Paralympic Legends Remembered for Pioneering Spirit and Ever-Lasting Impact

Australian Paralympic legends Kevin Coombs OAM PLY and Tracey Freeman passed away this week 05 Oct 2023
Kevin Coombs OAM receives PLY certificate from Jock O’Callaghan, President of Paralympics Australia
Kevin Coombs OAM receives PLY certificate from Jock O’Callaghan, President of Paralympics Australia
ⒸParalympics Australia
By Paralympics Australia & IPC

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Paralympics Australia (PA) are deeply saddened by the passing of Paralympic legend Kevin Coombs OAM PLY, a pioneer who made an indelible mark on Australian sport.

In 2022, he was the first Paralympian in the world to be bestowed with the PLY post-nominals by the IPC.

Coombs, who was the first Indigenous athlete to represent Australia at a Paralympic or Olympic Games, passed away surrounded by loved ones on Thursday.

It continues a period of mourning for PA and the Paralympic movement following the passing earlier this week of another Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee, Tracey Freeman.

Paralympics Australia President Alison Creagh said the contributions of Coombs and Freeman to the Paralympic movement could not be overstated.

“Our deepest condolences are with the families, friends, loved ones of Kevin and Tracey as well as everyone within the Paralympic movement who will be affected by their passing,” Creagh said.

“Kevin and Tracey were inducted into the Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame at the same ceremony in 2016 and to lose two legends within days of each other makes this a very difficult time for the Australian Paralympic movement.

"Kevin was a trailblazer who embodied the true spirit of the Paralympic movement. His contributions, both on and off the court, have had a profound impact on Australian Para-sport and he will forever be remembered as an inspiration to Australian athletes, not just those with a disability. His legacy will continue to inspire generations to come.

“As the first female athlete from Australia to win a Paralympic gold medal in athletics, Tracey blazed a trail for future icons of our movement, like Louise Sauvage and Madison de Rozario, to follow. After her two appearances at the Paralympic Games, Tracey remains one of the most dominant athletes that Australian Paralympic sport has ever produced.”

Paralympics Australia Chief Executive, Catherine Clark, said the loss of such influential members of the Australian Paralympic movement will be deeply felt by many.

“We have lost two incredible people and two giants of our movement,” Clark said.

"Kevin's ongoing connection to every generation of Australian Paralympian, from the 1960s to the present day, is a testament to his enduring influence. His dedication and passion as an athlete, along with his leadership roles as a captain, coach and mentor in later years, endeared him to everyone he engaged with and showcased his commitment to excellence.

“Kevin's contributions have not only raised the profile of Para-sport but have also paved the way for future generations who will go on to enjoy opportunity and success on the platform that Kevin and his team-mates built so strongly and so bravely in the early days of Paralympic sport.

“Like Kevin, Tracey’s achievements have also withstood the test of time. More than four decades have passed since Tracey last competed at a Paralympic Games, but her legacy as one of Australia's all-time leading Paralympic medallists continues to inspire and motivate athletes to reach new heights in Para-sport.” Clark said.


Pioneer for Australia

Coombs represented Australia at five Paralympic Games, beginning as one of 12 Australian athletes selected for the first Paralympic Games in Rome 1960. He went to compete at Tel Aviv, 1968, Heidelberg 1972, Arnhem 1980 and 1984 New York/Stoke Mandeville, serving as captain of the men’s wheelchair basketball teams in 1972 and 1984 and captain of the entire Australian Paralympic Team in 1980.

Coombs' remarkable career was fittingly recognised by numerous awards and honours.

He was invited to carry the Paralympic torch into the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, and an avenue in Sydney Olympic Park bears his name, ensuring that his legacy will always be present in the heart of Australian Paralympic history. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1983, the Australian Sports Medal in 2000 was inducted into the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame in 2007.

In the same year he was inducted into the Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame, Paralympics Australia also established the Uncle Kevin Coombs Medal for the Spirit of the Games, which honours Australian Paralympians who exemplify the same spirit and determination that Coombs displayed throughout his career. It is awarded by PA at the end of every Paralympic Games year.

Major success

In her two Paralympic appearances, Freeman achieved success that propelled her inside the top three of Australia’s most successful Paralympians to that point. Forty-seven years after her final Paralympic Games, her six gold medals now place her in 12th position on the all-time list of Australian Paralympic gold medal winners.

At the 1972 Heidelberg Paralympics, Freeman won three gold medals and broke world records in the discus, javelin and shot put along with two silver medals in the 60m wheelchair sprint and wheelchair slalom events. Four years later at the 1976 Toronto Games, she won three gold medals and three world records in the 60m wheelchair sprint, javelin and shot put and two silver medals in the discus and wheelchair slalom events.

Freeman received an Australian Sports Medal in 2000 before her induction into the Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2016.