'You have to understand the why': Paralympic co-captain Danni Di Toro on inspiration, resilience, and the revolutionary power of sport

Para-table tennis player Daniela Di Toro will contest her sixth consecutive Paralympics Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Danni Di Toro is no stranger to major sporting moments. As one of Australia's most seasoned and decorated Paralympians, having made her Games debut in Atlanta in 1996, the former wheelchair tennis player has won almost all there is to win in her sport: from Olympic medals to Grand Slam titles to a number-one world ranking.

And yet, when you read Di Toro's profile on the Paralympics Australia website, her greatest sporting moment references none of these things. Instead, she singles out when she was a spectator at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, watching and cheering her team-mates on from the stands after exiting her event in the first round. It was in the role of supporter - not as an athlete - that she found the most joy and satisfaction from sport.

That she chose this moment above all her individual achievements speaks directly to Di Toro's character: generous, compassionate, selfless, humble. It also explains her roles within the Australian sport community: co-captain of the Tokyo Paralympic team, Paralympics Australia's first Athlete Engagement and Wellbeing Officer, and Vice-Chairperson of the organisation's Athlete Commission.

"Sport's a very selfish thing," Di Toro told ESPN, "and I enjoy pushing myself and I enjoy the arena to learn about myself. But being able to lead a team in the way that Kurt [Fearnley] and I did [at Rio 2016] was a whole other level.

"My role within the Australian Paralympic team for Rio was almost the welfare role, really. My background is mental health - I did a psych degree coming out of high school and worked in youth services, spent some time working in the juvenile justice system. So it sits kind of comfortably for me.

"For a lot of first-time Paralympians, it's a real eye-opening experience. It also has some anxiety around it [...] and because it's once every four years, you can't know what it's like until you do it. So [my job] was being that sounding-board for athletes, particularly our new ones.

"And even a sounding-board for athletes where there's a bit of pressure from their sports, because their funding often comes from results. So for those that have gone around a few times, that becomes a very different type of pressure. I found myself being a sounding-board for athletes for whom that would be their last Games, as well. That's a very different conversation, when you workshop that experience while someone's right in the middle of it.

"What that showed me was the importance of that role. I just went in [to Rio] as a co-captain, but that's what it formed for me, because I naturally sit in those lanes. This is my family, so whatever I can do to help, that's part of it."

The past 18 months have been particularly busy for Di Toro in that sense. The ripple-effects of the pandemic - logistical, practical, physical, and psychological - saw an uptick in athletes seeking help from available services, including Di Toro herself.

"It was very much of different boats, different waves, same ocean," she said. "We've had some athletes where COVID hasn't been a thing other than stopping them from travelling and competing, and in some cases, qualifying. For others, they were locked down in apartments with no balconies and a single window. They couldn't go anywhere, couldn't train, couldn't do anything.

"Some thrived in it: for them it was a year to get stronger, fitter, faster, to grow a bit. We have quite a young team and this gave them another year to build that foundation. For others, it was the year they were looking to retire, and it was a year too far. So we've had people make that retirement call early, and that's so hard.

"Last year, we had something like nine world champions leading into that Paralympic Games cycle. They were on the edge, ready to go. And that becomes a whole different ball-game in terms of what do you do now when you don't have another [start] date?

"That became a pretty stressful time for people, and that's where services like the mental health referral network [was used]. We definitely saw an increase across the whole cohort - not just Paralympic athletes but Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes, too. That service went up 30% over that time."

While lockdown affected the preparations of almost all Paralympic athletes, Di Toro noticed that many found ways to adapt to their uncontrollable circumstances. They knew how, she said, because they'd been doing it all their lives.

"I think that's the beauty of our group," she said. "A lot of our athletes have had an acquired disability: something that's happened to them and they've had to pivot massively, they've had to adjust and adapt and figure out what life looks like for them now. To a degree, that's an incredible trait as a human being.

"This was another opportunity for them to adapt and adjust. We saw swimmers out in the dams swimming with leeches on a dairy farm. We had triathletes ocky-strapped in a tiny spa or to their houses doing their workouts. We had people doing all kinds of stuff to find a way, to stay where they needed to be.

"I know 'resilience' gets thrown around, but this is genuinely a team full of people who reach deep into themselves every day, and this was another way to do that. I've definitely been inspired by the strength of this team: when motivation was hardest, they looked for other things.

"This is where it's been a great exploration into why we do what we do. I think that's always an important thing to ask yourself, particularly when you're going into a Games like this, which is going to be really challenging. If you don't know why you're doing it, then this is going to be even more difficult.

"I get that I'm not curing cancer. I understand my place on the planet. But I think sport does play an important role, and it's not just about representing your country or winning medals. We know, as an active community, we're better when we're healthier; we're better when we're connected to one another; we're better when we go out into society and join a lawn-bowls group. You don't need to be the best in the world to get the benefits from the social context that sport can create."

The Paralympics is a particularly important platform in that respect. Earlier this year, Sport Australia released their findings of a multi-year study titled "Australians' participation in Summer Olympic and Paralympic sports." Of the 2.9 million adults aged 18+ who reported having a long-term disability, 2.3 million (79%) do some kind of sport or physical activity. This is lower than the participation rate of the general population (90%).

