Kevin Richard Coombs, OAM PLY (30 May 1941 – 5 October 2023) was a trailblazing Australian athlete known for his exceptional contributions to wheelchair basketball. He not only competed in five Paralympics but was also a part of the inaugural Paralympic Games held in 1960. Significantly, he was recognized as the first Australian Aboriginal Paralympic competitor representing Australia.
Personal Life: Coombs was born in Swan Hill, Victoria, to parents Cecil Coombs and Rosie Clayton. After facing the tragic loss of his mother at a young age, he and his siblings were raised by relatives in Balranald, New South Wales. His life took a turn when a shooting accident at the age of 12 rendered him a paraplegic. This unfortunate event, however, introduced him to sports during his rehabilitation at the Royal Austin Rehabilitation Hospital in Melbourne. Outside his athletic pursuits, Coombs dedicated himself to the welfare of his community, working for the Victorian Department of Human Services. He is also known as a Wotjobaluk elder.
Delving into his lineage, Coombs’ grandfather, Alfred “Jack” Coombs, and Alfred’s brother, Willie, were indigenous Australian soldiers who served during World War I. Coombs’ daughter, Rose Falla, achieved prominence as the first Aboriginal magistrate in Victoria, while another daughter, Janine, held a significant position at the Barengi Gadjin Land Council.
Kevin Coombs passed away on 5 October 2023 at the age of 82.
Sporting Career: With a passion for sports, especially wheelchair basketball, Coombs represented Australia in multiple Paralympics, including the games in Rome (1960), Tel Aviv (1968), Heidelberg (1972), Arnhem (1980), and New York/Stoke Mandeville (1984). His leadership qualities were evident as he took on the roles of coach/captain in 1972 and captain in 1984. In addition to basketball, he also participated in athletics during the 1968 and 1972 Paralympics.
Contribution to the Community: Coombs’ contributions extended beyond sports. He held several prominent positions, including the Chairman for the World Wheelchair Basketball Championships in 1986, Ambassador for the ‘National Indigenous Strategy for Literacy and Numeracy’, and was a member of the Indigenous Committee for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Recognition: Kevin Coombs’ exceptional contributions earned him several accolades. In 1983, he was honored with the Medal of the Order of Australia. His legacy was further cemented when he was one of the torchbearers during the 2000 Summer Paralympics opening. Other notable recognitions include his induction into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Australian Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2016. The Kevin Coombs Cup, an annual national event for junior basketball, was established in his honor.
Bibliography: Coombs’ life story and experiences are beautifully captured in his book titled “A Fortunate Accident: A Boy from Balranald”, published by Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria.
Kevin Richard Coombs’ life and achievements serve as an inspiration, showcasing resilience, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to community and sports.