RISING UP: Paul Hale completes an amazing journey to national wheelchair rugby representation this weekend. Photo Troy Baker D7766-05

LEAVING behind a life of violence has been part of the journey to Paul Hale representing his country.

The 29-year-old Edgecumbe wheelchair rugby player leaves for Thailand today as part of the New Zealand development team to compete at the Asia-Oceania zone qualification tournament. Hale’s rise to national representation has been rapid and it has come on the back of life-changing moments.

Fourteen years ago, spinal cord surgery and complications with rehabilitation led to Hale being confined to a wheelchair. The years that followed were dark times. Hale said the chair became his identity and he fell into a violent world of drugs and gangs.

“I was good at lying and manipulating people.

“I grew up in an atmosphere of violence and I grew a liking to it – violence was the love language for me. I became a drug addict, I was selling drugs and got caught up in violence.

“That is what I lived in. In midst of that I was depressed, and I became good at hiding it. I was hurting inside.”

Hale’s need to blame his situation on something else included blaming Edgecumbe itself. It prompted Hale to move to Perth where he fell deeper into the same world he was trying to escape.

The turning point for Hale came two-and-a-half years ago, when he said God found him.

“I didn’t even know what I was searching for. I didn’t want to believe in God, at the time he didn’t have what I needed.”

The catalyst for Hale was a message back to friends at the Temple Gym in Edgecumbe. He asked them if they “had ever trained a fella in a wheelchair?”

“The message I got back, I had to read it over and over again. The message was so filled with love. It felt so weird to me because that was not the love I knew.”

Upon his return to Edgecumbe, Hale observed his mates and wondered whether the Jesus they talked about was real.

“I thought they were weird because they just loved people. That was a pivotal moment in my life and I acknowledged I needed help.

“I knew there had to be more to life and I needed a purpose. I cried out to Christ. I said if you are real, I had a real attitude with him at the time, you are going to have to show me you are real.”

Hale said it was then that he felt like he was in a big cuddle and he felt peace.

Hale said his relationship with God meant he was still here today and it played a big part in his current purpose – being a good wheelchair rugby player.

“I have had love and support from family and friends and not in my wildest dreams did I think Thailand was a place I would go. It has been amazing.

“The Bay of Plenty team wanted me to play but I didn’t even want to play. We went to a family day and it just stuck with me.

“This trip is for me to get a feel for international level. Making the Wheel Blacks wasn’t really a goal. I just wanted to play rugby and it just seems to have happened.”

Next week’s tournament takes place in Bangkok and the New Zealand team will play seven games.

“I just want to play my part in the team and learn the dynamics of travelling. It is not just playing, but it is also how you are off the court.

“I am representing my country.”

New Zealand Wheelchair Rugby spokeswoman Jo O’Callaghan said the team included development players and experienced Wheel Blacks.

“It is offering the development players an opportunity for good court time, an international tournament experience and all that is involved with that.

“Paul has set a goal of being named in the Wheel Blacks squad for internationals where New Zealand will compete to qualify for Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. This is a great starter for him and the NZWR committee are excited to watch him grow along the sporting pathway, and to support him in reaching his high-performance wheelchair rugby goals.”