"We're the lowest-activity group other than people over the age of 65," Di Toro said. "That has massive health outcome issues. But when we see people with disability going out there and doing stuff, hopefully it inspires you to get out and have a push around, or if you've got a vision impairment, to find things that you can do that get your heart-rate going; that connect you to other people.

"It's really easy with a disability to be isolated, and there's a tonne of discrimination out there in terms of trying to hold down a job. These are real challenges. But when you see people doing that - and most of those athletes are holding down jobs as well - you see that it's possible.

"It's always a fight. Just to get outside your front door can be a fight, and it's exhausting, so I get why it's easier sometimes to not try at all. But when you see people pushing those boundaries, asking more of themselves, it reminds us that it's possible; that you're not alone in that.

"You might not give a shit about sport and that's fine, but if that inspires you to be more active in the community, in advocacy, in teaching, in parenting, in whatever - then that's what matters. That's the impact it has on a greater part of the world."

'Inspiration' is a tricky term for Di Toro. Too easily, athletes with disability are almost typecast as inspirations; their stories pre-written by wider cultural assumptions. But there is more complexity and nuance to the lives of para-athletes than what often gets told, more areas of overlap with able-bodied athletes than the major narratives provide.

"The amount of times I have a conversation with a journo and the piece is already written [is frustrating]," Di Toro said. "They're not hearing the experience; they're just looking for the grab that makes you look somehow like you're incredibly inspiring. And I'm not saying there isn't room for inspiration, because there absolutely is, but how do you come from that place without being patronising and assuming a whole tonne of stuff?

"It's the difference between inspiration and aspiration. In order to be moved to action, you have to understand your 'whys' of stuff. And in order to understand the 'why,' you need to understand what makes people tick. And that's a very honest, deep, complex conversation that most people aren't really interested in.

"'Why do you do what you do?' is a really powerful conversation. And it's too easy to just go, 'oh, that's amazing you've just done that,' rather than, 'why'd you do that? And how have you done that? And what do you need to keep doing that?' This whole other conversation."

To do that requires telling the stories of Paralympic athletes beyond the assumptions; the realities of life and work outside the stereotypes. While the Olympic and Paralympic Games may look different, the principles, values, and motivations - the 'why' - runs through them and their athletes all the same. Di Toro herself is the perfect example, the seven-time Paralympian even switching from tennis to table-tennis to continue testing and pushing herself.

"To do sport well, you have to be a master of managing anxiety, of managing uncontrollable things, of managing failure and success," Di Toro said. "It's not easy but it is very rewarding. Most people will be like, 'why are you still doing that? Why are you still putting your body through that?' [but] breaking through that hard bit shows you a lot about yourself.

"Not many people have tested themselves, so they give up on shit easy [...] but when it gets too hard, that's when the magic is created. Those moments are worth it because on the other side of that is extraordinary awareness and incredible compassion and total connection.

"When you know your craft so well, it becomes a very creative, flowing experience, and that's fun. Your opponent is actually your teacher and you get to really experience this beautiful learning of yourself. That's where sport becomes this incredible arena to meet yourself. It's a very addictive thing to be part of, which is why I'm still doing it in my 47th year of my life when most people have gone on to real jobs and I'm still bloody being an athlete.

"I love the fortifying of the mind. It's enjoyable because you know when you can do that, you can do anything. You can sit exams, you can have difficult conversations with friends or family; you can do the hard stuff because you've done the hard stuff. That's powerful learning, and that's why I feel like it has a place outside of sport. Doing this stuff can help you in life."

It also requires those of us in more privileged positions to listen, to value, and to uplift the perspectives and experiences of those who approach shared spaces like sport - or any other area of society - from different directions.

"You don't know what you don't know," Di Toro said. "I don't know what it's like to live with cerebral palsy; I don't know what it's like to live with a vision impairment. I'm learning new things about my community as well.

"I think, for all of us, it's to do with curiosity. Do we have the compassion? Do we have the empathy? Do we have a moment to sit back and ask a question rather than make an assumption? That's probably the biggest part as a generalisation: a tonne of assumptions get made. That's why, when we have representation, those assumptions are less likely - because they become a question, and a question becomes a conversation, and a conversation becomes an action.

"There is also such a low expectation of people with disability, and I think this is where sport smashes some of that stuff. Lots of labels get put on people with disability and none of them are checked. It requires people to very actively bust through them to go, 'oh, maybe you're not super vulnerable; maybe you're not the person with the greatest liability in the room.'

"That's what it often comes across as, and that filters down to why so many people with disability are unemployed - there's an assumption they need so much help. But really, it's the same conversation around what you need to do your job in the same way you'd ask any able-bodied person.

"We're one in five people in Australia. We represent a big part of the community. My hope is that it's changing; that we expect more, that we ask for more. Everyone has something meaningful to contribute.

"Hopefully we can begin to think a bit more broadly about how we include people of diverse thought and experience. That's what people with disability bring to a lot of those situations; it's not just a diversity of mobility, but diversity of experience and thought, and that's what we all need: that richness we all bring."