Snow Australia is pleased to announce Australia’s first ever Paralympic gold medallist Michael Milton as part of the latest group of recipients of the Snow Australia Medal, together with the other Paralympians who participated in the Innsbruck 1988 and Albertville 1992 Winter Games: Para-alpine skiers Michael Collins, Rod Hacon, Evan Hodge, David Munk and Michael Norton.

Collectively the group were able to collect 16 Paralympic medals over the course of their careers. Milton is the most successful Australian Winter Paralympian of all time, having won six gold, three silver and two bronze medals.

His gold in the Men’s Slalom LW2 at Albertville 1992 – the first ever Olympic or Paralympic gold medal for Australia at the Winter Games – is considered by many a watershed moment in the history of Australian snowsports. It is also a testament to the work of people like Snow Australia Medal recipient Ron Finneran and former Vice-President of the Australian Paralympic Committee Nick Dean, who tirelessly drove the rise of the Paralympic sport movement in Australia. In 1992 Dean was the Assistant to the Head of the Australian delegation (‘Chef de Mission’) for the Albertville Games, before serving in the main role at Lillehammer ‘94 – a position he has held many times over the 12 editions of the Games he has been involved in, most recently at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Games. Finneran and Dean’s work over the years was fundamental for the Paralympic movement to transition from what was considered a recreational recovery initiative to a legitimate high performance program.

Dean explains: “The difference between the winter team and the non-winter teams in those days was that the winter team adopted more of a professional outlook. Up until that time there was a transition period whereby Paralympic sport was seen to be a charity, or rehabilitation exercises of people with a disability. Whereas Ron [Finneran] and I adopted an attitude of ‘hang on, this is a sports team, and instead of minders, it needs coaches’.

“So we set about turning it into a professional sport, as much as resources would allow in those days. We went away with an alpine ski coach, whereas non-winter teams went away with doctors, assistants and medical health experts.”

The growth of the Australian team was rewarded almost instantly with international success. After making his debut at the 1988 Innsbruck Paralympics, just shy of 15-years-old, by 1992 Milton was already a dominating force in Para-alpine skiing. His teammates were not far behind, particularly Rod ‘Rocket’ Hacon, two-time Paralympic champion Michael Norton and Paralympic bronze medallist David Munk, whilst Snow Australia Medal recipient Kyrra Grunnsund made his final Winter Games appearance in Albertville before switching to summer sports.

“All of these people are complex characters because of their disabilities. Kyrra was exceptional because he participated in the Alpine events, the Cross-country events and then the summer events, so he was an extraordinary athlete.  He operated in an environment with minimal support, which made his accomplishments all the more extraordinary,” Dean says.

“Michael Milton was young and obstreperous and physically extremely talented. Up until then, he had had to train with the able-bodied athletes. He came from the ‘school of hard knocks’, because prior to us he hadn’t been receiving assistance for people with a disability. There hadn’t been any grassroots so he had to come up through the able-bodied clubs.”

“He was an exceptional athlete.  I’m sure that someone like him saw himself as a genuine athlete. He knew he was a genuine athlete.”

David Munk was an athlete even before he started competing in para-sports. He was a surfer and water skier who suffered a terrible motorbike accident at 18 years of age. He came across Para-alpine skiing by accident, while researching it as a sport for disabled athletes, initially thinking it was about water skiing. Munk remembers how equipment for sit-skiing was very basic when he started, not like the more sophisticated rigs available today, and how he ended up breaking all the sit-skis he used during his orientation into the sport. Despite equipment challenges and the fact that sit-skiing in particular is an extremely demanding and tough sport, Munk brought across his competitive attitude to the new discipline: “I broke wrists, smashed my face. You are not trying if you don’t fail,” Munk says.

Munk went on to win two Paralympic medals, bronze in the Super G LW11 at Albertville 1992, and bronze in the Giant Slalom LW11 at Lillehammer 1994. “I never won a medal in my best events,” he says, Downhill being his favourite event. “I always crashed coming first or second and you only get one run [in downhill events].” Today, Munk competes in adaptive surfing competitions. He is an Australian Champion and has participated in four Adaptive Surf World Championships.

Another outstanding athlete in that team was Michael Norton. With so much talent on the team, it’s not easy for Dean to single out exceptional achievements, but Norton gets a special mention.

“It’s difficult to compare athletes with such different disabilities, but in my opinion Michael Norton might have been the best [para] athlete in the world at the time, by far and away. He was extraordinary. Michael was quite a personable personality and was involved in the Essendon Football Club, he appeared on TV on Saturday night shows out of Melbourne. There is probably footage of him leaping from a hovering helicopter to the top of a mountain!

