Role models were always hard to come by for a young Cameron Leslie.
Para-sports were barely on the radar, and for Leslie who grew up with limb-deficiencies, any chance of a recognisable icon was minor. The now three-time Paralympian’s passion for sport and success came thanks to his own desire and dedication.
Being an all too familiar feeling for many para-athletes, Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ) has launched a programme called Seeing is Believing to help change the perception of disability and uncover more role models. Delivered through the lens of Paralympians the aim is to educate and promote what can be achieved in those spaces.
Leslie sees the move as a breakthrough, considering what he had growing up.
“It’s really difficult to think back to who actually were role models,” he said. “They existed but they weren’t really publicised or known - you just weren’t hearing about them.”
The swimmer and wheelchair rugby star told the Herald that having no one to look up to was tough.
“The role models who I would love to have seen is myself as an amputee seeing other amputees to model myself off, but also learn from them as well. It’s a little bit of seeing yourself...seeing someone that you can identify with.”
Though the hindrance didn’t directly affect Leslie’s fate – going on to claim multiple medals and accolades – it’s something he’s eager to fix for the future.
“It’s really important to have someone to look up to and also someone to relate to,” said the three time Paralympic gold medallist. “That’s all really important in terms of showing what is possible.
“Regardless of whether they want to become a Paralympian or anything like that, it’s more around seeing what someone can do rather than what they can’t do.”
Leslie was involved in the Seeing is Believing launch on Wednesday at Scott Point Primary in Auckland.
A group of students learned and played the game of goalball – an official Paralympic sport designed specifically for athletes with vision impairment.
It is one of seven sporting modules that will be available for schools in the campaign. After the high demand piloting the programme in 20 primary schools across the country in the last year, it’s now available to all.
Paralympics New Zealand chief executive Greg Warnecke said schools should be excited about the “unique” opportunities it provides.
“It includes the high-quality I’mPOSSIBLE teacher resources and stories of Paralympians and para-athletes, who tamariki can learn about and even meet.”
I’mPOSSIBLE is a range of engaging, easy-to-implement learning resources, ready for teachers and kaiako to explore the Paralympic values, Paralympic movement, and a variety of para-sports.
“These elements combine values-based learning with the lived experiences of Paralympians and para-athletes,” Warnecke said.
“It’s a powerful combination which inspires both participation and inclusion in school environments.”
Leslie hopes the school programme inspires people, both as individuals and as a collective, to normalise impairment and normalise what is possible for those with disabilities
“I hope [Seeing is Believing] does actually sort of steer a few people in the right direction.”
And as Leslie advocates for change, he has gold and the Paris Paralympics on his mind.
“The goal is definitely to try and be on a podium. I’m not super fazed on the colour of the medal but obviously I’m a very competitive person so I would love to be on top of the podium,” he said.
Leslie said his intense training schedule begins now as he looks to become New Zealand’s first dual-code Paralympian in 36 years, competing as both a swimmer and Wheel Black.