The beach mat that changes everything

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TWO Saturdays ago Jim Kolokithas turned his wheelchair along a strip of plastic matting down to the water’s edge at Mt Martha beach.

“It was amazing; a good feeling,” he said.  “I got a bit emotional just sitting there.”

The emotion was not just for himself, but for the other disabled people who will now be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of crossing a beach to the water.

With the new matting being regularly rolled out in front of Mt Martha Lifesaving Club the soft sand will no longer be an insurmountable obstacle for narrow-tyred wheelchairs.

Although Jim Kolokithas mostly gets around in a wheelchair, he is no stranger to swapping land transport to being on the water.

He water skis, sails a modified kitesurfer (it has a seat) and can manage to crawl across the sand if he wants a swim.

But it’s the benefits of the matting for the less able that made the matting so special.

“I’m in Melbourne now [he says by phone on Friday] and there’s not really any place I can’t venture off to by myself because of improvements with ramps and getting rid of steps. Water – the beach – is the next place to make accessible for all.”

Mr Kolokithas is one of about eight disabled kitesurfers in the world.

He is at the forefront of designing the modifications necessary – a seat and quick release mechanism – to make the sport disabled-friendly and hopes more people will take it up “now that sailing is no longer in the Paralympics”.

“Kitesurfing is the only sport I can see these guys transitioning to,” he said.

Mr Kolokithas said he took up kitesurfing after his accident “because it was the only sport I’d really wanted to do but never had time for [because of business]”.

Apart from refining changes to the actual board in conjunction with colleagues in Europe, Mr Kolokithas is now working on a trolley to transport the rig into the water. “Launching and retrieving is the most difficult part of kitesurfing.”

Before coming off his bike he went scuba diving and was a water skier and snow skier and had ridden motorbikes since he was seven.

The accident that nearly killed him happened when he fell off a dirt bike in sand dunes near Robe, in South Australia.

“It [the ride] just went pear shaped, there was other vehicle involved,” he said.

“I couldn’t breath and was fighting for my life; paralysis was the last thing on my mind. I had a collapsed right lung and five broken ribs.”

While being transported to hospital the main thing he wanted was to get home to his three sons and wife, who was pregnant with their fourth child (another boy).

Mr Kolokithas says his paralysis “is T10 on the ASIA scale, the worst you can be at that level”.

The accident also led to the loss of his fruit and vegetable home delivery business which employed 18 people.

“But I think now that I am somehow fortunate, although everyone has their own perspective. I have a lot of family time and life couldn’t be better.”

He also sees “this time in history” as “a bit of a blessing because before now disabled couldn’t access anything”.

“Quite a few councils are being proactive and providing access to water, the last frontier.”

First published in the Mornington News – 6 December 2016

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