'A lot of bitter and not a lot of sweet': Sabljak and the Gliders' hard road to Tokyo

Ella Sabljak Paralympics Australia

Has it made you think about giving up?

Ella Sabljak pauses on the phone, with the question asked hanging heavy in the air.

She takes a deep, steadying breath.

"All the time," she says. "The burn-out that we feel is really real, and I think if Tokyo doesn't go ahead, it'll be like, 'what have we done all this for?'

"It'll just be a lot of bitter and not a lot of sweet. You're training, you do the hard slogging to get to compete at the highest level. But there's not a lot of competing. It's so much hard work for not a lot of reward.

"When they cancelled it the first time, it felt like the last four years of work were ripped out from underneath us. I wasn't the only one going through it -- we were all going through it together.

"It's been really, really hard."

And Sabljak, one of the senior players on Australia's women's wheelchair basketball team, the Gliders, knows "hard." She has known it since she was young, as many people with a disability do, particularly when it comes to accessing sport.

Growing up in Yarraville before moving to Werribee in Melbourne's west in the early 2000s, opportunities to play wheelchair sports were almost non-existent. When she was in primary school, Sabljak's mum, Nikki, signed her up to one of the only wheelchair basketball competitions in the state. But it was on the other side of Melbourne, over an hour each way to travel, which became too difficult and too expensive to commit to for long.

Sabljak tried wheelchair racing for a bit instead, but she hated it; she was bored of going around and around in circles. She would be close to finishing high school before a wheelchair sports club opened up in Geelong, closer to her family home. It offered a variety of sports including racing, tennis, and basketball. Sabljak signed up to the basketball program and has never looked back.

"I was there locally until I needed to take my game to something more competitive," she said. "Then I started driving myself to the other side of town to be with other state players, training with the men and the Victorian women's team.

"Then, from there, gradually I got better and better. But there still weren't that many opportunities for me to really play.

"The Queensland women's team approached me and were like, 'would you like to play for us? We're really struggling for numbers.'

"It meant I was going to play 40 minutes a game, be thrown in the deep-end. So I moved up there, transferred uni, and haven't looked back."

She quickly moved up the representative ranks, called into Australia's under-25 squad, the Devils, in 2011 at the age of 20. Two silver medals in back-to-back Under-25 World Championships, including captaining the team in Beijing in 2015, confirmed her status as one of the brightest young stars in Australian wheelchair basketball.

But there's one competition Sabljak is yet to compete at; one podium she is more determined than ever to reach: the Paralympic Games. The Gliders missed out on Rio 2016 by a single qualifying spot, forced to watch the Games from home. Tokyo has since become the blinking green light on the team's horizon, the event that has given shape and momentum to the lives of its athletes over the past four years.

For Sabljak, that means long days beginning with the early-morning sun and ending under the stars. She trains morning and night, five days a week: chair skills, shooting, conditioning, game-based sessions, gym work, all the while working full-time as a school teacher and planning her wedding to fellow wheelchair basketballer, Matt McShane.

These past four years have been some of the hardest in her career -- and in the team's history. After qualifying for Tokyo by winning silver at the Asia Oceania Zone Championships in 2019, with a younger squad filled with talented players reaching their performance peaks, the pandemic hit, delaying the Paralympics by a year.

All sports were affected, but para-sports suffered some of the worst aftershocks. The national women's league was cancelled after teams were unable to field players. Funding all but disappeared as small businesses like RSLs that sponsor women's wheelchair clubs struggled to stay afloat themselves. Australia's best women players were forced to train at home or find spots in men's teams to continue competing at all.

"I feel like sometimes the players go around in circles," Sabljak said. "We want to be the best, but financially, clubs and other stakeholders are like, 'no, we can't do that.' They'll come up with a reason to not do something.

"A couple of years ago, the players put together a proposal to allow our junior men to play in our women's league, so that we have more numbers and it's a bit more competitive -- they won't go easy on us, which is what we want to get ready for international competition. But they blocked it.

"There's so much more funding for women in sport now but we don't see any of that. We're just like, 'what do we do?' We're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"We also get bare minimum funding from the Australian Sports Commission, which is based on podium potential. It's based on where you'll finish up in the next cycle. Because we didn't qualify for Rio and didn't do too well at the World Championships, our funding is minimal. One cycle, I got $700 for six months of training.

