I had the opportunity to have a coffee and a chat with the inspirational Priya Cooper OAM. Priya is one of Australia’s most celebrated swimmers. She has won a total of 9 Gold Medals at three Paralympic Games and now runs her own inspirational speaking business with Rod, her husband. Armed with my list of many questions I enjoyed a coffee and a chat with this wonderful woman.
Priya is very humble about her achievements and her contribution to Australian sport. She brings a wealth of experience and an articulate voice to sport for people with disabilities. Her achievements include 1999 Young Australian of the Year, competing in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and then in Sydney in 2000, an Order of Australia Medal. Plus, she is the only person I know who has met the Queen!
Priya, tell us about your mindset and how you stay focused on achieving your goals?
Having stopped swimming and moving onto other things you still have that same mindset. As an athlete you are actually quite selfish because everything is focused on you and everyone around you focuses on getting you to do your best. When you move out of that arena you just put that thinking into other areas. What I have learned about myself is that I can easily go into that obsessive thinking that “this is going to work at all cost” and I can forget about balance. I realise that balance is really important for me and I want that in my life. At school I always wanted to do well and please the teachers. Although I had to work hard at school I really enjoyed it. I used to love training too, even the pain and I loved setting little goals. I feel that the difference in getting results is more about whether you are just showing up or whether you are constantly challenging yourself to improve.
When did you realise that you could compete as a swimmer?
From a very young age I wanted to be really good at something and my Mum always had a “can do” attitude. Mum taught me to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t do. I wanted to do tap dancing, ballet and my dream was to be in the Johnny Young Talent Team. I felt driven to find my special thing – I had to find something that I could be really good at. I feel like I fell into swimming because that was something I could do well and be part of the school swimming squad. When I was first training I was only fourteen and the coach told me what to do and I just did it. Being an athlete is the easiest job because you get told what to do and you just do it. I wasn’t always in the wheelchair, that came later and I obviously had a natural ability to swim well but I definitely had an inner drive as well.
Tell us about challenges and how you overcome them.
My first challenge was being teased and realising I was different from other kids. I was in year 9 when I started using the wheelchair and I was being coached by Frank Ponta and started playing Wheelchair Basketball. Although I felt that it was not my strongest sport, being tall helped and I did play at the state level. The chair made it better for me to conserve my energy and getting around was a lot easier but it did become very evident that I needed to choose between Swimming and Basketball. The wheelchair just became the way I got around and made it so much easier. I have always had a positive attitude about my disability but the time I found really hard was when I had Olivia. I had this baby, the chair, the pram and found it all incredibly difficult and felt quite overwhelmed. Now I look back I wish I had just enjoyed that time more, that I had relaxed and enjoyed her instead of trying to do everything. Another challenging time for me was about 9 months before the Sydney Games, I had a shoulder injury and had to have surgery on it. I had moved away from home and was on my own and everything was going the wrong way. At that time, there was not a big focus on athletes mental health and I felt like I was just a machine and just needed to get fixed and back out there ready to compete in the Sydney Games.
If you become the Prime Minister of Australia what’s the first thing you will do.
Strangely enough, I was recently approached to run for the seat of Joondalup. I really, really considered it and my husband was encouraging me to take on the challenge. I just felt that I would be stepping into another machine and I really want to keep a balanced life with my kids so I decided against it.
When I think about being Prime Minister, my mind goes straight to disability services and the difference I can make. I have been called on by Government to put forward my opinion on what is needed in this sector and I feel that I offer more by contributing from an advisory capacity.
I feel I can make a bigger difference by not having an alliance to any particular political party. If I was Prime Minister I would definitely focus on equality. I see lots of homeless people and I would focus on making sure opportunities are available to everyone.
What boards are you currently on Priya?
I am president of the WA Disabled Sports Association. I am also on the board of The Ability Centre, formally known as The Cerebral Palsy Association. This is where we take our son Harry for services. I feel I bring a lot to this board because of what I have experienced and now having Harry using their services I am able to give good feedback.
What would you describe as your highlight so far?
Having said that I found babies hard, I dreamed of being married and having kids and always wanted to be a Mum. I have a really great husband (who even does the housework) and I have my two kids, a boy and a girl. So I would have to say that my highlight would be having kids. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015 was a massive highlight. It was Ricky Ponting, Casey Stoner and me!!! I am also really grateful that I came into the sport when I did. It’s so much more professional now and I could never achieve the times the girls are doing now. I had raw talent but now the testing and training is so much more technical.
Your thoughts on body image.
I spent my young life in sport being super conscious of my body not being “right” and now when I look back at photographs I wonder what I was thinking. I went to a lovely school and the teachers were so good. I really enjoyed school, it was a kind and loving experience for me. I am super conscious of making sure that my daughter has a positive attitude about her body.
How can we find out more about your Speaking Business and book you for speaking engagements?
We believe that success really is a choice. We have spoken at many major corporate and government conferences and events. Rod is a dual Paralympian and is a business and life coach and a very motivating public speaker. Rod’s story is unique and inspiring. Our website is www.successisachoiceglobal.com and our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Having heard both Priya and Rod speak at events in Perth, I would highly recommend them. They are both very compelling speakers who engage and inspire and leave everyone understanding the power of having a dream and the determination to achieve.