Libby Kosmala: A champion and a legend
By Greg Campbell
Too often Australian athletes are tagged as legends when their performances do not warrant such high acclaim.
But when it comes to Australian Paralympic target rifle athlete, Libby Kosmala, her legend status is not only accurate, but also highly deserved when you consider her outstanding record, her sporting longevity, her contribution to target Shooting and to the Paralympic movement, plus her role in the advancement of people with a disability.
Kosmala attended a phenomenal 12 consecutive summer Paralympic Games from 1972 through to the 2016 Rio Games, winning a total of 13 medals, nine of which were gold.
At her first Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1972, Kosmala competed in both track and field and swimming, winning a bronze medal in the pool in the 3x50m medley relay, before taking up Shooting and qualifying for the 1976 Paralympic Games in Toronto, Canada.
With an air rifle in hand, she won her nine gold medals at four consecutive Paralympic Games between 1976 and 1988.
By comparison, Dawn Fraser (women’s 100m freestyle), Andrew Hoy (equestrian) and Rechelle Hawkes (women’s hockey) are the only Australians to have won gold medals at three successive Olympic Games.
While Kosmala has laid down her rifle from international competition, she is still competing locally in Adelaide and has now turned her attention to coaching.
Kosmala knew after the Rio Paralympics, where she didn’t qualify for a final for the first time in her long Paralympic career, that it was finally time to retire from the international scene, but she only made her decision publicly official in recent months.
“I didn’t shoot well (in Rio), and I didn’t know why. I was really on top of the tree before I went to Rio. I thought this must be the end. I must not represent Australia again. Not ever again!” said Kosmala.
“Even the coach (Miroslav Sipek) agreed with me after I finished that shoot. He said, ‘Libby I think you’ve done your bit’ and I said ‘I have. I can’t do it again. This is it’.
“He agreed whereas on other occasions when I thought I should retire, the coach kept coming back to me saying ‘no, no, no, you’ve got more in you. I know you can do it again’. I was pleased in a way that he was happy that I wanted to finish,” she added.
“I kept shooting when I came home. I still really enjoy it.”
Kosmala, aged 78, re-affirm her intention to retire when she was approached by Sydney 2000 Olympian, Carrie Quigley, to re-direct her rifle experience into coaching, including youngsters taking up the sport for the first time.
“I got the offer from Carrie Quigley and she said, ‘Libby, I think it’s time you come into coaching. How about doing a coaching course’? And I’m really enjoying that. It’s really cemented my life now,” said Kosmala.
“It’s rewarding, and the kids listen to me. And they are all about my height when I’m sitting in a chair,” she added with a laugh.
While all Paralympic Games were memorable for Kosmala, the 1988 and 2000 Paralympic Games hold special family memories, while she had the distinctive honour of carrying the Australian flag at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony.
At the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, her husband Stan also captured a lawn bowls gold medal to add to her three rifle golds and a silver medal.
Then at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, Stan also won selection in the Australian rifle squad and competed against Libby in the Mixed 10m Air Rifle Prone SH1 classification.
Additionally, her youngest son James, now an Adelaide paramedic, worked as a volunteer at the Games.
Kosmala became a wheelchair user because of spinal complications at birth and did not participate in sport until after she left school.
She had not fired a rifle until she was invited to attend a rifle club when she served as secretary of the Wheelchair Sports Association of South Australia. There, she scored a bulls-eye with her first shot and her life then took off in a hugely rewarding direction.
With her Paralympic rifle career scaling the heights, Kosmala also received long-term support from the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI) which contributed to her overseas travel for competition and for equipment upgrades.
“I was one of the first disabled athletes to receive funding. They (SASI) were very generous,” said Kosmala.
An enthusiastic swimmer, Kosmala maintain her swimming throughout her Shooting career and says it was a key part of her continued fitness regime which contributed to her decades of success.
“You have to be fit enough to cope with all sorts of weather and all sorts of temperatures and all sorts of competitions. For example, in 1988 in Seoul, we were shooting in a tin shed and it was extremely hot,” she recalled.
Her exposure to international competitions in Europe and in North America opened her eyes to the changes required for wheelchair users.
“When I came back to Australia, I knew we needed to push the wheelchair manufacturers. We saw athletes who were welders and engineers building their own chairs which were made to fit and made to measure,” she said.
Outside her rifle career, Kosmala became an active advocate for wheelchair accessibility.
After receiving a host of fines for exceeding parking time limits, Kosmala decided to take the City of Adelaide to court after her pleas for exemptions fell on deaf ears.
“They didn’t want to listen. They didn’t want to speak with me,” she said.
“My father was a lawyer and he thought it was a very good move to approach the Council and get Council to give us parking permits. Father said, let’s not pay the fine, that may bring Council to the party,” she added.
Kosmala won the court case and disability parking access and disability parking stickers are now in place Australia-wide.
Prior to the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, Kosmala travelled to the Sydney International Shooting Centre at Cecil Park, in western Sydney, with her son James and was alarmed at the lack of wheelchair accessibility at train stations.
“Luckily, I had my son with me because I could not have managed. There were no lifts in train stations. It was disastrous. I wrote to the (NSW) Transport Minister and said how terribly worried I was. We got results and got things happening,” she said.
“The Sydney Games set a standard for other Games to follow. They were a fantastic Games, a wonderful Games. London 2012 was very close, and I loved the Beijing village,” she said.
Apart from the competition success of the Sydney Paralympics, Kosmala said the impact of the Games were far reaching.
“I think things have improved (for wheelchair users) Australia wide because of the Sydney Games in transport alone. There have been big differences and fantastic changes,” she said.
Kosmala has been at the core of change – both on and off the rifle range – and her legacy will forever remain.