"You think about that. You obviously want to get better, so you need to train and invest a lot of time and effort into becoming the best for yourself and the best for your country, but we can't because we need to work. I've got a mortgage, I've got bills to pay. It's so hard."

The Gliders' preparation for Tokyo was further disrupted after an unexpected ruling from the Paralympic Committee, changed their classification model for athletes with disabilities.

"Our [national] federation has always had a very inclusive approach to wheelchair basketball: if you have a minimal disability, we'll take you. If you can't run, jump, pivot, play stand-up basketball, that's fine, jump in a wheelchair and we're on an equal playing field.

"But the Paralympic Committee said we now have to fit within these nine categories of disability, which doesn't include things like joint dislocation or chronic pain. Those disabilities aren't eligible for the Paralympics anymore.

"We were hit pretty hard because we've always been so inclusive. Everyone had to go back to their doctors, their physios, to get documentation about their disability to see if they were eligible. We lost nine players in total who had all qualified for Tokyo but were now deemed ineligible to play there.

"Our women's team lost two high-pointers [high-pointers are athletes with minimal disabilities, ranked on a point scale from 1 to 4.5] -- two of our main scorers and main threats. They were young, up-and-coming, and we were building our team around these two players.

"One of the girls, Annabelle Lindsay, used to play stand-up basketball but she had all these knee injuries and surgeries. If she walked, her knees would dislocate. She couldn't walk very far. So she came across to wheelchair basketball and found this new lease on life where she could still compete at a very high level -- maybe go further than she would have in able-bodied basketball. But she was deemed ineligible.

"So we went from a podium-potential team with these two players down to, 'well, we're gonna give it a good crack, but we're running out of players because they were really big shoes to fill.'"

The athletes themselves didn't know about the changes until it was too late, their team shattering apart almost overnight. Determined to not let administrators make these kinds of decisions without consultation again, Sabljak and four other wheelchair basketballers from around the world are now part of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation's first athlete representative body.

It's in its early stages, but for a sport that has rarely -- if ever -- given athletes a say over how their sport is run, Sabljak believes this panel will lay foundations to ensure athletes with disabilities have more collective power in future.

"Four of us are currently working together to write legislation and by-laws for the future athlete committee that will be submitted in 2022," she said. "We're trying to get it done earlier, though, because we want it for the games.

"We've taken a lot of inspiration from other athlete representative groups across other sports, taking the best of every group and trying to build on that based on what works and what doesn't work. I want to tap into every resource available to understand how they went about things.

"We're trying really, really hard to get some athlete representation in Basketball Australia, too, but I feel like there are lots of hoops to jump through just for our voices to be heard. I don't have funds to afford to be involved in the players' association in able-bodied basketball; I don't get paid to play. My funding is maybe two weeks' pay that I get from teaching.

"So if we can get something -- even if it's just preference over where we fly out from or our uniforms or just something that improves us a little bit -- that's what we're fighting for now. There's no income involved, especially for women in wheelchair basketball; we do it off our own backs because we love it."

And that is what has kept Sabljak going; that is why she has not given up. Given the latest AusPlay study commissioned by Sport Australia found that people with disabilities are the least likely to participate in team sport, Sabljak -- a self-confessed "non-sporty" person -- is proof of what well-organised, well-funded para-sports can offer individuals and communities, both on and off the court.

"We need more women who want to play sport and wheelchair sports, especially," she said. "The biggest thing for me is sport allowed me to deal with my disability a lot more because I was surrounded by people who were similar; they were going through the same struggles and had the same questions.

"Especially growing up as a teenager, those were the really hard years, trying to fit in and figure out who you are. Sport allowed me to do that. So I guess that's the message: just go out and give it a go. It's allowed me to figure out who I am and how to live my life to be the best I can be. I don't think I'd be who I am without sport.

"For women, being able to test your boundaries in ways you've not been able to before -- to challenge yourself and prove yourself that you can do something -- that's why sport matters. When I retire, I'll be sad, but I will always have that with me, you know?"