Meet Shem Aitken

Golf is good for Shem’s mind, body and soul

For many people living with a disability, what they really crave is a feeling of normality and inclusion. Shem Aitken, a 34-year-old insurance broker from the Gold Coast, found that feeling through golf.
An occasional golfer before he lost the use of both legs in a car accident in 2004, Shem is convinced the game has in many ways given him a new lease of life.

The relationship between mental and physical health is well established, and for Shem a round of golf is the ultimate endorphin boost.

He can feed his new-found passion for golf thanks to the ParaGolfer, a pioneering piece of equipment which enables its user to stand upright and fully swing a club.

It wasn’t an instant success, as Shem’s first tee shot – perhaps inevitably after a 15-year-absence from the fairways – ended up in the trees. But as he reveals, the quality of golf was of very little consequence that day – all that mattered was the joy and sense of freedom it brought him.

“Almost immediately, I found a passion I’d been looking for ever since my accident,” he recalls.

“I’ve played many different disability sports, but none of them resonated with me nearly as much as golf has. I’ve tried out wheelchair tennis and rugby, and I represented Australia in outrigger canoeing three years ago. Our team came away with the gold medal in one of the events, which was obviously a highlight but none of it has given me as much satisfaction as golf has. After that first attempt with the ParaGolfer, I was hooked for life.

“It was just an incredible feeling. Inevitably I sliced my first shot, but the feeling of normality and inclusion was priceless. Cruising round the course with my Dad and my brother, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. It was a moment I will never forget, and that happiness is replicated every time I play.”
Whilst Shem doesn’t get out on the course as often as he’d like – a situation not helped by the COVID pandemic – his last round of golf was a highly commendable effort as he covered the front nine at the Gold Coast’s RACV Royal Pines Resort in 45 strokes.

His playing partner that day was Ben Tullipan, the 2002 Bali bombings survivor who now runs the Queensland branch of Empower Golf, the charity which facilitates and promotes golf for Australians of all abilities. The pair, who have struck up a firm friendship since meeting through a mutual friend two years ago, now share a coach in PGA professional Ian Jones.

Shem has set his sights on reducing his handicap to 15, but the main goal is to compete more regularly in tournaments, including overseas events once international travel resumes.

His first taste of competitive action was certainly a memorable one as Shem, Ben and their two team-mates combined to win gold at the Masters Games in Cairns last year.

Shem takes up the story, saying: “The tournament was played in the Ambrose format, we were up against able-bodied golfers and managed to win, which was a wonderful moment.

“It was my first ever experience of travelling to a tournament and playing in a team environment, and we all had a lot of fun. The other guys on the team have their own challenges in their lives, but Empower Golf and the ParaGolfer brings people together and helps them overcome some of those challenges.”
Shem faced some very serious challenges of his own in the aftermath of his road traffic accident, which led to a 12-month stint in a Brisbane hospital.

But he was determined not to let it define him as a person, and as part of the healing process Shem visited schools to speak about road safety on behalf of Queensland Emergency Services.
Whilst it was perhaps a cathartic experience for him personally, Shem’s main satisfaction came from the knowledge that he might prevent someone else from going through the same pain and trauma he had experienced.
“I wasn’t that much older than some of the kids at the time, so hopefully they listened and if I saved even one life or prevented them from getting into a car with a drunk driver, then it was more than worthwhile,” he said.

“That was just my way of trying to give something back to the community. Often it comes down to a choice or a split-second decision, and I wanted to try to help these kids make the right one.”
Shem’s own decision to make contact with Ben and become involved with Empower Golf has certainly proved a shrewd one, and he is now keen to spread the word about the benefits of the ParaGolfer.
“I really believe in Empower and what they’re doing,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful organisation which really helps people not only with physical disabilities, but also intellectual disabilities too. It helps people rebuild their confidence, and the mental health impact can be huge.

“There are some downsides to living with a disability, and we should never shy away from or ignore that side, but if you can find an outlet like Empower which makes you feel good about yourself then your whole mindset improves out of sight. I would really encourage people to get out there and give it a go.”

Meet Ben Tullipan

Even though Ben Tullipan finished last in his first golf tournament as a double leg amputee, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

Given that he had cheated death in the 2002 Bali bombings and subsequently defied all medical predictions that he would ever walk again, the fact that he shot 132 that day in the 2007 Australian Amputee Golf Open was pretty insignificant.

