Twelve Paralympic Games and 13 medals across four decades is no mean feat – but that’s exactly what nine-time gold medallist Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Kosmala did to earn a place in the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame. The rifle shooter met rigorous criteria assessed by a selection committee which featured sporting identities including Bruce McAvaney.
“Libby met the criteria to a very high standard and was deemed worthy of induction,” said Sport SA CEO Leah Cassidy. “Longevity was one of the things which stood out – 12 Paralympic Games is unparalleled – but also her contribution more broadly to the Paralympic movement and supporting people living with a disability.”
Libby was overwhelmed with induction into SA’s highest level of sporting achievement, describing the award as a “great honour”. As the sole shooter in the Hall of Fame and the only person with a disability to receive the award, Libby is truly a unique athlete. “There were only seven of us awarded and I was the only disabled person. I was thrilled to bits,” said Libby.
Ms Cassidy acknowledged the achievement of reaching such a high level of success in a niche sport in Australia. “We have a dominant sport culture with cricket and footy, netball and soccer so it’s nice that she represents a sport which probably isn’t as well celebrated,” she said.
Never on the agenda
Believe it or not, rifle shooting wasn’t something Libby initially considered, in fact sport of any kind looked unlikely from the start. Born in 1942 paralysed from the waist down, Libby has never had movement in her legs. “There was no sport for disabled people anywhere,” she said speaking of her childhood. “At school I just watched, never threw any javelin or shot put, I did no sport at school. It wasn’t thought a wheelchair person could ever play sport.”
Then in her early twenties a chance encounter changed Libby’s life. “I was at Royal Adelaide Hospital visiting a friend and the man beside my friend said ‘you’re in a wheelchair, you’ve got strong arms and shoulders, why don’t you play wheelchair sport?’ So I went out and had a go,” she said.
Libby described her first experience at Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre in Adelaide’s north to try sport for the first time as ‘disastrous’. “There were four other guys in wheelchairs throwing javelin and discus at the hospital grounds in Northfield,” she said. “I threw a javelin out the back of my hand and hit a man on the head!”
But with encouragement from friend and future Wheelchair Sports Association of SA president Kevin Bawden, Libby kept coming back. “If it hadn’t been for Kevin’s encouragement I don’t think I’d have continued,” she said. Eventually Libby was swimming and taking part in archery and field events but still hadn’t considered shooting.
As secretary of the Wheelchair Sports Association of SA she was invited to a rifle range in Dry Creek in 1973 in the hope she could coax other people with a disability to try the sport. “I’d never seen a gun and had never been involved in shooting,” she recalled, but was persuaded to have a go. “They gave me a rifle, showed me where the trigger was, put it into my shoulder and said ‘hold still and shoot that black dot 20 metres away’. I shot the black dot and it went straight through the middle.”
Libby said everyone laughed and told her it was a fluke, so she challenged them to another go. “I took another shot and it went straight through the same hole.” From that moment the then 31-year-old knew she was a natural shooter and had two coaching offers straight away so “that was the beginning”.
Across 12 Paralympic Games (one as a swimmer, the rest in rifle shooting) Libby won 13 medals, nine of them gold, and was Australian flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Games in 1996. Paralympics Australia chief executive Lynne Anderson said no athlete has ever competed in as many Games as Libby. “To compete at that level in any sport for more than four decades is simply astonishing and something that should be celebrated,” said Ms Anderson.
“Libby’s record in Paralympic Games is likely to stand the test of time for many years and it’s for that reason she has become a household name. There aren’t many athletes who’ve had quite the impact Libby has and I know the Paralympic movement and para-shooting community are grateful for all her work in the sport.”
Friend and fellow shooter Andy Summers has known Libby for more than 20 years and describes her as ‘absolutely remarkable’. “Libby has been an inspiration to the Paralympics over the years in all aspects, not just shooting, She’s done an awful lot for wheelchair sports,” he said.
Andy is also a member of the Wingfield Rifle Club where Libby coaches and said there was a huge round of applause when the award was announced. “This is going to be an inspiration for the shooting sports, not just rifle. It’s going to have a huge flow-on for pistol and target shooting because how often is a shooter inducted into a Hall of Fame?”
And the sporting community agrees Libby is a role model for budding athletes, particularly young women and para-athletes. “Recognising athletes with a disability sends a strong message that, regardless of your ability, you can perform on the world stage and if you put your mind to it you can achieve anything,” said Ms Cassidy.
Shooting and disability
The first Paralympics Libby attended was in 1968 as assistant secretary to the Australian team in Tel Aviv and a lot has changed since then. “The ’68 Games had only wheelchair people, no amputees, no blind or cerebral palsy, no people with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “There were maybe 500 athletes in that third Paralympics and in Rio there were 4500 disabled athletes. It has grown and grown and grown.”
Libby has also seen the Paralympics being staged in the same city as the Olympics with para-athletes using the same facilities as able-bodied competitors. “It’s good for everyone as it means disabled people can continue playing sport in those facilities,” she said.
Now 78, Libby says shooting keeps her fit and helps her concentrate. “I shot in a competition recently and came fifth which is not bad but I like to win,” she said. “I enjoy winning, I’m a competitor.”
She has also been passing her skills and wisdom on to future generations of shooters, coaching 16/17-year-old girls and 12/13-year-old boys and has identified a couple of students good enough to reach the Olympics. “They actually listen to me and now I’ve made the Hall of Fame they say ‘can we bow to you now’,” she laughed.
Libby is keen for shooting continue to grow as a sport in Australia. “I wish the public had a bit more knowledge of shooting for pleasure,” she said. “They just hear of guns and the dreadful things reported by the media and that’s sad as ours is one of the safest sports. “If you’re mentally alert and able to do it you can shoot for years and years.” And that’s just what Libby plans on doing.