When Campbell Message talks about playing wheelchair basketball, there’s a distinct excitement in his voice. And it’s about much more than his outstanding achievement as a Paralympian, and winning a silver medal at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games as part of the Australian Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team. It’s about the joy that wheelchair basketball has brought him throughout his entire life.
Campbell was two years old when an injury from a car accident left him with a disability. However, he reflects on his journey to success with an energy and passion that can only be described as joyful. “My journey has been one of awesome fun, the opportunity to have some great trips and opportunities to play for a little while overseas”, he says.
“Growing up, I just followed my passion. And I loved sport and wheelchair basketball in particular. It’s all I wanted to do”, he says. When he talks about life on the court, he reflects its almost meditative effect: “You're not thinking about what's happening or what's happened, you just operate on instinct, and it's a really creative, beautiful feeling”.
Campbell played National League wheelchair basketball for 25 years, representing Australia at world championship events in 1997 and 1998, and now works as a Program Manager at Melbourne Disability Institute at the University of Melbourne, while mentoring others through their journey to success. He is passionate about changing perceptions of people living with a disability, and driving a positive social narrative that is full of hope and optimism.
It was Campbell’s love of sport that helped him to focus on possibilities and opportunity – not just in relation to his own mental and physical health, but for others, too. “[Sport] helped me understand that I wanted to help other people redefine expectations of their abilities”, he says.
Throughout his 25-year career playing for the National Wheelchair Basketball League, Campbell remembers numerous coaches, including the great Kevin Coombs, and talented teammates who inspired him. In particular, Paralympian legend Troy Sachs OAM, who he says “was a huge force in getting me to play my game to another level”. And Australian Men's Wheelchair Basketball Team captain, Sandy Blythe, who Campbell says carried an intrinsic sense of pride on and off the court, and instilled this in others around him.
However, he also approaches his work and life with a true sense of pragmatism, and has dedicated much of his life to sharing that with others who are living with a disability. “One of my learnings was that there can be times when real grieving happens, due to enforced changes and mixtures of expectations,” he says. “Because you don't just have a spinal injury, for example, and then go happily on with the rest of your life. But there’s great benefit that comes from understanding that there’s way more potential to disability than you may have thought before you were injured.”
“[My] difficulties were less around my impairment but more around the outside world, like how to find role models, or what’s accessible. Wheelchair sport was a way to not only find my edges in a super meaningful way, but it was a way to find others succeeding and mentors to look up to.”
“It's very hard to see yourself in other people who don't have disabilities. The lack of role models was really tough”, he adds.
It’s clear that Campbell’s commitment and dedication to following his passion has helped him to pay forward what he knows and inspire others. “To succeed, you've got to try so hard and sacrifice so much”, he says. “For me, it wasn't all about sacrifice. It was about following my joy.”