Australian First Female Paralympic Marathon Gold Medallist: Jan Randles Journey

By Jan Randles

I was born on the 23rd of August 1945 in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1974, while enjoying a very successful career as an Advertising Art Director both in Melbourne and overseas, I went to Bali on a holiday, where I fell off a motor bike down a cliff and broke my back.

Looking at my X-rays the Balinese doctors misdiagnosed my injury and said I had fractured my hip. After spending a few days in the Denpasar Hospital, two Australian nursing sisters and a physiotherapist from Sydney’s North Shore Spinal Unit heard about my accident and came to investigate. They quickly assessed my situation and with great concern looked after me while they made arrangements for a quick return to Melbourne to the Austin Hospital Spinal Unit.

Dimity, the physiotherapist sat with me at night telling me stories about the young paraplegic men she worked with. They played wheelchair basketball and other sports at the Paralympics. I remember saying to her “I’d rather be dead than be a paraplegic”. This was the first time I’d heard about wheelchair sports and the Paralympics.   After spending nine months in rehab I returned to work.

In 1981, I was commissioned to do some promotional work for the Paravics Sports Club. They were hosting the 12th National Paraplegic And Quadriplegic Games later that year. After seeing the track racing, I became very interested in wheelchair sport. Even though it was another 2 years for me to participate.

In 1983 at the age of 38, my career as a wheelchair athlete began. It was the year before selection for the 1984 Paralympics. ‘“You won’t do any good, you’re too old”, was a comment made by one of the Paravics Sports Club directors. I didn’t care what he thought, I wanted to have a go.

I was intrigued by the home made, light weight aluminum racing wheelchairs and saw them as another way of opening up my life. Wheelchairs at that time were still very heavy and very challenging to live with. Wheelchair manufacturers began building better, coloured, lighter wheelchairs and Paralympian and world class wheelchair athletes endorsed them.

With the encouragement from another Paralympian, Mike Desanto (who built my first racing wheelchair), I joined the Paravics Sports Club and started entering all the local fun runs with the “boys” and I did my first marathon. I was the first female wheelchair athlete to be seen regularly on the circuit.

My life as a female wheelchair athlete trail blazer had begun.

What started as a bike ride got completely out of hand.

March 1984 saw me compete and win my first race in a regional club competition. After only a few months training on the track, I found myself pushing world record times in the 5000 metres and setting new Australian track records in 800 metres, 1500 metres and 5000 metres.

At the 1984 National Wheelchair Games in Sydney,  I was selected for the Australian Paralympic team by breaking the 5000 metres world record.

The 1984 Stoke Mandeville Paralympics was my first overseas competition. For some experience, the track team coach Tim Hannan entered me into the 800 metres and 1500 metres, even though the 5000 metres and the marathon were my specialty. It was predicted that I was a possible medal winner in either event.

I returned home from the Paralympics with two medals – gold in the the marathon Class 4 and bronze for the 5000 metres Class 4. I am so proud to have made history. I am Australia’s first female marathon gold medallist. I was also awarded the 1984 Sports Australia Award for best single sporting performance.

I now held Australian records in the Slalom, 200 metres, 400 metres, 800 metres, 1500 metres, 5000 metres and the marathon Class 4 events.

1984 was the beginning of the very important wheelchair sports integration program.
It was time to be seen at able-bodied sporting events. Two demonstration wheelchair track races, 800 metres for the women and 1500 metres for the men were scheduled for the Los Angeles Olympics. We were now on the path for the recognition, we as elite athletes deserved.

At home, I was approached by a qualified able-bodied middle distant runner who wanted to coach me to further competition. Jo Hogan began by putting a training group together and we trained four nights a week at Melbourne’s famous Olympic Park where the able-bodied track and field athletes trained. But they didn’t want the “wheelies” there and complained to the park manager to have us removed. But we didn’t leave. We were beginning to be seen at able-bodied sporting venues and we needed to be taken seriously. More sporting opportunities appeared.

In 1985, I became more involved in the integration program and competed at the Australia Games in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 400 metres track events. I won all three races.

randles 1985 australia games
Jan Randles won three gold medals at the 1985 Australia Games

Later that year I competed at the IAAF World Cup in Athletics in Canberra in the women’s 800 metres demonstration race. I raced against the current 800 metres world champion Monika Saker from Sweden and other Australian competitors. I came second to  Monika.

The Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra became involved  in Para athletics and I attended a track and field training camp there. We looked at diet, nutrition, wheelchair design and pushing techniques seriously. I was the first wheelchair athlete to have my photograph displayed along with Dawn Fraser, John Landy, Herb Elliot and other great Australian able-bodied Olympic athletes in their sports gallery.

The remainder of the year was spent road racing and doing more marathons. I was no longer racing in the wheelchair category with the  “boys”. All the race organisers were now including a female wheelchair category for the “girls”. By the end of the year I was ranked the number 2 female wheelchair marathoner in the world.

The media were showing a strong interest in me and articles in local and mainstream newspapers kept appearing. The Age newspaper ran a front page story, something that was rare for a disabled athlete at the time.

