The Full Story

Achieving the Impossible through Change

Anthony Lawrence Clarke OAM

Coping with change can be extremely stressful and can make or break you. Life changed dramatically for me about 25 years ago, when the car I was driving veered off to the side of the road. The car knocked over one telegraph pole and finally came to rest at the next pole. I was still semi conscious after the accident. I knew I was in serious trouble when I noticed the pools of blood streaming from my face. I recall cupping my hands in my lap and feeling them fill up with blood, then releasing them, re-cupping my hands until they filled with blood again and repeating the process until I passed out. What followed next, some people believed was a dream, but I firmly believe I had a near death experience. I can recall sitting on the roof of the car, looking around as if I was waiting for someone to take me away. As I looked down I noticed a young man being loaded in to the back of an ambulance. As I looked a little closer I noticed that I was watching myself being loaded in to that ambulance.

I woke up two weeks later with the full knowledge that I had lost the sight of both eyes. I was more upset at the time over one of my eyes being surgically removed than the fact that I was now blind.

The nursing staff at the time made a great impact on my recovery in regards to staying positive. We would tease each other and play jokes, until I became a nuisance on the ward. The nurses would punish me by locking me in the toilet at the end of the ward or putting Eno or Salvital in my bedpan - which would foam up when I relieved myself. The nurses finally kept me under control through what I would call my first sexually embarrassing situation. Keeping in mind I was 17 at the time - when males of this age are supposed to be at their sexual peak - I woke up one morning more aroused than I would like to be under the circumstances. When a female nurse came around and wanted me to get in to the wheelchair to see the specialist, well, there was no way I was taking the blankets of my lap and revealing my predicament. I was quite embarrassed and the problem was not going away. To make matters worse, the nurse was asking me, "come on Anthony, what's up?". I did not know what to do or say do I whispered to her, "I am really embarrassed. I have an erection and it won't go away". With this news the nurse started giggling, ripped the blankets back and said, quite loudly for the rest of the ward to hear, "I have seen bigger than that". This seemed to do the trick and my problem shrunk away.

The Start of Mapping My Life

I spent a total of seven weeks in hospital and knew that my life had changed forever. I had no idea at the time that this change was a blessing in disguise. Losing my sight made me re-think my life and what I was doing with it - or more to the point, what I was not doing with it.

I grew up in Kilburn, a traditionally low socio-economic suburb of Adelaide . Just prior to my accident I was starting to mix with the wrong crowd. This was a common problem for young men growing up in such suburbs. When one spends their childhood and adolescence in this sort of environment - violence, alcohol and drug abuse is experienced on a daily basis. You start thinking that this is normal behavior. After I lost my sight something was stirring in me as I felt that there was more to life than just running wild. I knew something had to change, but I didn't know how to go about breaking out of this environment. When I look back on those times I realise I broke away from this lifestyle in three different ways.

1. Education

I had to use new techniques and embrace new technologies to enhance my future. Through the rehabilitation process I had to learn to read and write using brail. In the 1980's when computers were made accessible by having speech programs on them, it created a level playing field as far as accessing and processing printed information goes. This led me to gain qualifications as a Judo coach, manage a health and fitness centre, become the project officer develop disability action plans for government departments and study philosophy and politics at university.

2. Taking a Risk

When I hitch hiked around Australia and New Zealand with my first guide dog, Marcus, I discovered the benefits of taking risks and that there are times to lead and times to follow.

I also discovered that you, and only you, are responsible for the direction you take in the journey of your life.

3. Finding Ones True Potential

Through sport I found my true potential and how to break the appropriate barriers to become a world champion in the sport of Judo. I now believe that if you enjoy what you do and are prepared to make the sacrifice for success, you will eventually be good at it.

Risk Taking

I am often asked, "did you hitch hike around Australia because you had some thing to prove?". My answer to this question is simply, "no!", I believe doing things just to prove to others you can do it is a dangerous trap to fall into. You will end up doing things for other people and not for yourself far too often.

The main reason I chose to hitch hike was economic. Plus I could not drag my mates out the pub long enough to get the idea into their heads that we could travel around the country instead of staying in the one place doing the same old thing. Like a lot of things in life, if you want the job done you have to do it yourself. I wanted to inspire people.

