Five-time Paralympian Frank Ponta‘s contribution to the Paralympic movement in Australia as an athlete, coach and administrator cannot be overstated. Over a career spanning five decades, he competed at five Paralympic Games, winning one gold, two silver and one bronze medal, discovered and coached athletes who became Paralympic and world champions – Priya Cooper, Madison de Rozario, Justin Eveson, Louise Sauvage and Bruce Wallrodt – and assisted countless others to enjoy Para-sport.
Ponta was born in Subiaco, WA, on 8 November 1935, the eldest of nine children to Hettore and Eugenia. His dad was Italian of Portuguese descent and his mum was English “with a bit of Irish thrown in”. When Ponta was 14 or 15 – he’s not quite sure – he injured his back diving off a wharf in Geraldton.
“We used to play chasey on the wharf in Geraldton, and you dive off the wharf, you know, when guys are chasing you,” said Ponta in an interview with Robin Poke for the Australian Paralympic Committee’s oral history project in 2010. “One day I went in, and instead of going in head-first, I went in on my back. When I got out of the water, I ran up the ladder and the boys caught me and said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Halfway up the ladder, I just couldn’t move.”
Ponta later learned he had aggravated a tumour in his spine.
“Everything I’d eat, I’d bring up. The only way I could keep food down was to drink a cup of tea. Then I started to lose the use of … I think it was the left leg, and then I started to get a little bit wobbly on my feet.
“When I went to the doctor, they said there was nothing wrong with me. I remember going into St John of God Hospital in Geraldton and the doctor said, ‘I want to speak to your mum and dad’. I told them and they went and seen this doctor – I won’t say the name – who said, ‘This boy’s no good. He’s lazy. He’s a bad example for his brothers and sisters.’ I tell you what, that was heartbreaking, that was.”
The tumour was diagnosed and removed in 1953, and Ponta became a paraplegic. In 1954, he was one of the first people admitted to Australia’s first spinal care unit, WA’s Shenton Park Rehabilitation Hospital. Under the care of Sir George Bedbrook, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Paralympic sport in Australia, Ponta relished the opportunity to play Para-sport.
As well as five Paralympic Games, Ponta also competed at one Stoke Mandeville Games, three Commonwealth Paraplegic Games and one Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled. He contested Para-archery, Para-athletics, Para-swimming, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair fencing at an international level, and is universally recognised as one of Australia’s greatest ever wheelchair basketball players.
For all his success, Ponta’s legacy as a coach and mentor of junior athletes, including Australia’s most renowned female Paralympian, Sauvage, and her own prodigy, de Rozario, arguably supersedes it.
“Frank was one of my first coaches ever,” said Sauvage. “He met me as a very young eight-year-old, and I think he saw something in me that I didn’t know existed. He showed me what was possible and mentored me into the athlete that I became.
“His legacy is all of us who have gone on to bigger and better things because of one man that really believed in us and gave us that opportunity.”
Aged 14, de Rozario was the youngest member of the Australian Paralympic Team at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. She said Ponta’s influence in helping her achieve that goal at such a young age was undeniable.
“I think that without Frank, it would have been impossible to get to where I am today,” de Rozario said.
“I remember, one day I rocked up to training and I had forgotten my gloves, and I don’t know how I managed that, but he made me tape up my hands and push anyway.
“Sometimes Rita [Sauvage, Louise’s mum] and other parents thought I was too tough on kids,” said Ponta. “‘You push them too hard,’ they’d say. ‘Bloody rubbish,’ I’d respond, ‘If we don’t do it this way, we’re never going to get anything out of them, and they’re never going to learn and improve.’
“Sport has been a big part of my life with many ups and downs – an outlet for frustration, and a challenge either in playing, coaching or administration. I enjoyed my time as a competitor, but have had almost as much pleasure watching people that I have trained become achievers,” he said.
Ponta received the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Award in 1984 and the Lord’s Taverners Award in 1989, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Australian wheelchair sport. He was a recipient of the Australian Sports Medal in 2000, and an inaugural inductee into the Australian Paralympic Committee’s Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2012, he was inducted into the international Paralympic Hall of Fame, and in 2017, he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame as an Athlete and General Member.
“I can always remember two little kids on Nicholson Road [in Perth],” said Ponta. “They’re waiting around the bus stop and one was saying to the other, ‘What are you gonna be when you grow up?’, and you expected them to say, ‘I’m gonna be an engine driver,’ or something like that. They said, ‘I’m gonna be one of them guys in a wheelchair so I can play wheelchair basketball.’
“I said to Bill [Mather-Brown], I said, ‘When you look at it, Bill, we were the pioneers, weren’t we?’ I hope they appreciate us, what we done for all these future athletes. I would just like to be remembered as a person that’s been there and done something for somebody else.”
Ponta passed away on 1 June 2011.
By Lauren Robertson, APC Media