“I absolutely loved it,” Ben recalls 13 years on from his debut competitive appearance. “I met some amazing people who had some incredible stories to tell, and even though I came last it really didn’t matter to me.”

Now an 12-handicapper, Ben’s mission is to get down to 4 by next year, with the help of his coach Ian Jones. Given how much he has already achieved since that fateful night in Kuta 18 years ago, few would bet against him reaching his aim.

But it is not fulfilling his own goals that gets Ben out of bed every morning – it is the desire to help others via his work with Empower Golf Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that makes it possible for all Australians living with disabilities to play and enjoy golf by providing equipment, physical access and ongoing opportunities at golf facilities nationally and through coaching, course support and clinics.

Through his former role as the President of the Queensland Amputee Golf Association, Ben met the founder of Empower Golf, James Gribble, one of the only quadriplegic golfers in the world.

The pair hit it off from the start and Ben promptly offered to host a golf clinic on the Sunshine Coast for anyone living with a disability. It was such a success that Ben immediately decided to join forces with James, and he now runs the Empower Golf show right across his home state of Queensland.

One of the keys to his success – other than an infectious enthusiasm and glass-half-full outlook – is the ParaGolfer, an all-terrain wheelchair that raises even the most physically challenged user into an upright position, enabling them to fully swing a golf club.

It is no exaggeration to say that, for many people, this piece of kit and a raft of other adaptive equipment have proved life-changing.

“I’ve met some people who have never even stood up before in their lives, and they burst into tears when they use the ParaGolfer and can stand up for the first time,” said Ben.

“I absolutely love seeing their reactions, and the joy it brings them. It’s amazing to see, and I get a such a kick out of teaching them that it doesn’t really feel like work to me.

“We have over 30 ParaGolfers now in Australia, 4 in Queensland, and 15 fully inclusive golf facilities set up across the country. I travel around with 2 of the units and a trailer full of other adaptive equipment running golf clinics. I might be down in Coffs Harbour one week then up in Townsville the next. So there’s quite a lot of travelling involved, but I love getting the chance to meet people, hear their amazing stories and hopefully change their lives for the better.
“Empower is also now a registered NDIS organisation which can provide golf lessons, equipment and other services to disabled Australians.”

Golf has certainly changed Ben’s life, and helped him recover – both mentally and physically – from the horrific injuries he sustained in 2002.

He spent almost 12 months in hospital, starting in Bali before being airlifted to Darwin, then onto Concord in NSW for an extended stint until he was eventually transferred to Royal Brisbane and ultimately finishing his hospital rehabilitation on the Gold Coast.

It was another 12 months before he was able to take his first steps, and he spent the next two years learning to use his prosthetic legs with the aid of crutches.

Throughout it all, Ben’s sunny disposition helped him stay positive and he was determined to prove the doctors wrong when they told him he would never walk again.

“I was initially only given a 5 per cent chance of survival, so I managed to beat the odds there and then I was told in the hospital that I should get used to life in a wheelchair, because there was very little chance I’d ever be able to walk again,” he recalled.

“Your balance comes from your big toes, your stomach and your hearing. I don’t have any big toes (or ankles and shins for that matter!), only about 50 per cent of my stomach is remaining, my hearing is completely gone in one ear and I’ve only got 60 per cent in the other. So my prospects of walking again weren’t looking that great!

“But I was determined and I persevered, and eventually I was able to start moving again. It was pretty hard at first, but you’ve just got to keep going. There weren’t too many really low moments, I’ve always tried to focus on the positives in everything I do and I think that positive mindset helped with my recovery.

“Golf has also helped with my recovery. I’d never picked up a club before 2002, so it was all new to me. But it got me out and about and helped me stay active, and it also improved my balance and made my legs stronger.

“But the social side and the chance to meet people through golf is what I enjoy the most. There’s a guy I work with, Shem, who entered his first disability golf tournament last year and won a gold medal, which was absolutely amazing.

