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The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games will have the biggest para-sport program in history: here’s what you need to know

By Amanda Shalala
A stylised image of Para athletes in action, with wheelchair racer Madison de Rozario at the centre
Australia will be represented across all eight para-sports at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.(ABC Sport)

Danni Di Toro has pretty much done it all over a 30-year career in sport.

The 47-year-old has been to seven Paralympics across two different sports, co-captained the team twice, won Paralympic silver and bronze, and claimed multiple wheelchair tennis grand slam titles.

So it's remarkable that the much loved member of Australia's Paralympic team can still notch up a first in her career, as she prepares for her first Commonwealth Games.

Di Toro will represent Australia in table tennis
Di Toro is excited about having a new experience in Birmingham.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

"To be able to actually have a genuine rookie experience at something is really cool and super refreshing," Di Toro told ABC Sport.

"Any opportunity to get the exposure, get more people seeing what we do, if that gets people with disabilities involved in sport, that's amazing.

While the Paralympics are the pinnacle elite sporting competition for athletes with a disability, the Commonwealth Games are the only multi-sport event with an integrated para-sport program.

Manchester 2002 was the first Games to include this element, with 10 events.

That's grown with each Games, and Birmingham will have the largest para-sport component in history, across eight sports and 42 events.

It's a significantly pared back program compared to the Paralympics, meaning there aren't as many classifications available, and a smaller number of events across the selected sports.

Check out our guide to classifications from the Tokyo Paralympics.

Australia will send a record 74 para-athletes, alongside eight guides, pilots and directors, with representation in each of the eight sports.

Australians in action in Birmingham

Paralympic gold medallist smiling with the Australia flag after winning gold in the women's marathon
Madison de Rozario will be one of the biggest names competing for the Australian team. (Getty Images: Alex Davidson)
  • Para athletics: Two-time defending champion Madison de Rozario will headline the Australian team alongside Evan O'Hanlon.
  • Para track cycling: Jess Gallagher was the first Australian athlete to win medals at a Winter and Summer Paralympics. She'll contest the tandem event along with her guide, while Beau Wootton and his guide are in the men's event.
  • Para lawn bowls: Defending champion Jake Fehlberg is one of six Para 'Jackaroos' on the team.
  • Para powerlifting: Hani Watson and Ben Wright will carry Australia's hopes in a sport where competitors' upper body strength is put to the ultimate test. 
  • Para table tennis: Di Toro is one of the six Australian athletes, which includes Chinese-born Paralympic superstars Ma Lin, Lina Lei and Qian Yang.
  • Para swimming: This will be Ellie Cole's final meet before retiring while William Martin, Col Pearse and Katja Dedekind are amongst an exciting crop of rising stars.
  • Para triathlon: Gerard Gosens, Sam Harding, Jonathan Goerlach and Erica Burleigh will feature in the debut of the para triathlon vision-impaired category.
  • Wheelchair basketball 3x3: It's the first time the condensed versions of basketball and wheelchair basketball are being included at the Games. 

Di Toro the beating heart of the Paralympic team

Paralympic athletes with arms around one another smiling for a photo
Di Toro (right) led the team alongside wheelchair rugby star Ryley Batt (left) at the Tokyo Paralympics.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Di Toro will compete in para table tennis, a sport she only started in 2015, after a successful career in wheelchair tennis.

But her appeal extends far beyond the playing arena – she is the heart and soul of the Australian Paralympic team and is one of the key figures responsible for carving its current culture, alongside her Rio 2016 co-captain Kurt Fearnley and chef de mission Kate McLoughlin.

"We want to feel like we're part of something bigger than just our own moment or result," she said.

"And that feeling has always been there, but there's never really been a language around it, and there's never been a real commitment to create those opportunities to foster that, to start delving a bit more into what does that mean to be a Paralympian?"

A wheelchair tennis player hits the ball with her racquet
Di Toro had a long career as a wheelchair tennis player before switching to table tennis.(Getty Images: Lucas Dawson)

The trio settled on referring to the team as the "mob", and embedding the values of loyal, proud and fierce.

Di Toro said from the inception of the mob in 2016 to now, the difference amongst the wider team is clear.

"I feel like I'm surrounded by leaders, and if I'm one of them, then that's amazing, but I'm just one of them," she said.

"And really it's my family. So it's not even about leadership, it's about being a good family member."

Di Toro's significant presence in the Australian Paralympic movement goes even deeper.

A woman in a wheelchair holds a microphone and speaks while wearing a medal around her neck.
Di Toro recently won Paralympics Australia's President's Award for respect, honour, and integrity.(Paralympics Australia)

She's the athlete wellbeing and engagement officer for Paralympics Australia, and the vice-chair of the Athletes' Commission.

And she's encouraging her fellow athletes to use their platform to make the changes they want to see in the world.

Sabljak making sure athletes are heard

Ella Sabljak is one of those athletes using her voice.

She'll feature in wheelchair basketball 3x3's debut in Birmingham, an opportunity she says has helped reinvigorate her love of the sport.

Two women in wheelchairs smile at the camera.
Ella Sabljak (left) and Hannah Dodd (right) will represent Australia in wheelchair basketball 3x3 after competing in the full version of the sport at the Tokyo Paralympics.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The 30-year-old is Paralympics Australia's education officer, and another member of the Athletes' Commission.

She said events like the Commonwealth Games play a big part in changing perceptions around people with a disability and breaking down barriers, especially in the work she does with school kids.

"I think it's really important and crucial for kids seeing that we are alongside able-bodied athletes," she said.

"Often, it's the language around Olympians, and the Paralympians are often forgotten about, not necessarily consciously.

"It's people saying Olympians rather than Paralympians, or Olympians and Paralympians.

Sabljak is also helping to make space for athletes in her sport across the world.

A portrait of a woman wearing her basketball union and smiling.
Sabljak is also a primary school teacher, and Paralympics Australia's Education Officer. (Supplied: Ella Sabljak)

In the lead up to the Tokyo Paralympics, the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation stunned athletes when it introduced new classification rules.

It meant some athletes, like Australia's Annabelle Lindsay, had their disabilities deemed ineligible to compete.

Annabelle Lindsay holds a basketball above her head while sitting in a wheelchair.
Annabelle Lindsay in action for the Australian Gliders in a match against Turkey.(Supplied: Annabelle Lindsay)

"When this happened, our athletes were a little bit blindsided about the classification debacle, because there was no link between our federation and the athletes," Sabljak said.

It promoted the creation of the international players' commission, with Sabljak representing the Asia Oceania Zone (AOZ) to ensure players are involved in future decisions. 

She isn't content with stopping there, she also wants to establish a player working group for the AOZ and in Australia too.

"One of my key priorities is going to be making our zone one of the safest zones for our female athletes," she said.

"I know some of our female athletes don't necessarily feel safe in some of the countries that we go to. So if we can put some guidelines and protocols around that, that's going to be a huge progress, as well as having information and education around athlete well-being.

Wheelchair basketball 3x3 tips off on July 30 AEST in Birmingham, while Para table tennis gets underway on Wednesday August 3 AEST.