With one kilometre remaining in her Paralympic campaign, alone at the front of the T54 wheelchair marathon, a thought crossed Madison de Rozario’s mind. “I was like, this is a really fucking long kick – I’ve maybe made a terrible decision.”
De Rozario had already covered almost 50 kilometres at Tokyo 2020 across the 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m and most of the marathon. On the final day of the Games earlier this month, one last kilometre was all that stood in the way of de Rozario becoming the first Australian woman to win a Paralympic marathon.
The 27-year-old had entered the race with a plan. Her coach, wheelchair racing legend Louise Sauvage, had carefully surveyed the course in the days prior. “One of the things that she did say was there’s a hill about four kilometres to go, it kind of starts a bit gradual and ends in a real kicker,” says de Rozario. “She basically said, ‘that’s gonna divide the pack, the race might be won on this hill’.”
The Australian’s dilemma was that, while she can climb with the best, her descending is a weak spot. With Tokyo National Stadium’s track sunk into the ground, the final climb was followed by not just one but two descents – back to ground-level and then into the bowels of the stadium. “I knew on that hill that I not only had to get to the top of it first, I had to get to the top with enough of a gap that I could hold on,” she says. “I remember coming over that hill, I knew I had a bit of a gap. I did not know if it was enough.”
It was at this point that de Rozario began to question her strategy. But it was too late for second guessing – she had a lead, and had to defend it from a fast-closing Manuela Schär. De Rozario descended into the National Stadium and sprinted for the finish-line. “That was the longest 500 metres – lap and a quarter of that track – of my career,” she says.
Re-watching the footage of that lap, with Guardian Australia on the other end of a Zoom call, the normally fast-talking de Rozario is temporarily lost for words. “It’s a little weird watching it – in the best possible way,” she says. Switzerland’s Schär closed the gap on de Rozario as they raced around the stadium – at one point coming within a wheelchair-length of the Australian. But a burst in the final 50 metres of the 42km race propelled de Rozario to the gold medal.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to be enough,” she says. “But sometimes you just hand the reins over to your body. Like, ‘you know how to do this – just do everything’. And thankfully, my body was able to just get me over that line.”
Two weeks later, de Rozario’s incredible victory is beginning to sink in. “Being back home after a Games is always such an emotional roller coaster,” she says. De Rozario is speaking from isolation in Sydney, one of a select few Paralympians to participate in a trial of the home quarantine program.
“There is an app that we all have, that we had to download before we left the airport,” she says. “It’ll beep at you anywhere from once to four times a day. And you have to check in with the photo of yourself – it will face ID you and geolocate you.” Each time the app beeps, de Rozario has five minutes to check-in. “I have missed it once because I was asleep,” she admits sheepishly.
The Paralympic champion’s stint in home quarantine ends on Tuesday, and she is hoping to be straight back on a plane. “We’re trying to get over to Berlin and London for two more marathons this year,” she says. “But right now we’re really struggling finding flights to come back home. So those plans may not may not work.”
Further afield, de Rozario is eyeing a busy 2022 with the world championships and Commonwealth Games on the horizon. Then Paris for the 2024 Paralympics and beyond. “I will definitely be staying on,” she says. “There is a part of me that is kind of planning my career with 2032 as a home Games at the end of it. So the Australian public will be seeing me around for a while … I’m not going anywhere.”
Perth-born de Rozario was four when, after suffering a bout of the flu, she developed a rare autoimmune disease, transverse myelitis, that left her paraplegic. “I was a kid – I don’t remember it happening,” she says. With her parents determined not to let the disability impact de Rozario, the family fostered an atmosphere where it was a neutral fact of life, rather than perceived in a negative light. “I was lucky – my parents did a lot of work, to actively do this,” she says. “We can’t view disability as a positive or a negative – it’s neither of those things … It’s neither good nor bad, it just is.”
In a sports-mad family, de Rozario was a regular on the football pitch with her sisters – typically serving as goalkeeper. “Around about 12, those differences became a little bit more apparent, so I started trying different things,” she says. De Rozario tried wheelchair basketball, but lacked the coordination. “The coach basically pulled me aside and said: ‘You’re terrible at this, do you want to try something else?’” The coach found a racing chair for de Rozario and she was soon smitten with the sport. “I absolutely fell in love with it – I love the independence,” she says.