In the flats I was living in some hitch hikers moved in and told me great tales about hitching around the country, bush horse races, the dangers of the gulf country and more. These were great inspiring stories for a young man. So, in 1982 with $300 to my name, I bought a backpack, sleeping bag and a tent and started my two and a half year odyssey. This terrified my parents when I told them, as this was around the time of the Truro murders - where a number of bodies were discovered buried in an isolated country town.

I had many interesting lifts and realised truckies pick-up hitch hikers so that they have someone to talk to so they stay awake. This became quite apparent to me on the road with a truckie going from Gawler to Broken Hill. Half way through the journey I was nodding off myself, when I noticed the truck was half on the dirt and half on the road. So I tapped the driver on the shoulder and asked, "what's going on?". This immediately woke the driver up, he pulled the truck back onto the road and thanked me for waking him up. This was my first introduction to motivational speaking as I talked about it for the next 6 hours.

As it was the middle of winter in Adelaide when I embarked on this adventure, my goal was to find my way to North Queensland . Which I did!

It was there I ran into two young ladies at the Townsville showgrounds caravan park who were also hitching around the country. We met through music as we both had guitars and so decided to travel together. We quickly learnt after a couple of days on the side of the road that three human beings, three backpacks, two guitars and a guide dog were not going to fit into a conventional vehicle, so we separated. The two young women together and I would be on my own.

At one stage we were in Carumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria , making our way back to Normington. We were all lucky enough to get a lift with some 4 wheel drive enthusiasts, but they could only take us half way and drop us off at the Normington River in the middle of nowhere. They told us not to camp too close to the river as it was full of salt water crocodiles. We spent 3 nervous nights at this spot, changing our campsite every night so as not to form a pattern for the crocodiles if they were watching. We would sleep close together, arguing who was to sleep in the middle, as we assumed if a crocodile was to take one of us it would be the person sleeping on the outside. When it was my turn to sleep on the outside I would have my loyal Guide dog, Marcus, next to me to keep watch.

When the rains came we decided to move out of the region. I got the first lift out. t turned out that this lift was with one of Australia 's most famous sports women "Dawn Fraser". Dawn Fraser dropped me off at the Port Douglas Hotel and, by coincidence, the two girls were dropped off at the same time. Dawn (being the great character she is) invited us in to the pub and bought us a beer, then offloaded at least two shopping bags of tea, coffee, sugar sachets – the kind that you find in motel rooms. We said good bye to Dawn and thought we would never see her again. As it turns out I ran in to Dawn Fraser again, some 12 years later, at the Australian Embassy in China when she was Patron for the Paralympics and I was representing Australia in Judo at the Far Eastern South Pacific Games.

This brings me in to the third way I broke out of the Kilburn trap. Although growing up in Kilburn was not necessarily a bad thing, it did make me realise that if you wanted something bad enough you could get it - provided you were prepared to do the hard yards to achieve it!

Choosing a sport like Judo was unusual as there were no people who were blind competing at this time. The reasons I chose Judo may have had something to do with growing up in Kilburn, as it is a very physical sport. The other sports for people who were blind were rather passive, such as blind cricket, table tennis and athletics. So I had to look at myself logically as far as what other sports I could do with out sight. I thought of Judo or Wrestling. There happened to be a Judo club in the area, so I rolled up and told the coach, "I want to do Judo, thanks". Neither of us had any idea at the time that I would turn into one of the best blind judo players in the world, and one of the best players Australia had produced against sighted athletes.

For those who don't know what Judo is - it is a sport where you attempt to throw your opponent so that they land flat on their back - which would win you the fight at this point. However, if the throw was not so good and they landed on their side, fighting would continue on the ground. The object would then be to hold down your opponent for 25 seconds to win or strangle or arm lock them at the elbow until they submit, go unconscious or dislocate their elbow. This can all be quite exciting – as long as it is not happening to you.

Combating Stress

Being the only person who is blind playing Judo means that I have to train and compete against people that can see - this has its challenges! It is not challenging in learning or performing the techniques, but in overcoming negative attitudes of people who think that if you are blind that you're inferior or a danger to others, a problem which still exists to this day. These negative attitudes towards one can play tricks on ones mind. So I use a check list to combat or manage these negative inputs. First of all:

I have to make sure I am doing the activity for my personal benefit and not just to prove to these people they are wrong.

