Dan Buckingham

In 1999 my life went down a different path than I had in mind, when, as an 18 year old first year Otago Uni student, I ended up putting my head in the wrong place in a scrum during a game of club footy. The other day I was asked would I take back that day if I could… someone looking for a sound bite, a nice little expected answer of how lucky I am and how I would never take it back, as so many doors have been opened and so many experiences have been had… blah, blah, blah…
I hate performing to expectations and delivering cliché’s but this time round it is true. I wouldn’t take back that day.
I’m 32 now, and there have been many twists and turns along the way. Some subtle, some not so subtle… but all life changing. To take any of these moments back would create a whole new reality – I would have been shaped into a different person.

I guess paths in life are fluid and forever changing, and it’s hard to imagine what may have happened if I hadn’t acquired my disability over a decade ago.
Of all the possible alternate realities that could have been triggered from events before that day, because of that day, or decisions made after that day, this reality is not a bad one at all… but I’m sure any other path along the way would have been great as well! It’s all about running with what life throws at us. It’s a privilege to be here and, come what may, I want to make the most of every living, breathing moment.
Getting a bit deep and philosophical on it now… so I’ll go back to a nice little linear timeline of some of the highlights since the day I had my rugby injury.

The injury that happened all those years ago means I am now a tetraplegic, which basically means I’m paralysed from the chest down, and I have lost a small amount of function in my hands. I broke my neck at the 6th and 7th vertebrae level, which in turn damaged my spinal cord as the vertebrae fractured and dislocated. It all happened while I was living the student life in Dunedin, studying Surveying at Otago Uni.
It became a time to reinvent myself, and a career in Surveying was one of the first things to go out the door. I dabbled in a few other subjects and took time out to travel, a little backpacking through Europe and a few months in the USA. Finally I settled on moving to Christchurch and studying Journalism at the University of Canterbury.
The years following were a dream run where my life revolved around a mix of study, sport and travel.
Wheelchair rugby became a huge part of my life. I played for teams around the globe, spending up to 6 months away at a time playing on the American circuit. Most importantly, I got to represent my country with the Wheel Blacks, touring places like South Africa, Japan, Sweden and Canada with my teammates. We even had a tournament in my home town of Invercargill – Epic! I was part of the team that won Gold at the Athens Paralympics; 8 years on it’s still an achievement I struggle to put into words in terms of the feelings it evokes and what it means for those of us who were there.

Since those golden times, to put it bluntly, we’ve struggled for the last few years. Following Athens we had a couple of years riding the wave of success that comes with being number one in the world – everything was laid on for us and we were treated like heroes.
Then came the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. It was a bit of a rocky road leading into the games, but the team managed to go into the competition ranked 2nd in the world. However, another Gold was not to be as we lost our first two games by one point in each game. It was heart breaking, pure and simple.
With the value of hindsight, the losses and eventual 5th place result were analysed by everyone that suddenly felt they were an expert on the inner workings of our unique team. However, I still stand by my initial assessment I imparted in a post match interview. The campaign had been an intense, analytical, and often negatively focussed…. when asked courtside by Keith Quinn what went wrong, my answer was ‘The fun got sucked out of it’.
In reality, in the world of high performance sport, what we lost by was barely negligible… a different bounce to the ball, a referee’s call going the other way… any little incidental moment played out over those two first games could have changed the result in our favour and taken us through to the medal rounds. Instead we went from hero, to zero. Funding was cut, our coach called it quits, and players retired. Tough times – we became under-funded, under-travelled and under-trained. Results reflected the monetary support we received… not good. 
Throughout all these dramatic points… all this rugby and going back to the build up to Athens… studying gelled perfectly with my lifestyle. My schedule remained flexible, but more importantly my brain remained engaged amidst the training, traveling and competing.

However as studies drew to a close, I felt the need to keep my feet on the ground and begin a career. Throughout my communications degree I had always figured I would get in to writing, but an opportunity to be involved with a TV show made it an easy decision to move to Auckland at the end of 2007. Attitude is a show for and about people with disabilities, broadcast on TV ONE.

While I was training for Beijing, I was balancing starting this new career. Not easy, but all worth it… and when the wheels fell off in Beijing I was glad to have something else in my life to fall back on.
Starting as a researcher, I quickly worked my way through the ranks to become Associate Producer of the company. Easy to roll this transition of the tongue, but the reality was a lot of hours and a lot of hard work… but I was driven to do it by a strong belief in what we were trying to achieve for people with disabilities through the show, and also out of loyalty and thankfulness to the Producer who gave me the opportunity to do it in the first place… essentially going to work felt like a privilege. It was also the people, the places… the sights and the situations I find myself in that made it all worthwhile. Filming took me from the beautiful tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, following their only athlete to have ever won a medal at any Paralympic or Olympic Games, to the sad sights of Christchurch following the big quake where everything, everywhere I looked was affected. 

In the end however it was a tough balance, juggling training with work, not to mention finding time for everything else that is part of the rich tapestry of life. As 2012 came to an end I decided not to sign on for another year with Attitude. The number one reason was health… my body was struggling to keep it together… so much so I didn’t realise until after I stopped how good it felt to have time. Now I feel I am getting my energy back, I am looking forward to things in the day instead of seeing another hassle to get through and I am feeling the drive to do more once again… Life feels like it is slowing down nicely after being too busy for too long.
From here, who knows… I do know I want to be part of a Wheel Black team that once again succeeds, and I want to get back to work in some form or another… but I want to be a little more tempered in what I bite off to chew, staying healthy and having time to enjoy life along the way.

Whatever happens, it’s great to know the Rugby Foundation is forever there, waiting in the background with support for whatever’s needed.