She’s had two knee replacements, two hip replacements, is 70-years-old and the head coach of the Queensland Special Olympics basketball team.

Margaret Robertson has been coaching basketball teams in New South Wales and Queensland for nearly 50 years. She started playing basketball herself as a teenager, her three children played, and her daughter Sarah-Jane represented Queensland. But it’s her time coaching athletes with special needs over the past 17 years that she holds in highest regard.

“I wish I’d started earlier,” she says, just days before she will fly with her team to Adelaide to compete in the Special Olympics Australia National Games, April 16-20. The games see 1000 athletes with intellectual disabilities competing in 11 sports.

“It’s so much more rewarding. These athletes are so appreciative of what you do. You get joy just watching their faces light up – you can see that they’re there for the fun of it.”

Margaret started coaching two players with special needs from her base on the Sunshine Coast and now she has 50 players who train on Thursdays and compete on Saturdays.

Athletes going to an Adelaide training camp

The players mostly have Asperger syndrome, are on the Autism spectrum or have Down syndrome. It means she must plan her training sessions carefully, structuring them so that change is introduced slowly. It also means she gets a lot of enthusiastic hugs from some of her players with Down syndrome. She stands still and waits for impact after each game!

“It’s wonderful to see a player begin, not knowing how to dribble a ball at all, and progress to dribbling a ball the length of the court with one hand.”

And as she has taught them, they have taught her.

“Until I started doing it I didn’t realise there were so many people with these different abilities. When I see people now, I just know how they feel,” she says.

“A lot of people look down on them but you can’t. They have just as deep feelings as us. You just encourage and encourage and encourage.”

Margaret with another coach from Nigeria

Margaret will take five Queensland basketball teams to the olympics event in Adelaide on Sunday; B-grade women, A-grade men, two B-grade men and a C-grade mixed.

“I’m not just a coach during these games, I’m a nurse and a parent too. They attend by themselves, without their parents or carers.”

Far from being daunted, Margaret is excited.

“These teams are chosen from all over Queensland. Every four or five weeks we have round robins so they all know one another. They will play against athletes of the same standard, ability against ability, working together, playing achieving.

“As long as they go, learn a couple of new skills, really enjoy themselves and make great friends, I’m happy.”

The Special Olympics motto is, ‘Let me win but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt’. A familiar thread in Margaret’s coaching.

Margaret and her Australian team after winning gold in Los Angeles, 2015.

As she heads off on this adventure, she is glad for the support of her community and the way they have embraced her teams.

“I find it so sad that our society doesn’t recognise the value of these people, right from the womb. They are special. Truly special. And when you get to know them you discover they are remarkable people who bring such pleasure.”

She’s not one for fuss, doesn’t like the spotlight. But she does thank God for planting her in a good place, doing something meaningful that flows from a passion deep within. She may be 70, but she’s not stopping anytime soon!

Athletes from the Sunshine Coast basketball team

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