Skip to main content

Member Profile Series - Introducing ... Neil Tonkin


Introducing Neil Tonkin

Neil's life changed at 4.30pm on Sunday 6 November 1977 when, as an 18 year old youth, something happened on the way home from work & he woke up in a fence on the side of the Haywards to Porirua road (SH58).  

He had multiple spinal injuries and a major dislocation between T11 & T12.  This meant Neil was a complete paraplegic.  

Neil's accident happened such a long time ago that the now Burwood Spinal Unit was simply called 13B at located at Christchurch Hospital.  Neil recalls hearing the rats running around the ceiling during the night, and13B being so primitive that you “graduated” from having your own room to sleeping in the ward laundry when they ran out of space. Neil is a good storyteller so we're not sure if this is fact or ficton! 

In the 40+ years ago since his accident, the improvements to care, treatment & equipment has been extraordinary. Despite the primitive & now obsolete systems at 13B, most of the patients (or gimps as Neil fondly calls them) have good memories due to a real camaraderie between the patients & the staff.  According to Neil, "Cos, the head physio, was as tough as nails & never took “no” for an answer.  She could be demanding but loved & cared for us all.  Gimps of my vintage all respected & loved her!"

Neil was always active & saw no reason why he wouldn’t stay that way after his accident.  While motor cycling & tramping were no longer possible most other things merely meant modifying how he went about it.  After five months in the spinal unit he came back to Wellington wondering what to do with his life.  

Through Parafed Wellington (now dsport), he got to know a number of other disabled people.  Eve Rimmer published her book “No grass between my toes” around this time & it convinced him that he wanted to be a disabled athlete.  Neil moved with my family to Christchurch. He was lucky to have three things in his favour.  Firstly, he had a supportive extended family that encouraged whatever ambitions he had.  Neil said "I cannot recall my family ever questioning the wisdom of any of my ideas or ventures".  Secondly, he joined Parafed Canterbury & was blessed to come under the wing of Paralympian Graham Condon whose first words are burned into his memory, “you’re a bit scrawny aren’t you.  Have you thought about wheelchair racing".  Neil never looked back.  Thirdly, he was accepted into the first ever degree in Receation Management at Lincoln University graduating in 1981.

Neil's advice is never underestimate the value of supportive mentors.  Without his whanau, without Graham and without the principal course lecturer Alan Taylor, he would not have started what was to become a successful career & life.  

Within a year, Neil was breaking national wheelchair racing records & “running” over 100km per week in his wheelchair, no sports wheelchair for him.  By 1981, he was NZ’s top wheelchair racer at every distance from 200m up to the marathon.  Fortunately, Neil also became involved in competitive wheelchair basketball & pistol shooting as wheelchair racing bcame a bit more challenging when he moved back to Wellington.

Despite the Wellington conditions, Neil built his own specialist racing chair, joined an athletics club and competed in regional athletic races at Newtown Park continually improving my times.  To get around training on dark & dangerous roads, he set up rollers in his garage and enjoyed the opportunity to train out there after a full day at work. 

But it turned out Neil's real passion was wheelchair basketball.  In the late 1980's there were enough players for Wellington to have a competitive league of four teams, played at the Porirua Recreation Centre every Monday night.  The highlight was winning the Nationals Championships in 1988 with the most disabled team in the competition's history.  In 1987, a number of players attended the World Wheelchair Basketball Championships in Australia.  According to Neil, that was a revelation.  The chairs those guys used were almost science fiction in comparison with the chairs they played in.  

Two things stood out for Neil.  One was a Dutch player with CP. Despite his hands and arms constantly shaking, it took only one shot from him to see why he was there.  He was the Dutch 3 point shooter!  He was unbelievably accurate while seemingly looking in a different direction.  He was a great example of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”!  The other was the Yugoslav team whose equipment was primitive at best and every one of them seemed to a misfit.  They were brilliant!  They were a great team without any of the resources of the other 11 teams in the tournament yet came painfully close to reaching the semi-finals.  They showed adversity doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.  

Neil did regain his outdoor experiences, not by tramping but through whitewater rafting, including becoming a Grade 3 qualified Guide.  Rafting was a revelation as it gave himaccess to wilderness that was incredibly inaccessible even to able-bodied people.  Always an advocate for his region, Neil believes one of the finest rafting rivers in NZ is the Hutt River from Kaitoki to Te Marua!  While rafting isn't for everyone Neil loved it and it took him places that otherwise were simply unavailable to him.  

He considered myself “lucky” when in 1981, he was appointed as Porirua City Council's first Recreation Officer.  This was the beginning of Neil's professional career is recreation and sport management. After Porirua, I worked for the Hillary Commission (now Sport NZ) from 1989 to 1992, and then the Hutt City Council from 1992 until he retired in 2002.  

Today Neil still keeps active using a stationary hand cycle for exercise with up to five half hour sessions each week, as well as doing a lot of volunteer work using his professional experience & expertise. He also keeps busy propagating vegetable and NZ native seedlings, beekeeping and building horizontal hives for other disabled people to use, and keeping on top of his own gardening on his lifestyle block and managing/killing “pests” and enhancing native fauna.

In his own words, this is what Neil has learnt over his 40+ years:

  • Firstly, it doesn’t matter what you do if it’s enjoyable to you so long as it’s legal.  I loved the endless training when I was competitive despite it seeming to be incredibly boring.  Because I loved it, I did it!  Because I did it I got very good at it.  Find what pushes your buttons & you’ll never look back.  Try everything at least once.  You may be surprised at what does “push your buttons”.   
  • Secondly, don’t let others set your limits.  Set them yourself - just be realistic.  You can achieve way beyond what you may initially have believed possible!  Until I started rafting, it never crossed my mind that I could once again experience true wilderness.  I get frustrated at seeing great potential of so many people not being set free.  
  • Thirdly, a touch of mongrel is always helpful.  I am stubborn & I am opinionated but it works for me and what I’m involved in.  Don’t drift into the grey nothingness of neither victory nor defeat.  Fight for what you want.  Prove it to yourself!  Adversity is not a barrier it is merely a hurdle to overcome.  
  • Disabled people today have access to opportunities that were simply impossible even 20 years ago.  Take advantage of it & it will make you stronger, faster, more able and open doors for you including representing your region or nation if that’s what you want.  Just do it!