By Russell Bennett
“THERE’S no loss without a gain.”
They’re the words Matt Lewis has lived by since he was very nearly killed in a horrific backyard explosion in Cannons Creek in 2011.
He lost his fingers and both of his legs in the incident at a point in his life in which he admits he was “pretty down”.
But, remarkably, it started a chain of events that led to him jetting off to Rio on Monday as part of the Australian wheelchair rugby team for the Paralympic Games.
Now 29, Lewis told the Gazette just hours before taking off in his quest for gold that the month-long induced coma he was put in following his accident showed that he desperately wanted to live.
“I’d say it’s a miracle,” he said.
“I’ve got faith in God, so for me that’s the context I understand this all through.”
Matt said that after his coma he started to “say yes to life” again. After the lengthy rehabilitation process that followed, he got involved in the sport of wheelchair rugby.
“You come out of rehab and like anything in life you don’t know what’s going to happen so you just start taking steps forward,” he said.
“I met this guy who was playing rugby and he’s my Victorian coach now.
“He invited me. I was a bit hesitant but I finally went along, and I enjoyed it. Sport isn’t a massive thing of mine but I love rugby. If you like one thing about something you’ve got to love it all.”
Matt’s outlet prior to his accident was music – specifically playing the guitar – but he’s since learned to harness both his creative and analytical side through the action-packed sport of wheelchair rugby – a mixed team sport for both male and female athletes.
“Created by athletes with a disability, it combines elements of rugby, basketball and handball,” the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) website says.
“Players compete in teams of four to carry the ball across the opposing team’s goal line. Contact between wheelchairs is permitted, and is in fact an integral part of the sport as players use their chairs to block and hold opponents.”
Developed in 1977, the sport now has over 25 countries competing on the world stage.
“What I enjoyed about guitar was the different tricks you could do with the instrument, so I’ve kind of taken that aspect to rugby,” Matt said.
“It’s artistic, and it’s skilful … it’s just in me and comes out anywhere I go.”
Matt’s wheelchair rugby journey started shortly before the London Paralympics, and it was watching some of his friends in action on TV that planted the seed for him to want to do the same in Rio.
“From there on I subconsciously and consciously made steps in that direction,” he said.
“I kind of knew that by the two year mark – 2014 – I had to really be on my way into the team or in a position where I could be selected.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Matt said.
“I read this statement – sometimes part of it is just showing up. If you do that every day you end up being the last one left. No wonder people become managers and CEOs – because they love what they do and they stick to it through the good times and the bad.”
Matt has had to wrap his head around the idea that he’s now an elite athlete. At one point he laughed at the notion, but after exhausting physical training six days a week it’s very much a reality.
“My philosophy with it is that we’re not identified by what we do,” Matt said.
“On a personal level, we’re just doing what we love to do and sometimes I might play rugby and represent at the highest level so the easiest way for people to understand it is that I identify as an elite athlete.
“People have asked me if I regret what happened (with the accident) but it depends what context you put that in.
“If I wanted to walk around, then yeah I suppose because I can’t do that, but if I just take life as it comes then it’s all just part of the ride.”
Matt thanked his family and friends for their support throughout his journey so far, as well as Trevor from Wise Steel Sales in Pakenham (who repairs his rugby chairs), and Bruce Miskin and Norm Donnan.
The Rio wheelchair rugby competition starts on 14 September.