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Roll Model: Paralympian's pilgrimage a basketball breakthrough

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Paralympic basketballer Shelley Chaplin always believed she could help grow and improve the game in South-East Asia. What she didn't bank on was a trip to Laos that made her see her own life in a whole new way.

You don't win three Paralympic medals by being a softy, but Shelley Chaplin is fighting back tears.

Thumbing through a handmade book filled with photos and personal messages, she repeatedly thanks her new-found friends with rounds of "kop chai" as each delivers a heartfelt speech outlining how she has profoundly affected them.

Seen over her shoulder, Shelley Chaplin sits in her wheelchair and reads a book of messages with photos.
Shelley looks through her handmade book of "thank yous" or "kop chai".

ABC: Aaron Kearney

For Shelley, it is the end of a long day and a short month in the South-East Asian nation of Laos. She has just organised and played in a wheelchair basketball exhibition game that attracted everyone from the Australian ambassador to young women with a disability who'd never seen the game. Many left dreaming of representing their landlocked nation on the world stage.

The Australian Glider is in the capital Vientiane as part of Australian Aid's Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE).

"She's very open minded and she talks passionately about wheelchair basketball and what her life in Australia is like," says Asian Development with Disabled Persons Special Assistant Pakham Changvisommid, known to all as "Joy".

A close-up portrait of Pakham "Joy" Changvisommid smiling in front of a wooden wall.
Asian Development with Disabled Persons Special Assistant Pakham "Joy" Changvisommid.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The night before the big exhibition match, as monsoon rains belt down, a group of fans turn up with bags full of food. The story, perhaps slightly lost in translation, is that they had seen a video of Shelley training with the locals and wanted to do their bit.

The Australian's specific brief is to prepare the Lao National Wheelchair Basketball team for the 9th ASEAN Para Games in Kuala Lumpur. But her legend will prevail long after that event is history.

"We've [learned] a lot of things from her," says Lao Wheelchair Basketball Leader Vingthong "Ving" Chanthavong.

"The important thing we learned [is] teamwork. She is very friendly and lovely. We can ... communicate [easily and] ... learn from each other together."

In wheelchairs, Shelley Chaplin (right) and another woman (left) pose for a photo being taken on a smartphone in the foreground.
Shelley's Asian adventure has given her new perspective on her own life and disability.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

To have a foreign woman in a wheelchair so openly embraced as a leader validates the disability exchange concept.

"Because they already knew who I was and what I'd done as far as the sport was concerned, they were already ready to respect me," Shelley says.

"Then once they saw me jump in my chair and play amongst them, they were like 'OK, we are going to listen to her. She might know a thing or two'."

All the friendship and success of the program can't mask a confronting reality for Shelley, who has used a wheelchair since a spinal tumour in childhood.

"I think it's very sad, but I think that's why programs like what we're doing are so important.

"Their lives are so hard. We haven't seen one person in Laos in an electric chair and that's so sad because they probably don't exist. They probably died because they haven't had that access to health care, which I think is tragic."

Shelley Chaplin (left) and John Williams (right) sit next to each other. John holds a basketball and speaks into a microphone.
DESE's wheelchair basketball exhibition game days attracted hundreds, including Australian Ambassador to Laos John Williams.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

While the Lao men's team is unquestionably better equipped for a tilt at international competition, the revival of the national women's team could be DESE's enduring legacy.

"Since Shelley's been here, a lot of women are more interested in joining in," Joy says.

"Wheelchair basketball will become even more popular now."

Perhaps that after-match speech will prove prophetic, and Shelley Chaplin will indeed rebound to Vientiane to share the glory of a Lao victory.

A young boy in a wheelchair in a crowd of others in wheelchairs holds a small wheel and looks at the camera
The DESE visit is credited with spurring fresh interest in wheelchair basketball in Laos.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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