Barely two years later, de Rozario was a late addition to the Australian squad for the 2008 Paralympics after a teammate in the 4x100m T53-4 category relay withdrew due to pregnancy. The quartet won a silver medal. “We weren’t expected to make a podium in Beijing,” she says. “That was an amazing first Games experience.”
But de Rozario’s second and third Games proved more challenging. In London, she failed to secure a medal – finishing fourth in her preferred discipline, the 800m. “[It’s] one of the hardest positions to finish,” De Rozario says. “Because it’s so close, but it’s just not good enough, unfortunately.” The 2012 Paralympics also coincided with a period of introspection as the athlete sought to decide on her future. “London was a bit messy for me,” she admits. “But in hindsight, I’m thankful it was a bit of a low and I could use it as a step to becoming who I wanted to be as an athlete.”
Rio brought more disappointment. “My little sister has this joke – that she can’t tell anymore after Tokyo – that I notoriously underperform at Paralympic Games. Up until recently she was 100% correct. She is not gentle with me!” De Rozario entered the 2016 Games as the reigning world champion in the 800m, but finished second to a world-record breaking effort from China’s Hongzhuan Zhou. A relay silver medal in the 4x400m was little consolation.
All of which meant de Rozario arrived at her fourth Paralympics, after five long years of waiting, eager to finally prove herself on the grandest stage. It did not begin well. She was the 2017 world champion and 2019 silver medallist in the 5,000m race, but fell to fifth in her Tokyo 2020 opener. “I had been making this joke leading into the Games that I didn’t know if I could still race or not [due to the Covid delays],” she laughs. “And that I would get to find out on national television … That was a bit of a shock.”
De Rozario had less than 36 hours to recover for her pet event, the 800m. She broke the Paralympic record on her way to gold in a flawless performance. “It was like this massive weight was lifted,” she says. “I think there was a part of me that has known for the past five years that I’m capable of doing that, of winning a Paralympic gold medal. But I hadn’t done it. I couldn’t say that I was that person yet.”
Finally, in Tokyo, 13 years after her Beijing debut and having collected three world titles in the interim, de Rozario was a Paralympic champion. She says the victory was the first time she had crossed the line and felt only happiness. “Normally when you cross the finish-line first, you’re expecting that it’s going to be happy and joy and pride. Instead what you feel is just relief.”
De Rozario says that she worked extensively with a psychologist in the lead-up to the Games. “[After the 800m win] I genuinely felt happy and proud that it had all come together. That made it one of the most amazing races of my career – for crossing the line first in the event that I wanted to do it, but also for all that mental side that had gone into it.” She followed up with bronze in the 1,500m before adding a second gold medal to the collection a week later in the marathon.
Midway through the Paralympics, rugby sevens Olympic gold medallist Chloe Dalton – a close friend of de Rozario’s – used social media to highlight the pay disparity between Australia’s Olympians and Paralympians. Australian Olympic Committee awards medal bonuses after each Games – $20,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze for Tokyo 2020. But Paralympics Australia, with a far smaller budget and less commercial clout, is unable to offer a single cent. Dalton began a crowd-funding campaign – which has raised almost $100,000 – before the federal government stepped in and said it would fund equal payments for Paralympic medallists.
The government’s intervention is a welcome short-term fix. De Rozario laughs that she has not considered how she will spend her bonus. “It all happened during the Games – I have not processed that yet,” she says. But Dalton’s campaign underscored the inequality between able-bodied athletes and para-athletes, which in turn reflects widespread stigma around disability.
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics were accompanied by a new campaign, #WeThe15, launched by a coalition of international institutions seeking to address disability discrimination. De Rozario has previously spoken of the discrimination she has faced, telling Elle in 2018: “I’m so used to being a strong athlete who’s had all this success in my sport, and then you meet people outside of the athletics bubble and the first thing they see is the wheelchair.”
De Rozario is hopeful that the increased profile of the Paralympics can help address the stigma. “I don’t want people watching the Paralympics, [just] thinking a person with a disability can race a marathon,” she says. “It’s [that] a person [with] that disability is capable of anything and everything that they choose to do. We need our 20% of Australians [with disabilities], 15% globally … to see that. And then you need the other 85% to also see that. Pathways aren’t created by the minority, right? They’re created by the majority.
“We need that part of our community creating those pathways and seeing the potential, not just in sport, in absolutely everything. Paralympics – because of its profile, because of its platform – has the ability to change perceptions, and create a space where we can make a more accessible world.”