“I’ve also met Dave Sawtell, who holds the Guinness World Record for hitting the longest drive from a wheelchair; he’s an inspirational guy. And I’m just in the process of opening applications for our first disabled kids’ clinics that we’ll be running in October this year, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

Speaking of records, Ben has received a collection of awards big enough to fill any trophy cabinet – and having previously worked as a furniture importer, he could have a bespoke cabinet delivered in no time should any more accolades come his way.

The 2018 Service to Sport Award was just the latest gong Ben has received and he also featured in the ‘Love Hate Love’ documentary, which was executive produced by Sean Penn and opened the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Not many people get to hang out with Robert De Niro in his apartment in downtown New York – “that was pretty cool,” admits Ben with typical understatement. But when asked what his greatest achievement is, he has no hesitation in nominating his family, comprising his wife Kerrie – whom he married in 2008 – and their two children Sheridan and Rory, aged 13 and eight respectively.
“I’ve come a long way since lying in a hospital bed in Bali not knowing if I was going to live or die,” he said.

“While I obviously had to do a lot of the recovery on my own, there’s no way I’d be where I am today without the love and support of Kerrie and the kids.

“My family is definitely my greatest achievement; I just love hanging out with them and going on holiday with the kids. Neither of them plays golf regularly, Sheridan is more into taekwondo and Rory loves his soccer. But whatever they want to do with their lives is fine by me. As long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”

My 5 Loves, Learnings and Lessons of Lockdown by James Gribble

Reflecting on the last six months, it’s amazing how the golf industry and its extensive community has adapted to change. With this in mind, I’d like to take the time to highlight some of the innovative measures introduced to ensure continued safe play and share my 5 Loves, Learnings and Lessons of Lockdown:

1. Simple Pleasures

As you may have guessed, Empower Golf is my passion and for me there is nothing more rewarding than sharing my love of the game than creating opportunities for disabled Australians to experience this brilliant sport. Never have we needed fresh air, wide open spaces and comradery more. With COVID 19 decimating societies, economies and livelihoods around the globe, focusing on life’s little things is surely the ultimate natural remedy. What could be better than the casual competition, friendly banter and dreamy green sanctuary of the local links? Not thought of golf as cerebral therapy, then maybe it’s time to start!

2. Golf’s Time to Shine

Who would have thought a global pandemic would be the perfect catalyst for golf to return to its former glory as the most popular sport in Australia. With two-week waiting lists for available tee times, brimming car parks and frantic fairways becoming the norm at most courses, let’s hope that his timely boost sparks new investment and further innovations to our favourite industry. Arguably golf is probably the best candidate for a naturally socially distant sport, however, not only has golf demonstrated fast adaptation to enforcing social distancing regulations, but also did a tremendous job of execution on course. Now, I hear you saying, isn’t golf the most traditional and antiquated sport going around? Historically maybe, but thanks to these innovative short-term measures like contactless scorecards, staggered tee-times and cart limitation to keep us playing, it has resulted in an unexpected upturn in coaching, tee times and no doubt memberships. Some of these have reignited long lost player connection with the game and overall have provided the perfect activity to engage socially in a world where it has become increasingly hard to do so.

3. Who Needs a Rake?

For centuries the final insult after negotiating your ball out of a sneakily positioned sand trap was having to perfectly groom the gritty gravel to the content of a lurching greenskeeper. Well say goodbye to constant combing as rake-less bunkers are here to stay. Similarly, contactless bunkers also mean contactless greens where now you can collect your ball from the hole without physically touching the surface area of the hole, safe, convenient, clever! I think so.

4. Getting the balance right

COVID restrictions implications for the disabled can arguably make one feel more inhibited and vulnerable than most. When we are not allowed to go about our daily lives as normal, especially in aid of our physical and mental health, things can easily become unsettling and now more than ever it’s important to keep the mind sharp. Golf provides the perfect vehicle to distract from the challenges within around us. When I’m on the golf course, focussing hole by hole, shot by shot…I forget my disability and nothing else matters. I always feel better after a round of golf!

5. It’s time to make time

Have these words ever come out of your mouth: I WILL DO IT WHEN I HAVE MORE TIME… My last but perhaps most important highlight, now is the right time. What we should learn from this pandemic is what’s important to us is to make sure we have the experiences we envision for ourselves, and do it soon. Really, with the handicap system, golf does not discriminate. So, what’s your excuse?