Bill Chaffey: Accidental hero eyes debut Paralympic gold
BEING first across the line at this month's Australian Paratriathlon Championships on the Gold Coast was nothing out of the ordinary for Bill Chaffey.
But what came next was a little surreal for someone even as accomplished as the 40-year-old who has been dominating his sport at national and international level.
"A lady came up to me and said her son was inspired by me and asked me to sign her running cap," Chaffey explained to APN.
"I had never signed an autograph before. My daughter was standing next to me when I was doing it and her jaw dropped. It was pretty weird.
"I don't dislike it ... but it's hard to grasp the concept that I could inspire anybody."
Having become a superstar of paratriathlon - and despite the dearth of autograph requests - the humble husband and father of two from Murwillumbah just south of Tweed Heads has indeed become an idol to many around the world.
It stems from his ability to turn four broken vertebrae, two fractured elbows and one shattered pelvis into five world titles - and, with any luck, a Paralympic gold medal this September.
As preparation for his first appearance at the Foster Ironman in 2005, the young police officer had been riding a new racing bike from home to work at the local station when he was struck from behind by a truck on the Pacific Highway.
"I'd always be running or riding my bike to work," Chaffey said, adding he would take the shortest route (22km) if on foot, but "work up about 60 or 70km" on the bike.
"And that's what I was doing on this particular morning. It was my very last ride (before Foster). I'd picked up my bike from the bike shop the day before... I just wanted to test how it felt for the race.
"As fate would have it, I probably should have ran to work that day."
Chaffey ended up undergoing spinal surgery at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital.
With wife Vanessa by his bedside, he woke in hospital five days later - relieved there was still time to compete at Foster. Little did he know the extent of the injury.
"I put so much into training for that ironman race," he recalled.
"It's what I was thinking about every day when I woke up .... and not surprising that when I came out of a coma the first thing I ask is what day it was."
The truck driver received a $601 fine after being charged with negligent driving causing grievous bodily harm, and being unlicensed.
"A lot of people hear that and say 'that's horrendous'," Chaffey says, "and I can see their point, but the way I look at it, if you put him in jail or sentence him to death it wouldn't make any difference to my injury."
Forever the optimist, Chaffey is the ultimate glass-half-full type of guy.
"The spinal cord actually finishes between the L1 and L2 vertebrae. I broke both those bones and so it damaged the spinal cord right at the very base, which paralysed my left leg, though my right leg has 90% function," Chaffey says. "I use the wheelchair to get around but I can stand on my right leg.
"It could've been a hell of a lot worse. I could've been a complete quadriplegic. I could've been a paraplegic. Or I could've been dead."
So while plans to compete at Foster had to be scrapped while he completed five months of rehabilitation, there was no stopping his competitive juices.
"I didn't want to be that guy who gave up, put on weight, and watched daytime TV and felt sorry for myself," he said.
Chaffey first had the idea to compete in wheelchair racing - before contacting Paralympian John Maclean, who told him not to worry about "this wheelchair racing rubbish, get straight back into triathlon". "It was just all go from there," he says.
Chaffey's comeback came at the Gold Coast half-ironman in 2008, though organisers were slightly concerned as they "never had a wheelchair athlete in their race before", and wondered whether he would be able to handle the event.
"To get through that, defy the odds, and prove to myself, more than to anybody else, that I could ... it was a case of let's see what else I can do."
That "what else" was winning his first paratriathlon world championship, again on the Gold Coast, in 2009, then three more in a row from 2011 (in Beijing), 2012 (Auckland) and 2013 (London) and a fifth in Chicago last year.
He probably would have won in 2014 too had it not been for a training mishap near his home a week from the titles in Edmonton, breaking two bones in his pelvis.
"It was such a nothing accident," he said. "One of my wheels dropped over the side of the footpath."
Chaffey, who works three days a week at the Tweed Heads police station, assisting the police prosecutor, is now setting his sights on Paralympic gold, with paratriathlon finally included in the Games schedule for Rio in September.
He secured Australia's place in the event when he won last year's world title, but now he must ensure he's the man flying the flag by maintaining his national No.1 ranking until May. It appears a formality.
He has the Oceania championships in Devonport next month, followed by a return to Mooloolaba, where he is a regular, in March, a meet in Penrith in April and finally the world titles in Yokohama in May, before national selectors make choices for Rio.
Wife Vanessa and girls Heidi, 12, and Amity, 10, have already "got their accommodation all booked and paid for".
Chaffey admits Vanessa wasn't initially enamoured with him continuing in the sport "because it's what caused the injury". "But she quickly saw that it kept me going. She even took up the sport herself. She comes to the little comp tris at Murwillumbah, and so do the kids. Everyone's a part of it now."
They are unquestionably Chaffey's biggest fans. Autographs not required.
Making it's Paralympics debut in Rio, paratriathlon consists of a 750m swim, 20km cycle (using a handcycle) and 5km run (using a wheelchair).
It will be held at Copacabana Beach, where Chaffey won the Games test event last August. Chaffey's powerful arms propel him, but he admits he struggles with shoulder injuries because "they do all the work".