An athlete's mindset
Athletes are a rare breed, defined by a strict discipline, work ethic and desire. Benny Roche is no different.
At the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football World Qualifications 2016, the Australian change room at the Vejen Idrætscenter in Denmark was raucous. Benny Roche, the Pararoos Vice Captain, was in tears.
Earlier that year, they had received the news that funding had been pulled from the Pararoos, leaving their program virtually non-existent overnight. To make matters worse, the team had ten weeks to raise $160,000, to get to the qualifying tournament in Scandinavia.
“If we didn’t make it to Denmark, we wouldn’t qualify for the next two years of tournaments and our program would’ve essentially died.”
Benny admits he took a lot of the pressure on himself. He just had a baby a few weeks prior and was in the midst of a big move interstate back to Melbourne. But, he wasn’t wavered. Together, the team put together a fundraising campaign - and with help from Football Federation Australia and some very generous donors - raised the funds with three weeks to go.
However, the pressure only mounted when the team touched down in Denmark.
“Our first game was against Spain, and we had to win it to progress. Our preparation was woeful, no one had been training - all the effort had been directed to getting us there.”
It was a highly competitive match that saw two passionate teams battle to ensure their place in the top 8 and qualification for the 2017 World Championships. And with tremendous support from the stands, the Pararoos rose to the occasion to claim the victory 2-0, with Benny netting the deciding goal in the 51st minute.
“I remember the emotion of scoring, I just screamed! It was just a massive weight off my shoulders. I was bawling my eyes out in the change rooms afterwards just because so much went into getting the team there, and now we had done our job.”
The thought of the Pararoos disappearing had inspired him into action.
“When I heard the news, I simply said, this can’t be right. I wanted others in my position to have the same opportunities.”
Growing up with cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy (CP) refers to a congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture, due to abnormal brain development, often before birth.
“I have what is known as right side hemiplegia; where my right hand and leg don’t work as well, impacting my fine motor skills and balance.”
As a child, Benny began to recognise his difficulties were unique to him. He would sit in a different chair at school, and spend a lot of time before and after school with various trips to the doctor, hospital or clinics.
With growing self awareness, Benny began to notice how others around him would react. His disability soon became something they could pick on or separate him for. For many, he didn’t fit in or belong.
“It felt isolating at times, it was a feeling I didn’t enjoy.”
However, he gushes with appreciation when reflecting on how his family helped him embrace his difference, almost as a superpower.
“I’m very lucky, and probably thought it was quite normal how I was raised. I was taught to embrace it and not to shy away from it in any way. It wasn’t until I met others that I realised how supportive my parents were. Some pretended it wasn't there, others treated it like a problem.”
“My family let me challenge myself and find out what I was capable of doing. I was allowed to try everything and wasn’t held back because of it.”
The support from his family allowed Benny to overcome the social stigma around disability, empowering him to navigate the world in his own unique way.
“They let me learn, and I think that’s been a big factor in where I’ve ended up.”
The world game
However, society has its own progress to make in regards to disability, and Benny’s first foray into sport was no different.
“Getting into sport and seeing what my body was capable of, was a big learning experience. Playing locally at a young age, I was by no means the strongest player, I didn't stand out.
“But I loved it and enjoyed being with my mates. I had to jump from club to club to get a fair experience. I also had a lot of negative experiences but kept wanting to play.
An important milestone would be when he discovered the Pararoos at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.
“I saw the Pararoos play at the Olympic Games and thought to myself - there’s something available for me.”
A dream would soon turn reality for Benny, as he was invited to attend a Pararoos training camp.
“Meeting similar people and realising this is something I can achieve and push for - that’s when I started to really step up my football and put more into it.
“I attended a few tournaments and got my first jersey. All of a sudden what was happening at a local level didn’t matter anymore. I was going there to get my training and improve as a player.”
What was more powerful though, was the potential Benny began to recognise in himself. The potential to create a place for himself in a world that previously felt distant.
CP had caused him to reconsider what would be possible in his future, but entering a community of like-minded individuals prompted him to entertain the thought that anything was possible once more.
“All of a sudden I was surrounded by adults that had had similar experiences and didn’t view CP as an issue. They just lived their lives.
“They all had great careers, there were teachers, train drivers, financial advisors - there was a bit of everything.
“And I went oh cool, I can do what I want to do.”
It’s bigger than football
The all encompassing and encouraging culture of the Pararoos would soon filter into Benny’s world off the pitch.
“Football taught me a range of different things. It opened my eyes in every aspect; from disability to a person's background - it taught me compassion and to be a good person.
“That’s something the pararoos are really proud of. We are so open, supportive and honest with each other because we need to be. That’s a big aspect of what we do.
“Stepping into that, it’s hard to walk away and not take it further and share it with other people.”
And share it with others he did.
A number of years ago, Benny launched the Victorian Paralympic Football Program. When he first entered the Pararoos, he was the only Victorian. He believes he was quite lucky to have been discovered. For others, there might be no real pathway.
“There were more kids in Victoria, so I started this program.
“The first year we had maybe four kids. Now there are about thirty that come on a regular basis, and we send a team to nationals each year. Now five or six have gone on to represent Australia.
“For me, it’s not only the physical impact that we’ve made - but there's a community now where people have shared similar experiences. There are incredible leaders that have come out of the program and the support network the parents now have, is beyond what I ever expected it to turn out to be.
“It’s powerful work that creates opportunities.”
Family and legacy
Playing for the Pararoos doesn’t come without sacrifice.
“A lot of what I’ve done, I couldn’t have done without my family. I don’t get paid to play football so it comes at a cost. It's love and passion and there's something much greater that we can achieve. And I couldn’t do it without them.”
Now with a young family of his own, Benny has set out to be a role model not only for them, but for many other young people who view him as what is possible in the world.
“Realising that kids looked up to me and did want to hear about my experiences was a big turning point for me. There are so many kids and young adults that I speak to who are going to go on and do phenomenal things.
“But they are facing challenges - school, work, romance - there are different aspects to having a disability that they are experiencing that I’ve experienced.
“The fact that you can be there for them is huge.”
Through his program and public speaking, Benny believes there is still a lot of work left to be done across the board.
“Whether you want to be a footballer or not, you need to have an opportunity in whatever you choose to do.
“For a long time, it becomes a pat on the back - we’ll provide these opportunities because it's a nice thing to do - but it's not something of substance. I believe it should be something of substance, something that is grown and developed.”
Advocacy remains firmly rooted in Benny’s DNA, he understands better than most that creating spaces for opportunity and engagement is pivotal in creating positive change for disability.
And he believes his children will be exactly the same.
“I love my son’s understanding of disability. I’ve taken him to a few national championships where everyone is affected by CP in different ways. He asks questions and that’s really powerful.
“Watching him talking about it with his friends if they notice - I think that’s a huge thing.
“I’m so proud of how he speaks and the fact that he is proud of his Dad who has a disability. And I’m sure my daughter will do the same when she is older.”
Words by Ryan Cheng