Former Surf Lifesaver of the Year Gus McConnel believes welcoming three new beach access devices at the Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club will be “life-changing”.
The devices known as Freedom Trax are a motorised wheelchair track attachment developed to convert a manual wheelchair into an off-road vehicle, allowing easy travel on sand.
The new addition is set to make Bar Beach the first coastline in Australia to offer this opportunity.
The heavy-duty metal attachment, powered by a rechargeable lithium ion 24-volt battery, attaches to a wheelchair offering independent all-terrain, multi-directional movement from a joystick.
For Mr McConnel, the device offers a chance to return to a place that brings him joy.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said.
“It’s about getting me and my chair down on the beach.
“I’m on the beach, I can move myself around, and I don’t have to rely on someone else to get my eyes out of the sun, or give me a push, or lift me down to the sand.
“It’s seriously life-changing.”
In 2011 Mr McConnel won the Surf Lifesaver of the Year award.
Just two years later, in 2013, he was left a paraplegic after a tragic bike accident.
“I was on a pushbike heading towards the surf club,” he said.
“A car turned across me and I wrote the car off. Spinal cord injury.”
A horrific accident, he says, deserves a positive outcome.
“It’s not all bad because I’m probably the reason the surf club became so inclusive,” he said.
“I went from being involved in everything in the club to all of a sudden not being able to participate in any of it because I couldn’t get to the beach.
“It’s like immediately everyone jumped into action and before we knew it we had ramps put in and chairs, and a lift.
“When we first turned soil on the new part of the building Kurt Fearnley was here and he made a speech and he said ‘As bad as this accident was for Gus and his family, it was the best thing to happen for the wheelchair community’.”
The 49-year-old father says the three new beach access devices support the club’s commitment to “getting everyone who wants to, on that beach”.
The devices were initially identified by the surf club’s Same Waves volunteer, John Mayo, who initially thought the $10,000 cost was unachievable.
However, with the support of Port Waratah Coal, Hunter Care Group and Orica, Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club is now the first surf club in Australia to boast access for all beachgoers.