shot at bringing home a medal and proving to others with disabilities that anything is possible.
“There is a little bit of pressure, but I’ve had a lot of experience playing at international events before, so I’m just going to go in there and play my game,” she said.
“You’re playing against the top girls, so it’s all about mentality and if you hit a bad shot, okay, you can’t dwell on that shot, you actually have to think about the next rally.”
Caitlin grew up playing tennis but there is no Paralympic pathway unless you are in a wheelchair and for ambitious Caitlin, representing Australia has been a lifelong dream.
In 2016, Caitlin took part in a badminton ‘come and try’ day, picking up a badminton racket for the first time ever.
She fell in love with the sport, starting her on a five-year journey of hard work and dedication that has led to Paralympic selection and a place in Tokyo.
Coach Mark Cunningham has guided her through that journey from the very beginning and he couldn’t be prouder of how far she has come.
“I was asked by someone if I would allow her to come and play at my club and she hit one shot in the first game that she played where she just went and whacked it down the tram line and the timing, the power, the way she hit it and I just walked off court and I said wow, she can play,” Mr Cunningham said.
“I said I would get her to the Paralympic games and we would dedicate everything we can to try and get her there.”
Unlike the able-bodied Olympics, most Paralympic athletes do not attract any sponsorship, so individuals have to self-fund their way to the podium.
For Caitlin, that has meant spending well over $100,000 of her own money traveling to events nationally and internationally and kitting herself out with the gear necessary to play sport at the top.
Financial hurdles, however, were the least of her worries last year when COVID hit, badminton courts were closed and a leg splint Caitlin relied on to allow her to play, broke.
Unable to get a new one made due to lockdown, Caitlin instead worked on strengthening her weak leg and building up the muscle to allow her to play without the AFO (artificial foot orthoses), realising she could play better than she did before.
“I actually play a lot better now without it because it restricted my movement,” she said.
“It’s been the best thing that happened and my game’s improved tenfold.”
The fastest racket sport in the world, badminton is not for the faint hearted and the faster you can move the better you will be.
“I am feeling confident,” Caitlin said.
“They [the other competitors] haven’t seen me playing yet without my splint on.
“I’m ready to cause some upsets.”
Preparations for her Paralympic debut have been underway for months, including heat acclimatisation with the West Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS).
Badminton is unable to be played in air conditioning as it will affect the movement of the lightweight shuttles so the athletes will likely be playing in temperatures of between 35 and 40 degrees with about 70 per cent humidity.
The heat, Caitlin says, should give her an edge over some of the other competitors.
“It will be a big factor with everyone, I reckon, because a lot of those countries might not be used to the heat,” she said.
“I think I will be going in well prepared because of our summers, so that will be a game changer for us.”
Since 2015 Caitlin has been a support worker with Midland-based Rise, helping others with disabilities and mental health issues.
She is also studying a Bachelor of Disability and Community Inclusion.
She sees a large part of her Paralympics experience as a way to inspire others.
“I want to show people with disabilities that anything is possible.”
“I would love to come home and inspire people to go out and talk to people and say, this is what you can do.
“There’s not enough opportunities for people with disabilities in sport.”