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Para-athlete, coach, disability advocate — 23-year-old Julie Charlton is all these things and more.
But as a school kid, entering sports was hard for her. On International Women’s Day 2023, Julie shares her story with Mable.
Sport: the ‘worst enemy’
In school, sport was Julie’s “worst enemy” because she was not allowed to compete like the other kids did. She would be left aside to play catch with an aide.
But one day, she met a new PE teacher, Mr Butcher, who gave Julie the chance to take part in sport the way she wanted.
“Mr Butcher handed me a shot 15 minutes before my first shot put competition. He taught me how to use it and I got my first-ever first place ribbon,” Julie remembers.
“He spent time with me and taught me the skills. This gave me the confidence to keep going and I actually fell in love with it,” she says.
And Julie hasn’t looked back since.
Playing for Australia
From her sporting journey, two experiences stand out for Julie. The first was at 16, when she competed in the World Junior Championships in Prague. “It was all self-funded, my mum was my team manager and my cousin was the chef de mission. I was the only Australian representative.”
She won a gold in javelin, a silver in discus, and bronze in shot put. “I got to be amongst everybody who loved the sport just like me.”
Another favourite memory for Julie is of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “Watching those athletes do what they do was mind-blowing,” she says. “Basically, my entire sporting career had led up to it. I had put in 17 years’ worth of preparation.”
Despite being ill a year before the Games, Julie “took back her life”. With help from a friend, she trained again for the Games.
“We worked our butts off to get there,” Julie explains. “We had issues with broken equipment and COVID, but it all led to me achieving that dream of representing Australia.”
The challenge of accessibility
Being a sportsperson also comes with its challenges. For Julie, accessibility is the main one.
“When I train, I have to set up my chair in a very specific way for it to be safe. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the places I train are not accessible due to lack of staffing and resources.”
As a sportsperson who lives with spina bifida, Julie must be resourceful around her training and competing. Finances can also be an issue because she needs so much extra equipment.
Thankfully, the NDIS helps to fund support workers who can provide Julie with assistance.
Even so, Julie says, “I always have to look at whether I can afford to compete, with all the extra things I have to consider.”
Life as a sports mentor
At 16, Julie started her coaching business, JC Squared Athletics. “I get to watch them achieve and grow to be the best athletes they can be. It’s the most magical thing I could possibly have ever done in my life.”
Julie is currently studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Sports Coaching and Management. She coaches para-athletes and able-bodied kids in javelin, shot put and discus at Sydney Olympic Park.
“It’s been a really cool adventure to expand my squad and to see different levels of ability among these passionate athletes.”
One of Julie’s para-athletes, 14-year-old Ava, competes in wheelchair racing. “Ava has gone from being a shy kid to this sassy, passionate girl who is full of life and determination to succeed,” Julie says. “I always knew she’d be an amazing athlete and she’s definitely a potential future paralympian.”
Julie, the disability advocate
Aside from being a coach, Julie is also a disability advocate. Since February 2022, she has been a member of the Disability Council of NSW. “I’ve been able to look at the entire state-wide scale of the issues that face my community and how the Council, and society in general, can help advocate for those with disabilities and all their intersecting identities,” she says.
Julie’s dream is for para-athletics to have more recognition, support and love from the wider Australian community.
“I want people to be like, ‘There goes Julie Charlton!’ just as they would for Ian Thorpe or Cathy Freeman,” says Julie.
If I weren’t a para-athlete
“I’m obsessed with the theatre,” Julie shares. “Before sports, I thought I’d study drama, become a drama teacher.”
But after the World Junior Championship, that changed. “My whole life changed for the better. My passion grew and I became a coach at the same time. I decided to explore that path and that was it.”
“I never thought I would have a career in sport. But now that I have one, I never want to leave it.”