The extraordinary life of paralympian-turned-DJ Dylan Alcott

Dylan Alcott. Photo: Michael Rayner

Dylan Alcott. Photo: Michael Rayner

Dylan Alcott’s interest in music started when he sang in the Australian Boys’ Choir, although his time as a choirboy was short-lived. “I started playing sport, my voice broke, and I forgot how to sing,” he says.

But his love of music was never far away, which is why he is so happy with his latest gig presenting on triple j.

His passion for music has taken him to music festivals around the world, including Coachella in California, and Meredith and Splendour in the Grass in Australia.

“I love them all,” Dylan says. “That’s how I got discovered by triple j. I made a bit of a name for myself six years ago when I crowd-surfed at a music festival at Soundwave. People grab the chair and get you up. I’ve only fallen a couple of times.”

Dylan has had plenty of remarkable festival experiences. “I got on stage with my favourite hip hop group, the Wu-Tang Clan, and rapped with them at Meredith in 2014,” he says. “I got on stage with Queens of the Stone Age at Soundwave and went cruising around with them. It was cool, mate.”

DYLAN’S TOP 5 BANDS TO WATCH LIVE

Wu-Tang Clan

My favourite hip-hop group of all time. It was an honour to get to share the stage and rap with members of the group, twice.

The XX

I saw them for the first time at Coachella in 2009 and have been hooked ever since.

Queens of the Stone Age

I got caught in the mosh pit at Soundwave watching QOTSA – incredibly sweaty, incredible fun.

Florence & the Machine

Florence Welch has some serious pipes on her. Incredible vocalist. Must see.

Peking Duk

Two of the biggest legends and the most fun DJs to see live. Period.

The 26-year-old started at triple j in January, hosting weekend afternoon music shows and doing guest spots in the breakfast timeslot on Mondays and Fridays. “I’ve been a big triple j fan for a long time,” he says.

For Dylan, the role isn’t only about music. “It’s been a goal of mine since I was a little kid to change the perceptions of people with disabilities, and the best way to do that is through the mainstream media,” he says. “How many people do you know with disabilities in the mainstream media? We need to break down those barriers and I’d love to be that guy.”

Dylan was born with a tumor wrapped around his spinal cord, which was cut out when he was two days old. The operation saved his life but damaged his spinal cord, leaving him a paraplegic. He has been in a wheelchair all his life.

He spent his first three years in and out of hospital, having 15 operations. “Touch and go,” he says. “Pretty sick, yeah.”

They were tough years for his parents, Martin and Resie, and his older brother Zack. “My whole family has been incredible.”

“When I was a kid … imagine how hard that was for Mum and Dad. They never wrapped me in cotton wool like most kids with disabilities. When I said to my mum and dad I wanted to get the train to school when I was 15, I’m sure they were thinking ‘s— no’ but they let me do it because my mates were. I’m sure mum was freaking out. But that’s how I got friends and became normal. I really appreciate that they did that.

“I was travelling the world playing tennis when I was 15. I’m sure they were scared of that as well. For them to do that – good on ’em.”

Dylan Alcott. Photo: Michael Rayner

Dylan Alcott. Photo: Michael Rayner

Dylan attended Brighton Grammar, where he and another boy were the only ones in wheelchairs. The school adapted to be wheelchair friendly. “We were, I guess, the test dummies,” he says. “They ramped everything, put elevators in the new buildings. They were great for me.”

Apart from the occasional comment, Dylan was surrounded by a great community of kids. “I’ve got the best group of mates in the whole world,” he says.

“There was a bit of stuff when I was 12 or 13. Some kids say some dumb things that hurt your feelings a bit. Some kids would call me a cripple. It was tough. But once you realise that for every d—head that gives you a hard time there are hundreds of other legends worth hanging out with, I was fine.”

At 11 he took up wheelchair tennis and at 15 started playing wheelchair basketball. In year 12 he won gold at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. “To win a gold medal while you are at school … not many get to do that.”

