Serious injury & disability

Our man in Rio

Ben Lucas has all the right credentials to be New Zealand’s Chef de Mission for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – he’s been a Commonwealth and Paralympic Games athlete himself and has a long association with disabled sports organisations.

Twenty-five years ago Ben was so engrossed in studying for his NZ Certificate in Science exam that he forgot to pay the rent. A late-night motorcycle dash to the local ATM ended in tragedy, when he collided with a van doing a U-turn in front of him.

His back broken, Ben spent three months in hospital and four months at the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Clinic before returning home to Blenheim. There he developed a keen interest in competitive wheelchair basketball – until fellow basketballer Morris Hennessey suggested that he join him on one of his wheelchair-racing training runs. It was an invitation that changed Ben’s life for ever, as it wasn’t long before he was leaving Morris in his dust!

Picture of Ben Lucas at the games

Pursuing a passion

Seriously infected with the wheelchair-racing bug, Ben began a sports career that would take him around the world, starting with the 1990 Blenheim-Woodbourne half-marathon and going on to international events such as Japan’s Oita International Half Marathon and Australia’s Summer Down Under Wheelchair Road Racing Series, the Gold Coast, Boston, Los Angeles and Berlin marathons.

Ben also travelled to the United States to join a touring circuit of marathon and other long-distance race events. He was lucky to have help along the way, with his equipment sponsored by Invacare, a global supplier of wheelchairs and mobility aids and, once he broke into the world’s top 10 wheelchair racers, travel and living expenses supplemented aid by the New Zealand Sports Foundation.

“With all the training I started to become a slave to my sport,” he says, “but it was my choice and I loved it.

Representing New Zealand

In 1994 Ben represented New Zealand at his first Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, competing in the 800 metres and the marathon, where he took the bronze medal. He was also appointed as our team captain for the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in Beijing, China.

Two years later Ben was the team captain and flag bearer for the 39-member New Zealand team at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. He reached the semi-finals in the 5,000- and 10,000-metre events and placed eighth in the marathon. He also led the team in the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, after which he chose to retire from active competition.

Taking the next step

Ben’s passionate interest in sport for people with disabilities has led to an active involvement on the administrative side. It all started in Blenheim, when he worked for Sports Marlborough running the CCS recreation programme. It then extended to working with Parafed Canterbury in developing athletes for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games and roles as a Trustee on the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation and board member of Paralympics New Zealand (2008-12). Now based in the South Island, Ben’s board member of Parafed Canterbury (2007-present), a patron of CCS Disability Canterbury and Chief Executive of the New Zealand Spinal Trust.

Combined, these competitive, administrative and management experiences have given Ben all the knowledge and expertise he needs to be the Chef de Mission in Rio. He says he feels like he’s closing the loop on his sporting career.

The man in charge

Ben’s job as Chef de Mission in Rio is to look after the team from the minute they arrive at the Games Village until the day they go home.

As a former elite athlete, he understands the pressures and realities of the Paralympic Games, especially athletes’ preparation requirements and the need to balance their own expectations with those of family and country. He sees his role as creating conditions that enable the athletes to stay fit, healthy and relaxed and give their best performances.

That means establishing where athletes will be housed in the Village, arranging accreditation for athletes, coaches and support crews, setting systems such as team and competition lists, and arranging transport to and from events. He’s also the official New Zealand team spokesperson with the media.

When we met Ben he was busy trying to set up a fan zone for Kiwi supporters and had recently visited Rio to develop his networks and make himself known to the Brazilian and Rio diplomatic consuls. With only 3% of the Brazilian population speaking English, effective communications is paramount!