MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: It is a typical January day at the Australian Open. It is hot. Really hot. But nothing could dampen the spirit of the crowd (not even the tiny beads of sweat rolling down my temples) as Dylan Alcott rolled onto the court in Rod Laver Arena for the 2022 Grand Final. Despite a rare loss from the world number one Quad Singles champion, his final match before retirement captured one million viewers on television. It was so monumental that the local broadcaster, Channel Nine, delayed the evening news. It is a testament to the 31-year-old’s prolific career as a professional wheelchair tennis athlete.
Alcott has enjoyed many accolades during his sporting career including a Golden Slam – winning each Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal in a calendar year – as well as being named Australian of the Year in 2022. However, his next endeavour could assist generations of young disabled children to come. Nike has partnered with the Dylan Alcott Foundation to make a $50,000 AUD grant available to support the career of an emerging disabled athlete. The donation will also help in providing equipment, mentoring, mindfulness, mental health assistance and coaching for young people.
ICON sat down with Alcott to discuss his astonishing career, life in retirement and the exciting donation for the Dylan Alcott Foundation.
ICON: During my research for this interview, I came across a photograph on Getty Images of a young Dylan at the 2002 Australian Open Wheelchair tennis event at Melbourne Park. 20 years later, can you describe to me what you feel when you see this image?
Dylan Alcott: “Little Dylan just hated himself so much. I never thought any of this would happen. I didn’t know I’d still be here, to be honest. I’m forever grateful for not only my family and friends, but for finding sport because people underestimate the power of sport in terms of not just competing, but what it does for you socially.
“Not everyone can be an Australian champion or a gold medalist, but everybody can participate in sport. And the best part about sport for me is the social aspect of it. I’ll still be involved in other ways, but I’m excited that I’m not playing anymore… That kid hated himself so much and I think he’d be proud of what we’ve achieved.”
You’ve mentioned how much you hated yourself in the past too. What would you tell kids in your position now?
DA:”Be proud of your difference. As soon as I became proud of my difference my life changed immediately. There’s power in being one hundred percent authentically you. I’d tell anybody, kid or not, just to not only be your own best mate, but also to be proud of who you are and what you’ve got. I’m very lucky that I have so many people around me that have supported me to be able to make me feel like that.”
What was it about tennis that you loved so much which pushed you to create a career out of it?
DA: “I love tennis because anybody of any ability, of any age, of any background can play each other. I was one of the best wheelchair basketball [athletes] in the world, but I couldn’t play one on one with LeBron James. But I can have a hit with Rafa[el Nadal]. And that’s what I love about it so much. My biggest goal in life is to have greater representation of people with disabilities everywhere, in sport, in our boardrooms, on our televisions – absolutely everywhere. And that’s why I love my Nike family so much.
“Nike is the biggest brand in the world, yeah? And they’re putting a guy in a wheelchair at the front of their brand. That’s powerful.”
I saw the 2021 mural of yourself commissioned by Nike in Richmond.
DA: “My brother said, ‘I’ve always known you had a big head, but now it’s official.’ But, do you know what I mean? That’s powerful. I don’t just partner with anybody. They have to have the same ethos that I do, and Nike genuinely care about diversity and inclusion and being different and taking a risk. We’ve changed the bloody game, to be honest.”
In an interview on your retirement, you said that you’d known it was coming for quite a while. Can you pinpoint a moment where you decided that you’d had enough as a professional athlete?
DA: “It doesn’t mean I’m leaving forever, but I think I have more time to do other things and do more work with the [Dylan Alcott] Foundation. I’m always away. I don’t know if people understand or underestimate but we train four or five hours a day every day of your life. And that takes its toll.”
“My purpose is to change perceptions, so people with disability can live the lives they deserve to live. I asked myself, do I need to play tennis anymore to do that purpose? I think I’ve done everything I need to do on the court.”
Are you worried about the transition of training five hours a day to sitting at a computer and doing your work differently?
DA: “Absolutely zero percent worried about that because I already do that work. I’m spinning so many plates. The foundation, my consulting firm, GSA, TV, radio, podcast and tennis.I don’t sleep enough. I’m looking forward to looking after myself.”
When you found out about the $50,000 grant that Nike had donated, how did you react?
DA: “Oh, I bloody cried. I just can’t put into words how much I appreciate the support. That means more to me than me winning a bloody tennis tournament. To be able to make young Australians who feel marginalised because of their disability, help them achieve their dreams is the reason we all get out of bed. For Nike to come on board and partner with us, we’ve got so many cool little ideas in the works that we’re going to do with this money that will be special.
With this grant, you’ve discussed scouting out the next best in wheelchair tennis. What will you be looking for when seeking out this recipient?
DA: “First and foremost, good people. I couldn’t care less how good they are at tennis. You’ve got to be a good person first and then being an athlete comes second. When I started playing tennis, my brother got a $100 pair of Nike footy boots when he played. I needed a $10,000 wheelchair just to try it. And if you don’t have 10 grand, guess what? You don’t get to do it, and that’s heartbreaking. I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is to get involved at the early stages.”
You inspire millions across the globe. Even the turnout yesterday at the final of the Australian Open and the way that the crow just completely lifted you. Who inspires you?
DA: “My family is probably the biggest one, especially when I was younger, that really helped me out. I like to take a little bit from a lot of people, if that makes sense. I don’t really have one person that inspires me, but I think I’d like to think that I’m a bit of a sponge where I think, ‘Ooh, I like that or I like that person, I want to be a bit like that.” Which is cool. It’s also just about constantly listening and learning to evolve. As you said, the crowd that was there and everyone on TV, I just read that 1.5 million people watched the match yesterday.”
They stopped the news.
DA: “It’s just crazy shit, to be honest. I still can’t believe it’s all happened.”