He is the youngest wheelchair gold medallist, and went on to win gold for tennis at last year’s Rio Paralympics.

In January, he won his third consecutive Australian Open title in wheelchair tennis, at Rod Laver Arena.

Dylan after winning his quad wheelchair singles’ Australian Open final against the UK’s Andy Lapthorne. Photo: Robert Prezioso \ Getty Images

Dylan after winning his quad wheelchair singles’ Australian Open final against the UK’s Andy Lapthorne. Photo: Robert Prezioso \ Getty Images

Dylan says it’s a great time to be a Paralympian. “Ten years ago you had to pay to play, to travel around the world and play tennis. Now I’m fully funded by Tennis Australia. But it’s still got a long way to go. Australian Open winners get $3.6 million. I won this year and got $12,000.”

He says there’s more interest in the sport now, and notes that 5000-6000 people bought tickets to watch his match at Rod Laver Arena.

“It used to be no one gave a crap. Now the sponsors are getting a return on investment because people want to watch us – they know not only do we have good stories, but we are elite athletes who are training our arses off, putting on a show for crowds. It’s a beautiful time to be involved and I don’t sit here and complain because I know that generations past got nothing.”

While travelling the world playing sport, he achieved high marks at school and completed a commerce degree at University of Melbourne. “I’m a closet nerd as well, so I made sure I gave academics a good run.”

Away from music and sport, Dylan is busy. He is also a motivational speaker, doing gigs in Hong Kong, Fiji and across Australia.

“I’m a pretty light-hearted guy who takes the piss out of himself and people respond to that,” he says. “When you get messages saying ‘Your outlook on life helped change my life’, that’s amazing.”

He says there’s a long way to go in awareness of disability. “I was getting a coffee the other day and a lady came up and congratulated me on getting my own coffee.Her expectation of me was that I sat at home and had a carer and couldn’t leave the house. She’d never been exposed to someone with a disability. It’s not her fault. We need to expose more people so they realise we’re normal people, too. I just happen to be in a wheelchair.”

Covering for @zanrowe on @triple_j mornings for the next two weeks 9-12 every weekday…! Pop by and say yo! #triplej

A post shared by Dylan Alcott (@dylanalcott) on

In March he launched Get Skilled Access, a training organisation working with Paralympians to train business and government employees how to treat customers with disabilities.

“We want to make people proactive rather than reactive,” he says. “At the moment, if you travel and you go into a supermarket or a bank there’s that freak-out moment when they don’t know what to do because they either don’t want to offend us or don’t know how to approach us.”

He has also launched the Dylan Alcott Foundation to help young people with disabilities to fund and mentor and “eliminate the barriers to get involved”.

“Everything I do is about what I like to call normalising disability,” he says. “People think people with disabilities are unemployable, undateable, don’t travel, don’t go out, don’t have a life, and that puts limitations on what people with disabilities can do. You can have a girlfriend, you can have a job, you can travel, you can do everything that an able-bodied person does, except maybe walk up stairs.”

He says his positive outlook is “part innate, part learned”.

“You’ve got to have that inner drive to do things,” he says. “At 13, 14, I had two years when I sat at home and I was really embarrassed by my disability. I didn’t tell too many people [how I was thinking], I just got over that and thought I need to be more proactive; I need to be the catalyst for change in my own life, get out there and meet friends, girls …

“Events don’t dictate what happens in your life, it’s how you perceive those events. Whether it’s a break-up, somebody passing away, losing a job, being in a wheelchair, it’s not the event itself, it’s how you bounce back and perceive it and move on.

“I was able to look at that part of my life and say, ‘It’s a part of me, it doesn’t define who I am’. So I’m going to go out there and see what I can do with it, and I realised that I can do anything.”

LISTEN » Dylan Alcott presents sports on triple j Breakfast on Monday and Friday, and hosts Weekend Arvos, from 2pm on Saturdays & Sundays.

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