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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

NT rider one step away from representing Australia

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

ABOVE: Luke and his horse Mt Weld Resilience. Picture: DARWIN PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY

IF determination has anything to do with it, Darwin's Luke Purtill, whose mum says he has as much hardware in his body as “the bionic man”, may be riding for Australia in Germany next year.

Luke, 22, has been selected in a team to compete at the National Games for athletes with an intellectual disability in Queensland next month because as well as his physical challenges, he was also born with a genetic intellectual impairment that was not diagnosed until he was 16.

The games are a qualifier for the 2023 World Games being held in Berlin.

“Luke’s goals are to be selected to represent Australia at the Special Olympic World Games,” his mum, Robyn, said.

“What a thrill it would be to ride for Australia.

“It’s not just about winning though. Luke knows he wins every time he gets on a horse and would like to inspire every rider, regardless of ability to have the courage to reach for their dreams and be the best you can be.”

Luke will be representing Queensland because neither Para, for athletes with a physical disability, or Special events are offered in the Northern Territory, which means that Luke has only ever competed in mainstream competition locally.

Robyn says this was never an issue as it was obvious Luke was a ‘horse boy’ before he could even sit up.

He had the advantage of being born into a horsey family, which meant he was on and around horses from the moment he was born. Robyn said she could get all sorts of things done by parking Luke’s pram next to the fence and he would sit there mesmerised by whatever the horses were doing.

ABOVE: Two gold medals! Special Olympics state championships 2021.

He got his first pony when he was three, a delightful 9hh Shetland called Anni. He loved riding so much he would often cry when it was time to get off and his parents would have to watch that he didn’t fall asleep while riding.

Luke went off to pony club and moved through a succession of ponies until he was finally off the lead and riding independently. Pony club was a valuable resource in Luke’s formative riding years and his family is very grateful for the opportunity.

In 2017 Luke was offered the opportunity to represent the NT at the Riding for Disabled National Championships being held at Werribee in Victoria.

He travelled with other riders from Alice Springs and was provided with a horse for him to ride. It was Luke’s first interstate competition trip and he came home with a first and second place rosette in the trot division.

His success made his family think about pathways and opportunities for riders with intellectual impairment and Luke joined Special Olympics Gold Coast, and hasn’t looked back.

In November 2020, Luke won the Delivering Dreams Scholarship provided by Equestrian Hub magazine. Part of the scholarship was for coaching and mentoring with Queensland-based coach Tanja Mitton.

Tanja has been instrumental in enabling Luke to ride as straight and evenly as he can, given the crookedness of his skeletal system.

“I couldn’t actually tell you the number of surgeries he has had, I lost count long ago,” Robyn said.

“I’ve also lost track of the interstate hospital trips and the weeks and months spent in and out of hospital here and interstate. His two most confronting surgeries were to correct severe scoliosis of his spine. He has had rods inserted and his spine is fused from T3 (base of neck) to L4 (lumbar). He was 2.54cm taller after his first surgery than before it.

ABOVE: At the Special Olympics state championships.

“He’s actually a bit of a bionic man with bits and pieces of hardware throughout his body, including his knee, his elbow, his heart and of course the rods in his back.”

Luke attended the Special Olympics Queensland State Championships in March 2021 and bought home two gold medals in the canter division despite being the only rider in his class on a pool horse.

Early this year, Special Olympics Queensland announced the state team that would compete at the 2022 National Games at Burpengary on September 11-12 and Luke was selected.

He is training hard with his local coach Nicole Mutimer, of the NT Institute of Equestrian Sport, as well as riding a range of horses to enhance his skill and build confidence for riding pool horses.

“Luke is very well supported by not only the NT equestrian community but also the wider NT community and we cannot put enough emphasis on how important this support is and how much we appreciate it,” Robyn said.

“We acknowledge that Luke has a disability but this is not what defines him. There are so many more things that he can do than he can’t. In fact, with the right supports, there is almost nothing Luke can’t do if he puts his mind to it.

“This will be the first time a Territorian has competed in Equestrian at a Special Olympics National Qualifier – I know we are going to hear the NT cheering all the way in Queensland!”

ABOVE: Competing in the Australia Day dressage competition in Darwin this year.

The Special Olympics were first held in the US in 1968. In Australia the movement has been going since 1976. Click here for more information on the Equestrian discipline.

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