“But all those guys were real athletes. They could go upstairs on their wheelchairs. They could jump onto a table in their wheelchairs. Amazing athletes,” Dean says.

It should also be considered that despite their exceptional talents, many of these athletes had to endure lasting physical suffering as a consequence of their traumas. Some, like Rod Hacon, used training and competition almost as a distraction to escape their excruciating pain.

“At some point Rod realised he couldn’t compete anymore. He was in constant pain from his traumatic injury. He went to pain clinics all his life, doing whatever he could to control the pain. He was a semiplegic, which meant he still had nerve sensation, and it was constant pain, debilitating pain, which he put up with,” Dean says.

On top of that, as in any sport practice, there are injuries. In 1998 Rod Hacon was involved in a freak accident which ultimately would force his withdrawal from the Nagano Games.

“We were training in Canada – in those days we didn’t have ski technicians, we didn’t have that support, so all athletes were trained to care for their own equipment,” Dean says.

Hacon slipped and the razor-sharp edges of his ski severed the tendons in his hand, forcing him to miss the Games.

“He had to return to Australia for surgery, which I don’t think was entirely successful. That added more agony on top of his condition.”

Rod ‘Rocket’ Hacon never managed to win a Paralympic medal, but would eventually win a bronze in the 1996 World Championships, before passing away in his early forties.

“Rod was a terrific guy and an important part of our history,” says Dean. Hacon’s story inspired an inward look and the development of specific policies within the Australian Paralympic movement to ensure athlete’s mental health and wellbeing were appropriately considered and supported.

With such an abundance of talent on the team, internal competition was fierce. Dean says skiers fed off each other and that dynamic was never detrimental to the atmosphere within the squad, or their results.

“They were aggressive, they had an athlete mentality – and they were somehow difficult to manage because of that. They were focused on personal success in an individual sport.

“My job as the Chef de Mission was to create a sort of team environment within a sport for individuals, particularly when you’ve got a very, very unique group – as each disability is a unique thing in itself. They were a privilege to manage, because they were so talented.”

And when Michael Milton won that gold medal, the team rallied behind him to celebrate.

“No-one could beat him. He was at the top of his game,” Munk says.

“They were all proud to be Australian,” Dean says. “It was an amazing, amazing moment.”

Milton’s breakthrough was an emotional moment for the Australian team that subsequently established a medal-winning tradition.

“I think a culture of success was established at those Games, of which that team was proud because they repeated it in Lillehammer two years later, where they were even more successful. Michael Milton’s inspired several others, because they were so technically advanced.”

What Dean describes is a scenario in which Paralympic winter sports in Australia made very rapid advances, going from having good professional intentions (and very few resources) to an organised approach that would ensure professional support would be available by the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Paralympic Games. Since then, Australia has continued to progress its status, gaining international recognition for its Para-snowsports program.

“I think Paralympic sports have advanced incredibly,” Dean confirms. “But it still needs a lot of funding to keep up.”

Funding traditionally depends on sporting success, but exposure and recognition by the sporting community, and the population at large, also play a role in driving the allocation of resources. Public attitudes to disability sport have changed significantly over the years, but there is still much to be done.

“The sooner the able-bodied population understands that people with disabilities, or less able people, are the same in all respects, the better,” continues Dean.

Could some of this recognition come from showcasing and celebrating the inspiring stories of the pioneers of the sport? Dean seems to think it could, and that initiatives like the Snow Australia Medal could play a part in this process.

“Awards are cosmetic, but they also reflect attitudes. The Federal Government recognised that Olympic medals and Paralympic medals were the same many many years ago. [Australian Olympic Committee President] John Coates was a wonderful supporter of the Paralympic movement, and he and [former President of the Australian Paralympic Committee] Greg Hartung formed a fantastic working relationship, understanding and supporting each other.

“So I think awards like these can make a difference. I think this initiative is terrific. History is so important to our culture. If we can give recognition, even posthumously, and bring these people’s stories to the fore in some way, I think it’s fantastic. I think this medal initiative is part of that.”

Stories like those of the 1988 and 1992 Paralympians are undoubtedly part of the treasured history of the Australian snow community. Stories of athletes like Rod ‘Rocket’ Hacon. We couldn’t really get to the bottom of why he was nicknamed ‘Rocket’, but Dean has a theory, illuminating in its simplicity as it applies to an Alpine skier.

“He just went fast!”

By: Snow Australia
Posted: 4 December 2020