Wednesday, June 12, 2024

World Champion Boccia Stars Confirmed For Paris 2024

Katie Kelly OAM PLY

Australia will be represented in boccia at the Paris Paralympic Games by two athletes, two ramp operators and a support crew whose united efforts have proved a world-beating combination.

Paralympics Australia officially named Daniel Michel and Jamieson Leeson, and their respective ramp operators Ash Maddern and Jasmine Haydon to the Australian Team for Paris 2024 at a ceremony in Sydney on Tuesday.

They will compete at the South Paris Arena in August as the most exciting prospects in Australian boccia history. Michel became the first Australian Paralympic representative in the sport since Sydney 2000 when he and Maddern qualified for Rio 2016. Their bronze medal at Tokyo 2020 in the mixed individual BC3 was Australia’s first Paralympic boccia medal in 25 years. In 2022, Michel became world champion in the men’s BC3 and, alongside Leeson, in the BC3 pairs.

Michel is currently the world No.1 ranked player in his classification and he and Leeson are No.1 in the mixed pairs. Their extraordinary achievements were recognised at the 2023 AIS Sport Performance Awards, where they were named Team of the Year ahead of finalists including the Australian Diamonds and Hockeyroos.

“There’s not been one thing in particular,” Michel said of the ingredients of his success. “It’s more a culmination of work over the years.

“I always felt I was capable of achieving higher level success but it was a case of growing and learning. It’s a very technical and tactical sport and there’s a lot you have to do at a fundamental level to get yourself to a point where you can compete with the best players in the world. It takes time for that to happen.

“Over the years we’ve improved the way we train and the way we think about the game. Also, having experience in big moments helps a lot. All of that together has led us to a pretty good spot, I reckon.”

Michel paid tribute to the team around him, including dedicated coach Ken Halliday.

“Ken’s been our coach for a long time. Even if it’s not about the actual game, he’s just got a great ability to foster good relationships within the team and encourage everyone to be the best version of themselves. It helps so much to have such a calming and settled person in charge.

“Tex (Caroline Walker), our team manager, does so much as well, making sure we have the right set-ups at training and at competitions. Then you have Ash and Jas, our ramp operators, who are just as important as we are. It’s a really great team at the moment and that’s been a factor in our success, for sure.”

Leeson has enjoyed the ride, which started for her in 2018 and has accelerated quickly.

“I think I’m one of the luckiest boccia players in the world,” she said. “The whole team is just so tight knit. We’re together multiple days a week and having that bond has really helped our performance.

“Dan’s been there from the beginning. He’s basically my second coach. He’s always there helping with whatever I need. Without him, and Ken of course, my career wouldn’t have been as fast-tracked as it has been.”

There has been other good fortune. After Tokyo 2020 individual classifications were divided into male and female groups and the mixed competition required teams to have one male and one female.

“We were one of the lucky ones who were able to adjust to that pretty well and have some great results, especially at the World Championships in 2022,” Leeson said.

“It’s been a great few years and hopefully Paris will top off the end of the cycle.”

Boccia is played exclusively by athletes with high levels of impairment. Athletes throw, kick or use a ramp device to propel leather balls as close as possible to the ‘jack’. Ramp operators play a key role.

“It’s been 11 years we’ve been working together,” Maddern said of her link with Michel.

“I feel like we’ve worked so hard and been getting better each day and all that hard work has been paying off. It’s nice to see the reward for our efforts and also just seeing that so many more people know about boccia now, which is exciting.”

Maddern said she and Michel had become best friends.

“Our relationship is so critical to our game. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful. The better friends we are and the more we know and understand each other, the better we operate as a team.

“We come up with ideas, we discuss our game plans, make sure all our equipment is right. All that is so important for us to achieve our goals.”

The Michel-Maddern link is set. Leeson’s ramp operator only arrived on the boccia scene in the past year but has developed quickly.

“Jam’s mum put up a post on Facebook wanting someone (to join Leeson’s team) and my mum tagged me in the post and wrote ‘Shame there’s not enough hours in the day’,” Haydon said.

“I was like, ‘Why not?’ I had a meet-and-greet with Jam, she said she wanted me and I quit my job the next day.

“I was a bit scared at first, but everyone has been so nice, which has made it so much easier. With Ash having so much experience, if she sees something I could do better, she’ll step in and let me know. It’s really helpful.”

Australian Paralympic Team Chef de Mission Kate McLoughlin said she couldn’t wait to see the boccia team in action.

“What Dan and Jamieson and everyone involved in the boccia program have achieved in recent years hasn’t happened by chance, it’s the result of consistent hard work, collaboration and commitment,” McLoughlin said.

“I want to thank Boccia Australia Chair Richard Boele and his team for their dedication, which has helped lift the sport to unprecedented heights.

“We’re so excited to welcome Dan, Jam, Ash and Jas to the Australian Paralympic Team and look forward to supporting their campaign in Paris.”


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