Meet Australia’s odds-defying young athletes inspired by Drake and Cathy Freeman

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun14,2024
When looking back on his journey, Romone Lewin says he’s been inspired by the lyrics of high-profile rapper Drake.
Recently, fans and the world’s media have been searching for winners in the aftermath of a feud between the Canadian artist and fellow rapper Kendrick Lamar.
But for Lewin, it has been much more personal.
From the remote Torres Strait Islands and raised in the Northern Territory’s Top End, the 24-year-old has faced significant hurdles on his path to becoming an elite athlete.

After suffering a brain injury, he wrote his own rap music while undergoing rehabilitation to re-learn how to walk and talk.

A man in a white singlet smiles broadly as he faces a man in a dark tracksuit top (back to camera).

Romone Lewin meeting Australian Olympian Patrick Johnson. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“Do you know that song by Drake — ‘Started from the bottom, now we’re here’?” Lewin asks, with a huge grin on his face.

“That’s it! That’s it! Gotta keep on going!”

The accident that changed everything

Nine years ago, Lewin had a contract with National Rugby League team the Dragons junior squad, a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Sydney — and a plane ticket.
But everything changed when he was a passenger in a quad bike accident.
His mother, Marla, recalls paramedics knocking on her door and saying her son was in intensive care.
“I kind of froze, because I thought it was a dream … a really bad dream,” she said.
Marla, a teacher, was a single parent of five children at the time, having lost her husband to a heart attack some years earlier.
“I thought [Romone] was seriously leaving me,” she said.

“He was probably in that ICU area for about two months … I’d go in there every day.”

Lewin spent about one year in hospital, most of that time with the rehabilitation team.
Dr Howard Flavell, a senior rehabilitation physician at Royal Darwin Hospital, said Lewin underwent intensive work “to regain his balance and his strength and his ability to walk before he could actually be able to run”.
“He’s an amazing individual,” Flavell said.
“My experience with Romone really meant that I’ve thought good of all humankind as a result of the way he’s progressed through things.

His mother describes his journey as “being reborn again”.

A man in a white singlet smiles at a woman wearing a colourful top

Para-athlete Romone Lewin trackside with his mother Marla. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“That was a really long healing journey for Romone and to see him doing what he is doing today … it’s like I’m taking a while to arrive to where he’s at now.”

Lewin has built himself into an elite para athlete who has been selected to represent regional Australia in the Oceania games in Fiji next month.
He competes in the 100m, 200m, long jump and javelin.

“People all around the country, the whole world, just believe in yourself … give your everything, don’t stop,” he said.

‘I want to be like Cathy Freeman’

Lewin is one half of the Northern Territory’s para athletic team that took on athletes from across the country at the recent Australian Athletics Championships in Adelaide.
Yolngu teenager Briseis Brittain, 15, made up the other half.
With “blistering” race times, according to commentators, she was a sensation on the track.
“I knew I was going to come first and fast,” she said.

“My coach was proud of me.”

A young woman flexes her arms. She has many medals hung on each arm and around her neck

Briseis Brittain holding the medals from her many successes in athletics Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy — a physical disability that affects movement and posture — at birth, Brittain, from the remote Yolngu community of Ramingining in Arnhem Land, has big plans.

In a backpack, she carries 36 sporting medals — six of them from recent national meets.
Brittain competes in the 100, 200, 400m and long jump.
“It’s my dream to go to the Olympics for Australia.”

Brittain is aiming for the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.

Like many Top End families, Brittain splits her time between their very remote Country on the edge of the Arafura Swamp, and the main centre of Darwin where they can better access services.
To help her train, mother Marcey Garrawurra has moved almost permanently to Darwin.
She said her daughter carries her Yolngu family with her when she races.
“I think it’s really important,” Marcey said.

“We are the First Nation of the country, we have to represent our people and our country.”

A mother and daughter stand together. Both are holding medals on ribbons

Yolngu mother Marcey Garrawurra and her- daughter para-athlete Briseis Brittain Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

From money to competition: The hurdles facing regional athletes

Achieving this level of success in the Northern Territory — the third largest but least urbanised jurisdiction —takes huge commitment from the athletes and their coach.
‘It’s very difficult because there’s not a lot of competition for them to compete in,” Darwin coach Roger Chin said.
To keep their skills up, Brittain and Lewin train with, and race against, athletes without disabilities.
Chin said the remoteness means that sportspeople have to work together.
“They’re at a major disadvantage compared to all other southern athletes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Queensland or Western Australia, they have better access to transport than we do,” he said.
Working smarter, the team is using artificial intelligence to help improve performance.

“The squad that Briseis Brittain is training with use AI technology that assesses and corrects any slight imperfections in their technique so that they can improve and of course go faster,” said Leanne Chin from Athletics NT.

A young woman on a running track

Briseis Brittain running drills at the athletics tracks Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

The athletes are filmed running and jumping — and those videos are sent to an interstate company that looks for flaws in movement.

“They overlay a little stickman on the top and then provide the analysis and then send them back.”
While money is a hurdle, the small team is receiving support from sponsors.

“I could say thousands of things about these two young people — their dedication, their determination, their abilities,” Chin said.

‘What’s stopping them?’ Calls to ‘change the narrative’

Australian Olympian Patrick Johnson, a Kaanju man from far northern Queensland, started running in his mid-20s.
“I started in 2014, I didn’t know what a hamstring stretch was … years later I was at the Sydney Olympics and a couple of years after that, I was the fastest man in the world,” he said.

Johnson still holds the Australian record for the 100m.

A man wearing a black shirt.

Australian Olympian Patrick Johnson wants to see investment in young athletes like Lewin and Brittain. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

He believes such achievements are in reach for athletes like Brittain and Lewin, and that investing in them is critical for the community — and for the nation.

“I think we’ve got to be extremely proud,” he said.
“Don’t just say ‘Look, great talent’, let’s support that talent to live out their dreams.

“If they want to go to the next Paralympics – if they want to go to Brisbane 2032, Olympic and Paralympic, why can’t they? What’s stopping them? It’s not their passion or desire, but it may be the opportunities, so let’s change that narrative.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Meet Australia’s odds-defying young athletes inspired by Drake and Cathy Freeman”
  1. As a single parent, I can empathize with Marla’s struggle. It’s inspiring to see how she supported her son Romone through such a challenging time. Her strength and resilience are truly admirable.

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