As we mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, "Supercoach" Jonathan Ila has shaken off a dire diagnosis to lead his nation on the world stage and become both an icon of Australian football in PNG and a celebrated champion of success despite Multiple Sclerosis.
Jonathan Ila sure doesn’t look like a man having perhaps the greatest moment of his life.
He has layer after layer of thick clothing on, a beanie pulled down over his ears and the freezing winds tear at the bilim hanging around his neck. His steely glare is occasionally broken by an exasperated toss of the head.
The truth is, there is nowhere in the world this man would rather be.
"It’s cold but I’m good," he says, noting nods of consensus from his rugged-up countrymen nearby.
As coach of the Papua New Guinea Flames, the national women’s team, Jonathan is riding every kick and feeling every bump as they take on the Fijians in the battle of the Pacific at the Australian Football League (AFL) International Cup. AFL has been his lifelong obsession but even with constant encouragement and support, his debilitating condition was expected to take his life long before he completed any footy fairy tales.
Jonathan is one of an estimated two million people worldwide living with MS, which interferes with nerve impulses within the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. A childhood diagnosis predicted Jonathan would not live beyond 17.
Jonathan is now 23.
But there was no denying that MS would prevent him from following the elite sporting pathway paved by so many others in his family and playing on the world stage. So, aged just 15, Jonathan instead decided he would channel his love and knowledge of AFL into coaching.
With the support of Australian Aid and the AFL South Pacific, he recently earned his Level 1 coaching accreditation. He co-founded a new AFL club for those who couldn’t get a game elsewhere and worked with men and women of all ages.
Jonathan is now national coach.
"I’m loving it," he says.
"I’ve loved the experience. It feels really good. The game’s been in my family for generations and for me coaching is another step because even though I couldn’t make it (as a player) because of my disability, coaching was one way of getting me here. So yeah, I’m very proud."
Nowhere near as proud as his family, who travelled to Melbourne from their hometown Lae, in Morobe Province, to witness Jonathan’s finest hour. Most have never travelled internationally before.
"It is magic," his father Kenneth says, searching for words that fully convey the magnitude of what this means for the son he calls "Supercoach" and those who love him.
"Phenomenal. Awesome. This is basically a dream bro - a dream come true. We are actually living the dream."
A dream long thought impossible.
The PNG Flames ultimately finished sixth at the International Cup. Jonathan allowed himself to savour his time on the world stage, becoming quite the celebrity and posing for pictures with players from South Africa to China, Croatia to Canada. But a coach’s life is not one of self-indulgence and lessons learned here will benefit the game back in Lae.
"I’m disappointed," he says.
"I’m sad at the moment but also happy.
"It was a good experience for me and the girls coming to this game.
"I’m going to head back home and finish the job."
Jonathan is rightly reluctant to make too many bold predictions about a return to the international stage at the next cup in 2020. But grand statements about the future aren’t really his style. Exceeding expectations and proving the doubters wrong is his stock and trade.
So the family had better start saving up for another trip.
Just in case.
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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