Sponsorship offers began. Typo, a Melbourne typesetting house sponsored some new equipment. I needed new wheels, push rims, racing tyres and tubes for my latest racing wheelchair. Doug Wade, a well known retired Geelong footballer, gave me free membership to his gym in exchange for me wearing his corporate colours and logo when I was road racing.

Peter Houghton, President of the Melbourne Advertising Art Director’s Club took the photograph for my successful “Jan Randles Needs A Push” fund raising poster campaign. I will always be grateful for the Melbourne Advertising Art Director’s Club’s involvement in my sporting career. They agreed to sponsor me to the 1988 Seoul Paralympics.

I now had more financial help to pay for more new equipment. Racing wheelchair
design was escalating and I had to keep up.

At the 1986 National Wheelchair Games in Adelaide, I was selected for the Australian team to compete at the International Stoke Mandeville Games by breaking the 5000 metres Class 4 world record again.

At the 1986 International Stoke Mandeville Games, I broke the 5000 metres world
record, put down a new course record for the marathon and won silver in the 400
metres and bronze in both 800 metres and 1500 metres. I finished with five
medals in five events. I was very pleased indeed.

Change on the track was erupting.  A debate on whether to allow steering on
our racing wheelchairs was happening. Most wheelchair track athletes voted
against it.

After the International Stoke Mandeville Games, I travelled alone to Stockholm
and Copenhagen to train with Paralympians Monika Saker and Ingrid Lauridsen as
part of my preparation for the 1988 Seoul Paralympics. I was now pushing world
record times not only for the marathon and the 5000 metres but also in the 1500

Jo Hogan, my coach had moved to Perth to finalise her studies. We arranged to meet
up on my way home. She wanted to do more biomechanics testing at the University
of Western Australia. I had changed my pushing style and we wanted to know how
we could improve it.

On returning home, I received another Sports Australia Award for the 1986
female athlete of the year and was awarded a $3,000 grant through the National Disabled Athlete Awards Scheme grant due to my performances at the International Stoke Mandeville Games. Money was very tight now and I was finding that working together with my training program had become quite a challenge. Being an elite athlete took

Not feeling well I went to see my doctor who delivered some very sobering
news. “You’re burnt out and you need to rest for a year. You could have a stroke and
I don’t want to visit a stroke patient.” I was devastated! It was only 2 years
into my 4 year program that was to take me to the 1988 Seoul Paralympics. What
was I to do? Taking a year out of training now would mean I wouldn’t be able to
make up the lost time so close to the Paralympics and be a possible medal
winner. After some serious thought I returned my National Disabled Athlete Award Scheme grant, donated the remaining funds I had in my athlete’s account to another Paralympian who was still competing and sadly I retired.

Exit Jan Randles, enter Louise Sauvage.

I’m often asked when did I compete and why did I do it? I was the one before
Louise Sauvage and I did it because I could. I was Australia’s top female
wheelchair track and road racing athlete at the time.

1987 was spent resting and getting well. I began reflecting on my life and I
saw some things I wanted to change.  As an elite athlete I was so focused on my
sport that there wasn’t much else happening outside of it. I now wanted to live
a balanced life so I entered a recovery program. Working with a therapist and a
meditation teacher I turned my life around.

In 1988, I rejoined the business world and started rebuilding my freelance
advertising business.

1990 saw Australia plunged into a worldwide recession. The advertising
industry collapsed taking my business with it. When the advertising industry
returned a year later I found my design skills had become redundant. Computer
technology was now the norm, I was forced to reinvent myself. I had to become
computer literate as I still had many working years ahead of me. So I went back
to study doing a degree in the New Media part time. After graduation I added my
new skills to my growing freelance advertising business.

In 1992, I bought myself my dream dog. A beautiful brown doberman bitch which
turned out to be an alpha girl with a strong play drive and lots of attitude.
“You shouldn’t have a dog like that in your situation”, “You should have a
small one for your lap”, was a comment made by my local vet. Not taking any
notice of his criticism I found a top dog trainer who helped me turn my dog
into my assist dog. Dog training was my new passion. I joined a dog obedience
club and began dog trialing which I did successfully for several years. It
seems trail blazing is my mission in life. I was the only wheelchair living
person dog trialing in Victoria. Doctor Harry heard about me and filmed me for
his TV program.

In 2004, I retired from advertising as I did a sea change. I moved from
inner city Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula where I built a wheelchair
friendly house. Still involved in dog training I joined another dog obedience
club and became involved in dog related activities in the community.

Wanting to explore my creativity further I bought my first digital camera
and began doing creative photography. Pinhole photography and working with
cheap plastic lenses is my forte. I have exhibited my work at many local
galleries and have sold my work to private collectors.

Generally life is good, I’m healthy and enjoying living on the coast on my
beautiful Mornington Peninsula.

One response to “Australian First Female Paralympic Marathon Gold Medallist: Jan Randles Journey”

  1. Fabulous account Jan, the word ‘inspirational’ is sorely overused b I is the only word to use to sum up what I’ve just read.
    Love and endless respect to you, Bob&Susie B.

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