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Inspirational Ila's disability-defying dream

A man in a wheelchair holds an AFL football.
Jonathan Ila has defied his MS diagnosis to become a leading AFL figure in PNG.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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A multiple sclerosis diagnosis in childhood robbed Jonathan Ila of the chance to become an elite player, but he has just been named national coach of the PNG Flames ahead of the AFL International Cup.

Jonathan Ila remembers being told he had multiple sclerosis at age seven, but couldn't comprehend the implications of the diagnosis.

"I didn't know what I had, because at the time I didn't understand what my sickness was," he remembers.

His family certainly understood. The Ilas were wrongly told their beloved boy was not expected to live beyond the age of 17.

Jonathan is now 22.

A family of six pose for the camera outside. The son is in a wheelchair in the foreground.
Jonathan's family describe him as an inspiration.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

He 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.

Born into one of Papua New Guinea's greatest sporting families, Jonathan spent his childhood following his father around at Australian rules football (AFL) games and watching his mother at netball, a sport she played at international level. His siblings would also grow up be world-class sportspeople. Jonathan would soon require a wheelchair.

"At first, I was really upset. Devastated that I couldn't do what other normal kids could do.

"But as I grew older, my parents helped me adjust to life as it is now.

"I accepted it. It is part of me, who I am."

Four people, including one fielding in the wheelchair, play cricket.
Jonathan was born into one of PNG's best sporting families.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

With that acceptance came a new set of ambitions. Jonathan still plays sport within the limitations of MS and can be found positioning his chair at leg slip for a family game of backyard cricket. But eight years ago, aged just 15, Jonathan decided he would channel his love and knowledge of sport into coaching instead. Following a series of conversations with local teenagers, he convened a family meeting.

"He said 'Mum and Dad, I need to talk to you both,' so we dropped what we were doing and sat down to listen," his father, Ken, who is now President of Lae AFL, recalls.

"He didn't waste any time and said that he wanted to coach his own AFL team."

His parents did everything possible to grant that wish and within months, Jonathan had led the under 12 and under 13 boys to premierships in his rookie year.

"I'd seen a lot of kids getting left out every time," he says.

"Sitting on the bench, they wanted game time. They wanted to have a chance to play.

"It saddened me to see them that way, so I just tried picking up coaching."

A man demonstrates how to kick an Australian football to a group of men and women, including a man in a wheelchair.
Jonathan has earned his Level 1 coaching certificate.

Supplied: AFL South Pacific

Jonathan still offers guidance to the juniors, but for the past three years has worked with the senior men and women and, with the support of Australian Aid and the AFL South Pacific, he recently earned his Level 1 coaching accreditation.

The softly-spoken leader has been integral to the creation of the Sa'lle Dogs AFL Club and has just been named coach of the PNG national women's team, the Flames for the upcoming AFL International Cup. Ken describes Jonathan as the superstar of the family. High praise indeed in a family that boasts netball and cricket internationals, as well as elite AFL players.

"He's a very big inspiration to us all," Ken says with pride and affection.

"He is known as a super coach here in Lae."

Jonathan is something of a local celebrity and his reputation as an astute AFL judge is known across much of the Pacific and in respected AFL circles in Australia.

"Without my disabilities, I would not have met a lot of amazing people in my life," Jonathan says.

"It had its negatives, but it turned out to be a great positive in my life.

"If I had a chance to go back in time, I wouldn't change anything."

An outdoor portrait of a man in Papua New Guinea.
Jonathan has achieved his dream of becoming a successful and respected coach.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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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