Donning the Australian colours for the first time, vision-impaired sprinter Karlee Symonds competed at the 2019 Oceania Athletics Championships in Townsville last month.
Running alongside the 16-year-old was athletics coach Matt Rawlings, spurring his newest athlete towards a bronze medal in the 100m final.
“I’ve been working with [Symonds] now for approximately six months,” said Rawlings.
“That was a good opportunity for me to dust the old spikes off and assist in a different capacity.”
Rawlings had two other para-athletes in the Australian squad at Townsville – James Tirado and Summer Giddings also received medals for their performances.
“They’re all sixteen or seventeen, experiencing their first time in the green and gold,” said Rawlings.
“Whether they had come first or last, just to see the excitement with them, that outweighed any medal in my view.
“I know they always like medals; but in my opinion, it’s not always about medals.”
Matt Rawlings is a Target Talent Program (TTP) coach, focusing on para-athletes. The 36-year-old was honoured with a Service Merit Award and Special Achievement Award at the 2019 Athletics NSW Awards Dinner.
A former track & field athlete himself, Rawlings got his first coaching certificate in 1998 to help junior athletes at Hills Athletics Club under the guidance of Malcolm Lavender.
His athletics career was brutally cut short in his early twenties after a horrific accident in 2002.
“I got hit by a car, lost my scholarship to America for athletics and went a couple of years into depression,” said Rawlings.
“The Institute of Sport did a lot to help with my mental health and get me out of that little dark space while I was there.”
With the help of Lavender and David Tarbotton, Rawlings improved his mental health and returned to Hills, but just as a coach. It was there he was introduced to future Paralympian Stephanie Schweitzer.
“She was my first para-athlete; she presented herself down at the club looking for a coach,” said Rawlings.
“Me being the new coach on the block, I was pretty much given her and then within 12 months, she’d made her first Australian team at the age of 14 – she made finals at the [Global Games], and it snowballed from there.
“A lot of para-athletes with various disabilities then started getting in contact with me.”
After more than 20 years of coaching, Rawlings became a renowned coach within New South Wales athletics, specialising in para-athletes. Two of Rawlings’ rising superstars are 16-year-old Tamsin Colley and 17-year-old Kailyn Joseph – both competed at the recent 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and are eyeing a trip to Tokyo next year.
“They’re working towards APC selection with the view of getting selected for Tokyo next year,” said Rawlings.
“Steph’s getting towards the twilight of her career and she’s also assisting in coaching, but it doesn’t interfere with her in the development and passing of her skills and experience to the younger athletes – it’s a team effort.”
Rawlings has observed a shift in attitudes towards para-athletes as the sport strives for greater diversity and inclusion. Working closely with ANSW, he has encouraged increased awareness and promotion of para-athletics.
“The Competition Management has put on events at interclub allowing para-athletes to compete in para-only events, rather than running against the able-bodied and getting their butts whipped,” said Rawlings.
“[ANSW] have really helped increase that inclusion and bridge the gap, so people aren’t scared.”
Matt’s father, Ron, is also a former athlete and continues to support his son with coaching in whatever capacity he can.
“He’s probably one person who’s always in the background that doesn’t get any recognition,” said Rawlings.
“He’s like my right-hand man – if I can’t get to a training session for whatever reason, due to work commitments, he’s always available there to run the session in my absence.”
Surrounded by family, many members of his squad and his athletics peers, the ANSW Annual Awards Dinner was an ideal occasion to recognise his contribution to the sport.
“Those two awards blew me away – I was a little bit shell-shocked when my name got called up, and I tried to disappear after the first award, not knowing there was a second one coming,” said Rawlings.
“I felt a little bit embarrassed because there’s a lot of other coaches and administrators that are doing as good of a job, if not better.
“I don’t do it for any awards or pats on the back or anything like that – I just do it to try and help out.”
ANSW Events Manager Matthew Joyce, who has worked alongside him on state teams, praised Rawlings for his approachable demeanour at training and competitions, continually supporting athletes both on and off the track.
“Matt creates a friendly atmosphere around training; he has a happy, welcoming personality, and cracks a few jokes,” said Joyce.
“He’s very encouraging as well – at Australian All Schools, there was probably about 30-40 para-athletes that all looked up to him as sort of a father-figure.”
Rawlings has set the foundation for future coaches to train Australia’s next generation of Paralympians – his selflessness has allowed dozens of para-athletes to reach their full potential.
“When Stephanie came, nobody really knew anything about para-athletes, and there was nobody else there that wanted to give them the time of day,” said Rawlings.
“I just felt that after my career was cut short, maybe that was my calling.
“I feel an obligation to keep going and helping these athletes come through the system, and hopefully whenever I want to give up the baton, then there will be more understanding throughout the whole sport on para-athletes.
“My coaching philosophy is, if I can provide one per cent of happiness or achievement in somebody’s life, then I’ve done my job.”
Nic Savage | Athletics NSW