Eino Okkonen has been honoured with Life Membership by Wheelchair Sports NSW (WSNSW) in recognition of the years of service he has dedicated to wheelchairs sports in the Illawarra.
Okkonen was injured in a motor vehicle accident in 1996 and just a year later joined Wheelchair Sports NSW.
Okkonen has been instrumental in the running of wheelchair basketball in the Illawarra starting with the establishment of the Roller Hawks National Wheelchair Basketball League team in 2001, the first regional team in the league, as well as the Slam Down Under, Australia’s biggest wheelchair basketball tournament and the recently introduced Masters Slam in 2015.
Fellow Life Member Errol Hyde nominated Okkonen at the WSNSW’s 2016 Annual General Meeting and spoke glowingly of his friend’s contribution to wheelchair sports.
“Eino and some other guys had been travelling at least twice a week up to Sydney and back from Wollongong to play with the Hills Hornets. Eino shocked me and probably others too when he said ‘I’m going to start a national wheelchair basketball team in Wollongong.”
“I thought, does he realise that requires a coach, a coach that knows quite a bit about basketball and understands the aesthetics of using a wheelchair?”
“Does he know he’s going to need a squad of at least 8 to start with? If you’re going to travel interstate you’re not legally allowed to compete unless you’ve got at least 8 players in the squad, preferably 10 or 12.”
“Does he know they’re meant to be able to play basketball a bit? Does he know they’re going to need somewhere to train and play? Does he know it’s going to cost a lot of money?”
“Not just for the uniform and to hire the stadium, but interstate travel, airfares, accommodation, vehicles.”
Hyde then threw it over to Eino, “Did you know all that?”
“Of course!” replied Okkonen with a wry smile.
Okkonen was humble in receiving the award and said wheelchair sport had done much more for him than he had ever done for it.
“After I got injured I was lost,” said Okkonen. “Wheelchair sport was a saviour for me. When I got on court, there was no pain, there was no depression, there was no disability, there was a purpose and I made lots of friends.”
“And you don’t realise how much sport does for you. Wheelchair sports is a life saver for a lot people.”
Okkonen read out Wheelchair Sports NSW’s own mission statement as something that he lives by and drives him to do the work that he does.
“To richen the lives of people with a disability through participation in sport. To provide a range of fully supported programs and opportunities for persons of all ages and abilities to engage with our members and be responsive to their needs, build strong and strategic relationships with community and government to ensure sustainability and promote awareness’ That is so powerful.” said Okkonen.
Okkonen highlighted the new programs being introduced in the Illawarra including the Roller Hawks’ entry level program to help those new to the game learn how to play.
“There needs to something for every level and there’s so much more work to do.”
Okkonen is just the 13th person to receive Life Membership in Wheelchair Sports NSW’s 55 year history.