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 Aitken 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.”