Paul Nunnari on the space where athletics meets art

After more than ten years, Paralympian Paul Nunnari returned to the GIO Oz Day 10K race earlier this year. The silver medallist won the Masters category and placed seventh overall. It was a triumphant return for Nunnari who last competed in 2009. But coming back to the iconic race was also about ensuring the longevity of the 30-year-old event. 

“It’s been a bit of a hiatus for sure,” Nunnari told Inform.  “I’ve still really enjoyed engaging with the race… I’ve still got a keen interest in the race and ultimately want to see [it] keep succeeding for basically forever.”

“I think it’s one of the best athletic events, forget about it kind of just being wheelchair, but one of the best athletic events, annual events in Australia.”

“But for me, personally, to go and compete this year really meant a lot to me, because… you look every year, you look at the results, and I guess I wanted to make sure that [in] 2021 there was results. [That] it wasn’t an event that was postponed due to COVID, just like a lot of other events have been.”

“I think the fact that that team got that race up and running this year, and facilitated a safe race, a competitive race, and engaging race, I wanted to be a part of that. I’m really happy, and really proud that I was able to support it.”

Despite his years away from racing professionally, Nunnari is quick to point out that he never “officially retired from wheelchair racing”. He still holds a great love for the sport, and it remains a significant part of his life.

Image: Supplied/Don Arnold

Challenging perceptions of disability

Nunarri loves racing. He loves setting a goal and achieving it. He loves those few seconds before the racing gun goes off, when the world is reduced to just him and the track.

“There’s nothing like just sitting on that start line, where your hands are kind of in that cocked position on the push rim, your elbows up, and you’re just ready to go. There’s that silence. That probably 10 seconds silence, just before the guns gonna go and you kind of look over to your competitor and they’re looking forward and you just know, it’s like, race on.

“I love that. I love once you’re out it’s just you. You’ve got people cheering you, you’ve done the training, or in my case, you’ve done as much as you can. But at the end of the day, it’s on you, whether you finish, whether you pull out… whatever the result, it’s on you and so you’re fully responsible and I kind of love that as well. I like that I’m in control of that part of my destiny.”

Of course, it’s not just about racing. About clocking the kilometres and getting over the finish line first. For Nunnari, it’s about far more than that.

“For me as well, what I do is about also raising awareness, and I guess changing perceptions around disability…. [and] what I can kind of trailblaze for other people with disability.”

Taking to the silks

When it comes to changing perceptions, Nunnari is not content to stay on the racing track. For the last decade, he’s taken that same mindset, along with the athleticism that propelled him into racing in the first place, into performance. Aerial performance.

Nunnari’s entry into the world of aerial performance came about by accident. In 2011, while watching his sister perform, he wondered if he could do the same from his chair. That thought led to conversations with his sister’s coach and Nunnari soon began training.

“Having the opportunity to do it, just gave me then that opportunity to think about things differently and how I can, I guess, apply my physical training, or the athleticism from my physical training, into this performance space,” he said.

In 2013, Nunnari was invited to audition for Australia’s Got Talent. It’s an experience that led to other opportunities. Including performing in Justene Williams ‘She Conjured The Clouds’ at the Sydney Festival in 2020.

“It was really nice to kind of be part of a mainstream show that showcased the talent of performers with disability. And it was a sold out, it was a sold-out show, sold out run.”

Other collaborations followed and while international performances scheduled for this year have been put on hold, Nunnari is committed to continuing this part of new journey.

“It’s been a really awesome journey. And I really love continuing to do it.”

The link between the silks and the track

While on the surface, the link between racing and aerial performance might not be obvious, Nunnari says it is definitely there.

“You get that point [where] you roll out behind the curtain to go on stage or you have that last flush of those butterflies. But I know as soon as my hands hit the silk to climb, I know it’s on me. And just like as soon as I take that first push off the start line, it’s on me and the nerves go, because you’re in that zone where you’re very familiar,” Nunnari explained.

“I’ve always said, as long as I’m confident with my training during the silks, I feel safe. And I think the same with racing, like, you always want to know that you’re going to finish the race. You always want to know that you’re going to give the best performance you can on the day. When you feel like that you feel confident, and that’s a good way to go into a race. And that’s a good way to go into performance as well.”

Sydney holds a special place

While aerial performance is now Nunnari’s focus, he holds some special memories from his time competing on the world stage. One that stands out for Nunnari is the Sydney Paralympics, where he won a silver medal in the men’s 4 × 100m relay.

“I think any athlete who competed at the Paralympics in 2000, obviously from Australia, any Australian athlete will say it was, it would have been the best experience of their life. And it was for a myriad of different reasons.

“But for me, it was about showcasing to the world that Australia really embraced the Paralympics, it wasn’t something we just hosted because we had to as part of getting the Olympic bid, we actually hosted it and we basically set best practice in regards to how you host a Paralympic event.”

For Nunnari, this best practice example had a much broader impact on Australia.

“From my perspective, it really changed, and I think in this country, it really, it flipped that switch on that transference from that medical model into that social model way of thinking.”

Fulfilling lifelong goals

Another event that holds a special significance to Nunnari is one that he first learned about as an 11-year-old while in hospital after acquiring a spinal injury.

“It’s called the Sadler’s Ultra Challenge. It’s about 427 kilometres over five days,” Nunnari explains.

“I remember reading about that race, actually, when I got injured in 1984. It was one of the first things I read about after literally I had acquired my spinal injury,

“I was just totally enthralled by it, hypnotised by it, and [it was] something that I thought as an 11-year-old kid, I want to do that when I grow up… It was something, it was a very positive and pivotal moment in my life kind of reading that article. [It] really set me up for my athletic goals moving forward.”

Twenty-one years later, Nunnari travelled to Alaska to compete in the Challenge. He won that race.

“That was something that was quite personal to me and significant for… I always say that if you set a goal, and you believe you can achieve it, you will. It’s just about just about remembering that you set it. And I always remembered it.  21 years is a long time. But it was something that at some point in my athletic career I knew I wanted to do. And I did it.”

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