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Joan, 90, takes her shot at athletics dream

13 April 2017

Until a few months ago, Brisbane’s Joan Solaga had never seen a discus, a shotput or a javelin, let alone thrown one.

Now with the support of her family, a team of trainers and Vision Australia, 90-year-old Joan is a late-blooming athletics star.

Joan, who has low vision caused by age-related macular degeneration, will compete at the games this week in the discus, shotput, javelin and the 1500-metre walk.

Her daughter Margie Simpson says Joan was affected by macular degeneration in both eyes seven years ago.

“She was devastated because she couldn’t even pour Dad a cup of tea,” Margie says.

Macular degeneration occurs when the macula at the centre of the retina becomes damaged, causing loss of central vision and affecting activities including reading, writing and examining objects in fine detail.

Margie connected Joan with Vision Australia in Brisbane. Through that, an occupational therapist visited Joan and supplied a range of gadgets to assist her around the house.

Joan and her husband Bob, a World War II veteran with health issues including spinal stenosis, were the “dynamic duo”, Margie says.

“He was her eyes and she looked after his physical needs. She lost her sight but she took to it with all guns blazing.”

Joan became active in Vision Australia’s Quality Living Program, a series of client support groups that can help to alleviate feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration they may have following vision loss. Eventually, she became a peer leader in the program.

She is a voracious user of Vision Australia’s low vision library and has embraced Telelink, a program in which groups of up to 10 blind or low vision participants and a facilitator chat via a conference call about a shared interest.

The groups cover a vast range of topics – from sports, cooking to politics and languages to crossword puzzles and trivia.

Joan says she joined the crossword group and now participates in two bible study groups a week, crediting support from Vision Australia and the Telelink groups with improving her confidence.

“It’s absolutely wonderful. You’ve got all these friends all around Australia and, just talking to them, you get to know them so well. It’s just so encouraging,” she says.

That confidence was severely dented when Bob died 2½ years ago, Margie says.

“She really dropped her bundle,” she says.

“She couldn’t get around without her cane or someone holding her hand.”

But Joan says she did not want to become a burden on anyone.

“I don’t want to be one of these old ladies that pushes a pusher around and walks with a walking stick and a bent back,” she says.

She could not read or write but retained enough vision to live independently in her own home. She says she became unsteady on her feet because of her sight.

Keen to become fitter and avoid falls, Joan consulted her GP, who suggested pilates to boost her strength and confidence.

Joan began visiting Peak Sports and Spinal Centre, near her home. She now visits twice a week to work out with trainer Michael Dawson.

“I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s really strengthened my core. They’re the ones that made me so strong,” Joan says.

Michael encouraged her to set fitness goals as she trained and has achieved both major milestones so far with her family cheering her on: a walk up Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Steps and climbing the Storey Bridge.

Through support from Emma, Annabelle and Margie, she jets off to achieve her latest goal, the World Masters Games, next week.

Joan says she played netball and tennis when she was younger, and tried lawn bowls later in life, but never thought of herself as athletic.

Separate volunteer trainers look after her progress in the field events, while a team of supporters keeps her walking each day on top of her pilates sessions.

Joan says she can now hurl a standard shotput around three metres. Joan says Emma, Annabelle and Margie are her biggest fans.

“They’ve all decided what medals I’m bringing back for them, but I just want to compete,” Joan says.

“There’s an ulterior motive, too. I get another trip to New Zealand. I love New Zealand.”

Joan says Vision Australia gave her the confidence to test herself.

“I cannot praise Vision Australia and their services enough. They are all so caring and so understanding. It makes life for so many people worthwhile.”

Margie says: “It’s so fortunate that Vision Australia and Peak gave her the skills and the confidence to do all this. Mum is so strong now.

“Her story is very inspirational to a lot of people because her attitude is to have a go. You don’t have to be the best as long as you do your best.”

Find out how Vision Australia can support you to live the life you choose. Phone us on 1300 84 74 66 or email Vision Australia here

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