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In 1995, at the age of 43, Ken Halliday quit his comfortable job as a manager in a powder coating plant and went a completely different direction.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to be doing something else. Something meaningful. Something that helped people.

Nearly 30 years later, after he received the trophy for Team of the Year at the AIS Sport Performance Awards in Melbourne on Wednesday night, Halliday could reflect on how spectacularly his risky career change paid off.

“I think about it quite often, leaving my job to work as a carer and how I got into boccia a few years later,” Halliday said.

“I think about how lucky I’ve been to work with such special people, the appreciation I get, how rewarding it’s been. I’m really pinching myself. I’m actually the head coach of a world champion team.”

That team consists of Tokyo 2020 bronze medallist Dan Michel who has built a formidable partnership with Jamieson Leeson, a rising star from Dunedoo in central NSW who was aiming to be in the world’s top 10 by the end of 2024 but is already ranked No.4.

The pair, with their respective ramp assistants Ash Maddern and Jamieson’s mother Amanda Leeson (who recently stepped down), were undefeated in 21 consecutive games in the BC3 Pairs classification, including winning the World Championship in Brazil last December. Their streak began after Tokyo 2020 when it became compulsory for Pairs teams to include a male player and a female player.

Boccia is open to athletes with high levels of impairment. Michel and Leeson, who both have spinal muscular atrophy, remained in Sydney on Wednesday as they are heading to the Asia-Oceania Regional Championships in Hong Kong this weekend where they will try to seal their qualification for the Paris Paralympics. Halliday accepted on their behalf and was stunned when the team won over other nominees, including the Australian Diamonds and the Hockeyroos.

“I’m still on cloud nine,” he said. “Last night when they put up all the nominees on the screen, I was thinking ‘Oh well, we’re not going to get this. There’s all these bigger teams’. I was dumbfounded when they said boccia.

“I guess I still class us as the minnows of sport. You talk to people and they say ‘What do you do?’ You say ‘I coach boccia’ and they’ve never heard of it.

“But, you know, they’ve done so well winning 21 games in a row. I think it really is exceptional. There can’t be many teams that have done that in international competition, in any sport.”

Typically, Halliday went straight from Sydney airport to boccia training on Thursday morning to catch up with the rest of the team.

“I was thanking them for all the effort they’ve put in and they were thanking me. I told them I hadn’t done much at all, you guys have done all the work.

“They were really pleased. It was very special presenting the trophy to them.”

The boccia team’s success was shared with other award-winning Para-athletes, including Para World Swimming Championships gold medallist Alexa Leary who was named Emerging Athlete of the Year.

World Champion sprinter James Turner won Male Para-Athlete of the Year and Lauren Parker won Female Para-Athlete of the Year after claiming world titles in triathlon and cycling.

2023 ASPAs Award Winners:

Emerging Athlete of the Year: Alexa Leary, Swimming Australia
Community Engagement Award: Amy Parmenter, Netball Australia
Award for Leadership: Jessica Corones, Swimming Australia
High Performance Program of the Year: The Dolphins, Swimming Australia
Volunteer of the Year: Elysa Oliveri, Cricket Australia
Male Able-Athlete of the Year: Matt Wearn, Australian Sailing
Male Para-Athlete of the Year: James Turner, Athletics Australia
Female Para-Athlete of the Year: Lauren Parker, AusTriathlon & AusCycling
Female Able-Athlete of the Year: Kaylee McKeown, Swimming Australia
Win Well Award: Archery Australia
Coach of the Year: Rohan Taylor, Swimming Australia
Team of the Year: BC3 Pairs, Boccia Australia
Performance of the Year: Mollie O’Callaghan, Swimming Australia

By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 30 November 2023