Then I ask myself, "can I do any thing about it?" – eg.: educate them. Or alternatively, do I just ignore them and get on with the job at hand?

I need to make sure whether doing something about it is worth the effort needed to correct the problem or not.

Is it time to talk to some one about it and/or implement my individual stress management action plan?

If you don't have a stress management plan I suggest you create one. These are very individual. Some suggestions to have on your check list for identifying stress are:

  • Is my food intake normal?
  • Am I drinking to excess?
  • Am I having mood swings?
  • Should I ease off the work load for a while?

Take positive actions such as:

  • Massage hot baths
  • Positive affirmations
  • Meditation
  • Therapy
  • Take a holiday

I use these check lists, mood diaries and other techniques in all areas of my life. I am also constantly refining them and continually looking for new techniques.

I have achieved the impossible many times and received the Order of Australia Medal and the Australian Sports Medal for my professional and sporting achievements. Success does not come without sacrifice, but I firmly believe if you are able to make the most out of and adapt to change, then anything is possible.

I would like to leave you with a true story. This has actually happened to me and brings all of my above points to conclusion. Although this story is a sporting analogy, you will find that if these principles are applied to your set of circumstances that anything is possible.

Earlier in my Judo career I was selected to represent South Australia in the National Judo titles for the 4 th year in a row. Even though I qualified for this position under normal able bodied conditions, I found out later that the team selectors were going to withdraw me from the team. The selectors made this decision purely on the basis that they thought that a person who is blind could not compete successfully at this level. This news came as a great shock to me as I knew the selectors on a personal level. When I spoke to my coach about this he agreed with the selectors and said, "You know you will never make it at this level". This comment from my coach came as an even greater shock, I discovered that no one believed in my ability except myself. But I knew from experience that if you correct or address your mistakes and focus on what you can do well, then sooner or later you will break through that glass ceiling.

From that day on I changed my whole approach to this problem and many other problems in my life. Instead of relying on one coach in this instance, I developed a team of coaches that specialised in different areas. I hired a fitness coach, technical coach, competition/strategy coach and, most importantly, a psychological coach and mentor.

I found that the coach who specialised in sports psychology became a great friend and mentor and an important part of my life. You see, you can have all the skills in the world, but if you don't have the desire or the passion you can't maximise these skills.

So I spent more time developing the appropriate attitude for the task at hand and I achieved this through a range of meditation techniques. By understanding how to relax, strengthen my focus through visualisation techniques - by rehearsing a series of scenarios in your mind so that your subconscious will take over in real life.

To cut a long story short the selectors let me compete in the tournament. And after 4 years of not winning a fight, I won two out of three fights that day. This gave me the ranking of the number three Judo Player in Australia .

Enjoying Success

Achieving the above result and developing this winning formula has led me on to achieve:

  • A gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics
  • 2 World Championships
  • Competing successfully against sighted opponents - winning over 5 national titles
  • A third degree black belt in Judo
  • Coaching both sighted and blind Judo players
  • Thrown two Prime Ministers, John Howard and Bob Hawke, to the ground in demonstrations
  • Hitch hiked around Australia and New Zealand with my Guide dog
  • Travelling nationally and internationally - inspiring thousands of people with my keynote presentations on "Achieving the Impossible through Change".

Five steps to achieving the impossible through change:

  • Change
    Change can be voluntary, but is often forced upon us. No one individual's future is assured and you have to adopt new techniques and embrace new technologies to enhance your future.

  • Mapping your life
    Do you know where you are? Do you know where you are going and how to get there? Can you use your past in order to measure your present so that you can move on to the future?

  • Risk taking
    In taking risks, there will be times to lead and times to follow. If you don't take risks you will never know. Learn and make the most of the results, whether positive or negative.

  • Combating Stress
    Do I have a personalised stress management plan?
    Can I identify your stress triggers?
    Is there a pattern or cycle?
    Should I ease off the work load for a while?
    What positive actions can I take?
    Can I change my environment?

  • Enjoying success
    Don't forget to reward yourself and enjoy and share your successes.
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