Scott Reardon wins gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. (Photo: Athletics Australia; Design by Madeline Irwin)

Truth be told, Paralympians have fought endlessly to increase exposure to their respective sports on the world stage. They are all able and they are all blessed with unique skill sets that are rightfully becoming more appreciated.

When former wheelchair tennis and basketball star Dylan Alcott won the Australian of the Year award in 2022, it was viewed as a true landmark moment in recognising the talents of athletes with disabilities.

Scott Reardon, also a former multiple-sport champion in water skiing and track and field running, has been one of the leading pioneers to inspire the next generation of Paralympians. In 2002, the three-time Paralympian tragically lost his leg in a tractor accident on the farm, not knowing if he would ever have the opportunity to represent his country in a sporting capacity. However, hard work and perseverance paid off for the 33-year-old which paved the way for a memorable career to savour.

In this next part of the Life After Sport series presented by The Inner Sanctum accompanied by careers coach Max Kalis, Reardon shared his experiences going from the lowest point of his life to cloud nine while speaking on the importance of retirement planning.

Q: What did your journey look like growing up and how did you keep a positive mindset after the trauma you experienced?
A: I grew up in a small town south-west of Canberra and being brought up in an area with nothing much to do made me experiment with many sports, especially 20 years ago when technology wasn’t popular. Sport then became a massive part of my life from a young age where I was mainly passionate about rugby and athletics.

When I lost my leg in 2002, everything happened in a flash where my life completely changed not knowing if I would ever be able to run again. I didn’t realise what was available out there until the Paralympics became more recognisable and received the publicity it deserved. When I watched my first Paralympic race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with my eyes, I learned that it’s possible to run on a prosthetic leg.

When I decided to transition to the track field, I competed as a water skier at three world championships and won one when I was 17, so I was always a fierce competitor.

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Q: Where were you when the thought started running through your mind about retirement?
A: I had seen a lot of athletes come and go over the years and in 2008 when I joined the AIS, there were a lot of athletes in that transition phase asking themselves if they wanted to continue competing. Because I had seen that transpire over the years, I knew retirement was edging closer and closer for me to ponder as the years progressed.

I started thinking about it in 2017 – not so much the end-point but how I would prepare when that end would arrive. The most important thing I had to do was switch my mindset which is common not only in sports but in life, so I wanted to shift my identity away from being associated as an athlete to being known as so much more than that.

I studied part-time since 2010 to become a teacher before deciding to run three businesses whilst being a full-time athlete and studying. I knew that as soon as that end-point happened, I was going to be ready when it was time to announce my retirement in 2021 after my quality of life deteriorated after many injury setbacks.

When I got to that point, mentally I was in the right headspace because I had been planning retirement for four years and I think a lot of athletes now don’t actively prepare for the future and manage those times of doubt.

Q: Were you ever worried or scared thinking about starting a new chapter post-retirement?
A: There were a bit of nerves attached because I was still going through that transition phase, there’s no doubt about that. I haven’t been able to fully commit to anything else outside of training Vanessa, but I’m building things that I can do with more consistency.

The mentality I’ve had over the years is that I’ve actively got rid of plan B’s, because if I have a plan B then plan A is an option not to work, so I know that with the skills and dedication I’ve learned in sports that I can find a way to make something work regardless of the situation. That’s one advantage that athletes have over the general population is that the skills we learn apply to the real-life world.

I know that I can pivot and switch paths if the first plan doesn’t work out, even though I don’t believe I’ll need that.

Q: What do non-athletes misunderstand about the life of a professional athlete?
A: I think it’s the dedication and commitment that goes into it and the things you need to sacrifice to allow athletes to achieve their goals.

There’s a lot of being an athlete with what you do is really important but the other side a lot of people don’t understand is the things that you don’t do are equally as important as the things that you do. For example, if I decide to go to a wedding, that means I can’t train and my competitor gets an advantage on me for when the race comes around and I can’t get that time back.

It’s the little things that separate athletes from becoming the best in the world, and being the best in the world is one thing, but to do it year after year is extremely difficult because there are so many obstacles to overcome including the motivation aspect after winning a gold medal or a championship. It can easily become very isolating and mentally draining, so that’s when it’s important to create systems and healthy habits that are proven to work long-term.

It takes a certain type of person to do it so it’s not for everyone, but at the same time, it’s very rewarding.

Q: What is the proudest moment of your sporting career?
A: They’re all unique in a different way. 2012 I won my first medal at a championship, 2013 I won my first world championship winning gold in a dead heat, and the next world championships I won and clocked the second-fastest time in history, so those were all special moments that I look back on fondly throughout my career.

But personally, it would have to be the gold medal I won at the Paralympic Games in Rio because the Paralympics are the biggest thing for us to aspire toward. The track and field is the original home of the Olympics, and therefore Paralympics, and so that’s where it started from because previously the Olympics was athletics only. The prestige around it made my achievement so special and one I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Q: What is the single most effective thing that you have done to prepare for life sport?
A: Awareness of the situation and what the future is going to be which comes with uncertainty. The skill that I learned and applied is breathing because it’s a conscious aspect that helped me become more present in the moment and allowed for clear thoughts to run through my mind in those uncertain times.

When I start to go down a path of thinking ‘Will this work?’ or ‘What will come next?’ I know that I can stop and breathe to analyse what’s true and what’s false which helps gather much-needed clarification. A simple such as taking a step back and looking at what’s ahead of you both tangibly and intangible is a technique that has kept me calm throughout that transition process.

Now I run a company, resilience workshops, and keynotes and that skill plays a huge part in being able to talk about the importance of mental health and the performance stakes in work and everyday life. It helps plant a focus on the ability to focus on our breath that can have big performance outcomes which is something I have gained through sport.

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