Meet the Aussie Paralympic team chaplain

As he prepares for a unique, pandemic Games

Bill Hunter has just arrived in Tokyo – along with another 161 staff and 179 athletes who make up the Australian Paralympic team.

“I’m on the welfare team, but I’m really the chaplain, the pastoral care person of the whole team,” Hunter tells Eternity before leaving for Japan, during two weeks of pre-travel quarantine in his hometown of Brisbane.

“Which is crazy if you think about,” he adds. “179 athletes and 162 staff – how can you be chaplain to all that?

“You’ve just got to go, ok, whoever comes across my path, that’s who I’ll help, that’s who I’ll support, that’s who I’ll encourage.”

The 2021 Paralympics begins next Tuesday, August 24 and wraps up on Sunday, September 5. It’s been a massive lead-up for the athletes, who have not only endured years of training but a whole year’s delay due to the Covid postponement. Then there’s been additional preparations related to the ongoing pandemic – for all athletes and staff on the team.

“Emotionally, it’s going to be tough on a number of fronts.” – Bill Hunter

“The preparation has been enormous!” exclaims Hunter.

“There is so much stuff we’ve had to do that we wouldn’t normally. We’ve had to do a heap of online courses, a lot of Zoom team meetings around Covid protocols, get Covid vaccines and Covid testing.

“It’s actually a little bit daunting. You have to know so much, and dot so many i’s and cross all the t’s. You think, have I done everything? Am I going to get into the country?”

The unique pressures on athletes participating in these Games has the Aussie welfare team on standby.

“I think welfare is going to be huge for this particular Paralympics,” says Hunter. “We could get run off our feet … I think emotionally, it’s going to be tough on a number of fronts.”

He explains: “[The athletes] can’t have any family or friends there, which is huge.

“The other thing is we’ve been told when we’re there, that they you keep isolated a lot of the time. So you can’t go and mix with a lot of people.

“We’re very fortunate that we have an outdoor area in the Olympic village, so we can mix a bit there. But there won’t be able to be any hugging or high-fiving or facial communication [due to masks].

“A lot of people are going to struggle with that. I’m going to struggle with that because I’m a bit of a hugger and a high-fiver.”

“The disappointment and the emotional turmoil that brings for a Paralympic athlete is huge.” – Bill Hunter

On top of these challenges, some of these elite athletes could also have to deal with crushing disappointment.

“If you go to the Paralympics as a gold medal favourite and you come home and you’ve got fourth, the disappointment and the emotional turmoil that brings for a Paralympic athlete is huge,” says Hunter.

“That’s why we’ve got so many staff there to try and help with that process.”

The other daunting prospect is the post-Games quarantine. All athletes and staff will need to spend two weeks isolated in a hotel room when they return to Australia.

“For someone like me who is a mad runner, mad exerciser, mad lover of people, being in a hotel room for two weeks on my own will be tough. That’s going to challenge for a lot of people,” Hunter comments.

Bill Hunter completes the Gold Coast Marathon with a friend from PNG

Bill Hunter completes the Gold Coast Marathon with a friend from PNG

Hunter believes “it’s a miracle” that he was selected as an official chaplain for this Aussie Paralympic team. But his qualifications speak volumes.

Hunter was chaplain to the Brisbane Broncos rugby league (NRL) team for 20 years, retiring from this role in 2017. He’s been the Queensland state network coordinator for Sports Chaplaincy Australia for 14 years. And he was previously a chaplain to the Queensland Police Service.

On top of this experience, Hunter is an athlete himself. As a long-distance runner, he served as a guide runner for visually impaired sprinter Gerrard Gosens at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney and also at the World Championships in France in 2002. And for the past seven years, he’s been head coach for the Salvation Army’s Papua New Guinea Marathon ‘Hope and a Future’ project.

Bill Hunter guides Gerrard Gosens at the 2000 Paralympics

Bill Hunter guides Gerrard Gosens at the 2000 Paralympics Sport the library/Bill Bachman

When he was recommended as the 2021 Australian Paralympic team chaplain, Hunter – who runs his own first aid training company – admits, “My first thought was I can’t do this. It’s potentially five weeks away from my family and my business …

“But then God moved in my life and said, ‘No mate’,” he explains about this supernatural prompting to go to the Games.

“Then my wife immediately said, ‘If you need to go, you need to go.’ So I restructured my business and organised a few things.”

Hunter then endured a panel selection process before being hired as chaplain. The deal is that all his expenses are paid for and after the Games, he will receive a small ‘thankyou donation’.

“I expected nothing … I’ve done chaplaincy all my life – years and years – and I’ve never been paid for any of it. So to get something is surprising and quite nice, actually!” he says.

“Because of Covid, it’s been really hard to meet the athletes and get to know them.” – Bill Hunter

There is much about these Games that will come as a surprise for Hunter. He says he is still “a little bit in the dark” about which events he will attend and exactly how his services will be needed.

“My biggest problem is connection. Because of Covid, it’s been really hard to meet the athletes and get to know them,” he shares.

In saying that, Hunter adds, “There are a few athletes who have requested me at their event. For example, there’s a runner in the marathon who is a world champion, he’s requested me.

“So there will be events that I will be allowed to get to, probably not as many as I would like to get to. It will be a bit of trial and error. I’m really taking the attitude of expect the unexpected and roll with it.”

Bill Hunter with former Brisbane Broncos player brad Thorn

Bill Hunter with former Brisbane Broncos player Brad Thorn

When asked what he is most looking forward to about the Paralympics, Hunter replies: “I love meeting new people and making connections.

“So this is another avenue that God has blessed me with where I’m going to have great connections with all these Paralympic athletes and staff around Australia.”

He points to another avenue through which he creates connections: the “crazy church” he runs in Brisbane. Hunter founded the Salvation Army church called ‘God’s Sports Arena‘ five years ago, and he continues to lead it every Sunday on a voluntary basis. Its services are based on a sports theme and are aimed at people with little or no knowledge of Jesus. The church attracts a diverse crowd – with some people coming out of addiction and jail.

Hunter likens forming relationships at church to his upcoming role as Paralympic chaplain.

“It’s that sort of thing, where you help people, make connections and journey with people. I just love doing that.”

He concludes: “That’s something I want to keep doing, whoever it’s with – whether it’s with my church people, with the Broncos or with the Paralympians.

“Just having that opportunity to journey with people and be with them – who knows what might happen out of that?”