WHEELCHAIR rugby player Greg Smith had been the standout choice as Australian team flag bearer at the London Paralympic Games opening ceremony, chef de mission Jason Hellwig said last night.
London will be Smith's fifth Games after he competed in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney in wheelchair racing, where he won three gold, three silver and two bronze medals, and in Beijing when he was part of the silver-medal winning wheelchair rugby team. The opening ceremony will be held on August 30 (Melbourne time).
''I'm thrilled, absolutely thrilled,'' Smith said. ''I'm so proud to be an Australian Paralympian and to be given the honour of leading this team in the opening ceremony is definitely on the highlights. I will never forget this moment.''
The 45-year-old from Buninyong, 11 kilometres south of Ballarat, won the 800, 1500 and 5000-metre races in his class at the Sydney Paralympics and collected two world records along the way.
Smith, who has quadriplegia after a car accident in 1986, retired from competition in 2002 but soon took up wheelchair rugby. After winning the silver in Beijing he again retired before launching a comeback in 2010, when he re-estabished himself as an integral member of the team, which won silver at the world championships after again being beaten by Paralympic champion USA.
Hellwig said there had been about 12 names on the initial list of candidates but Smith ''was always the standout''. He said Smith showed his leadership skills after he moved to wheelchair rugby in the mid-2000s when the team's future was unsure.
''The wheelchair rugby team, going into the Beijing Games, were a long way off the pace,'' Hellwig said. ''We brought them together and gave them a really honest appraisal of where we believed they were as people and as athletes and we gave them a really clear choice to make about embracing the pursuit of excellence.
''Greg became involved in the program and brought with him all the traits and elements that characterised him as an elite athlete in track and field and the injection of those skills and that philosophy and attitude into the wheelchair rugby team as a leader of that group was part of the subsequent growth, development and maturation of that program.''