In the lead up to the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, few believed Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team would be serious contenders, not least of which the players themselves.

By Geoff Adams.

Reflecting on their world beating feat 20 years later, coach Mark Walker says that it was a change in psychology that led to the team’s historic victory.

“Six weeks out before the Games we went on a practice tour of Europe and after getting smashed by everyone we weren’t looking too flash.” says Walker.

“After that tour I met a sports psychologist called Patrick Farrell and he said he’d be happy to help the team. I knew we had the ability but mentally we just weren’t there and he brought it together.”

Farrell held a meeting with the team, without the coach present, and started by asking the players what they were good at and what were their goals.

Whilst sports psychology is commonplace in sport now and a question about goals seems rudimentary, back then it was totally new to the group.

“It was revolutionary,” says former player Gerry Hewson. “We couldn’t believe anyone would ask us that. No one had ever asked us that, certainly not in my playing career.”

“Patrick Farrell got us to believe we were half decent, got us to believe in our individual skills and knowledge and got us to believe in the team itself and also the coach. All those things came together to make it [the gold medal] happen.”

“One of the things we had was a little chant. Everyone has a chant but we came up with a thing that Orgeo [Cecconato] would sing out as loud as he possibly could.

“He’d shout “What time is it?” And we’d sing out “Our time!” I’m not sure where it came from but I truly believe what you think about, and what you talk about the most, happens to you, be it positive or negative.”

Upon arriving in Atlanta, the side found no shortage of motivation thanks to the cockiness of the Americans.

“When I got there I was incredibly nervous going into the Games, a young rookie coach, [it] was uncharted waters for me,” says Walker.

“There was this CNN snippet with [American star] Trooper Johnson and he just said how good they were and how they were the Dream Team and that it was their Games and they’re going to smash everybody and take everyone before them and that just made my blood boil a little bit.”

“I thought ‘We’ll put that Dream Team name to the test.”

Poised with a sense of belief, the Rollers finished second in their pool, only losing one game to Spain.

Australia met the Netherlands in the quarter finals, a team they had never beaten. The Rollers won by two points though to set up a semi-final showdown with the Americans in front of a vocal Georgia crowd.

In the dying seconds against the USA, Australia held on to a two point lead as ‘Sandy’ Blythe was fouled and sent to the free throw line.

“There was 10,000 people,” says Hewson. “It was probably 5,000 but I say it was 10,000 people in the crowd singing ‘U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A as he’s going to the free throw line and he just went swish, swish.”

“It was fantastic! I think it was Trooper Johnson who was laying on the floor, hands over his eyes crying, and I went over and said ‘Sorry mate, I know how you feel, but I don’t care.’

After being seeded sixth going into the tournament, no one expected Australia to be in the gold medal game.

“We got back to the village and got off the bus, everything was exciting, everything was amazing.” says Walker. “People were just in disbelief [that we’d won].”

Australia would meet Great Britain in the Gold Medal game after the Brits defeated Spain in the other semi-final.

“The reality was, everyone was obviously extremely nervous but I think we did have a belief.” says Hewson.

That belief was firmly tested when the Rollers found themselves down by 15 points after just six minutes.

“We were getting absolutely wiped off the floor by a great one pointer called Mark Cheney” says Walker.

“We were a bit overawed by the occasion. But a couple of defensive moves and Troy [Sachs] and the boys started to really fire on all cylinders.

“The human torpedo Blythe was running into everyone and managed to get their captain into foul trouble in that first half.”

Troy Sachs would then put on an incredible display. Competing in his second Paralympics at just 19 years old, Sachs scored 42 points including five 3 pointers.

“By the time that it had all finished, that last two minutes was relief and serious joy.” says Walker.

“We were celebrating on the bench, I was able to get everyone on the court just so that they could say ‘I competed in that Gold Medal game.’ It was an amazing feeling.”

Walker remains incredibly proud of what the Aussie Rollers achieved in Atlanta and the legacy it created for wheelchair basketball in Australia.

“There were a few obstacles in ‘96. I’m glad it’s a lot more professional these days.”

“I didn’t have any video of anything back in the day. There was a lot of talk about reputations and all I could do was go on feedback from the players. I was consulting anyone who had played for the Australian team on past games, [asking] who were the threats.

“The hardest thing too was we were so isolated. Players had to put their hands in their pockets to do everything. Basically if they wanted to go anywhere it was going to cost them this many thousand and 20 years ago it was tough for players to do that.”

“Realistically our players were getting maybe six quality games a year and you’re talking about the Americans and the Europeans and they’d play 50 or 60.”

“We were so far behind as far as game practice so my total thoughts were about fitness. I just thought, ‘I want us to be the absolute fittest, most aggressive team. I wanted to win the rebounding, I wanted to win the defensive war.”

“I remember my first meeting with all the players and I looked them in the eyes and said ‘We’re in the top ten fellas so there’s no reason we can’t win a gold medal.”

“Rich [Oliver] had been at it for 20 years and got the [look of] ‘You’re kidding yourself aren't you? We’re Australia, we’re not supposed to be that good.’ I just looked at it like a boxer and if you’re in the top ten then you’ve got a shot at the title.”

And contenders they would be. The song ‘Holy Grail’ by Hunters & Collectors became the team anthem as the Australians marched to an unlikely tilt at the gold medal.

The 1996 Australian Rollers Paralympic team:

Team Members - Troy Andrews, Sandy Blythe, Orfeo Cecconato, Ben Cox, Stuart Ewin, David Gould, Gerard Hewson, Timothy Maloney, Nicholas Morris, Richard Oliver, David Selby, Troy Sachs

Coaches - Mark Walker (Head Coach), Evan Bennett (Assistant Coach) Graham Gould (Mechanic/Operations)