Julie Van Keulen brought Paralympic Gold to Tasmania at a time when para-sport was only just gaining attention. Julie did this through determination and sheer hard work, and the motivation that led her to sporting success then, still shines through today.
We caught up with Julie to highlight the women we think have amazing stories to tell, in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Julie Van Keulen (formerly Dowling) is a Paralympian, a World Record Holder, a business owner, mother, grandmother and more.
She has a zest for life and believes that for her, and other women, goals can be achieved if you give it your best shot.
Always active, Julie enjoyed any sport she could get involved in at school. When she was 16, she was in a car crash and sustained a Spinal Cord Injury that resulted in paraplegia.
‘At first I thought it was the end of the world,’ Julie explained.
‘There was a lot of frustration … I wanted to say to people “I can do this, you don’t have to help me”. At the same time access in Tasmania was not a good as it is today. I often couldn’t go out because there were stairs everywhere and no accessible toilets. And there were no role models.
‘But I became determined that this (injury) wasn’t going to stop me.’
Finding opportunities in para-sport in Tasmania lacking, Julie had to make her own way – she contacted a high school sports teacher to become her coach and chose field sports, javelin, shot put and discus, as her way back into activity.
Julie threw herself into training and made it the National Para Quad Games in 1981, where she won three gold medals in her three events – and broke Australian records.
Talk soon turned to international competition and after more hard work Julie was selected for the 1982 Far Eastern and Pacific Games in Hong Kong. There she won medals in javelin, shot put and discus and her first world record in the javelin.
Another world record in javelin followed at the 1983 World Games in the UK, a throw of 17.52 metres.
‘I will always keep that dear to my heart – it was mine, and I know that I did that. It was a special time for me in my life.’
The 1984 Paralympics was the next event on Julie’s radar.
‘That’s what I really wanted to do, I set my goals to get selected on that ‘84 team.’
And how did Julie feel when she found out she’d made the Australian team?
‘Just joyous – I cried. I couldn’t believe it. I knew my distances were good, but the reality, it was amazing and also scary. I was going away with a team I didn’t know very well.’
Julie’s performance defied any concerns and won gold in the javelin and broke a Paralympic record. She also finished fourth in the shot put and discus.
After the Paralympics, Julie was keen to switch sports and pursue wheelchair basketball, with her eye on the Australian team.
‘Marriage and starting a family were also a priority,’ Julie added.
‘I was asked to come along to a training weekend in Melbourne, which was great, and I enjoyed training with other women. Not that far in the future was the beginning of international women’s wheelchair basketball … but I fell pregnant, and basketball was put aside.
‘I played again, but only at a local level with fun, competitive weekly meets and comps with South and Northwest. I don’t regret my decision, but I do think it would have been awesome.’
While raising three children, one of whom has cerebral palsy and severe hearing loss, Julie worked in the family business, a plant nursery in northern Tasmania.
‘That was a chance to show people that this girl has ability and is getting on and doing as much as she can,’ Julie explained.
Julie also worked for ParaQuad Tasmania, educating students about Spinal Cord Injury, and supporting children with physical disability to get involved in sport.
Along with way Julie’s received numerous formal accolades. She received the British Empire Award in 1985 for her services to athletics and her achievements as an athlete with a disability and in 2005 was inducted into the Tasmanian Sporting Hall of Fame.
‘That was pretty special … I hope it gave a lot of younger up and coming women the thought that “you can do it too.”’
And there’s plenty more Julie wants to do. After some challenges in recent years with spinal surgeries, she’s now thinking about how best she can give back to the Tasmanian community.
‘I do feel that even for older women there is always something out there.
‘I just say to women, “you go for it, there’s nothing stopping you.”’
Fabulous advice this International Women’s Day.