Growing up in Dalmeny on the NSW South Coast, Nikki Ayres had ambitions of playing for the Wallaroos and she appeared well on the way to achieving her goal.
But after moving to Canberra to pursue her career with the Tuggeranong Vikings, she suffered a shocking injury in a pre-season trial at Viking Park in 2016.
After being tackled, she was in excruciating pain. She suffered a dislocated kneecap and damaged nerves in her right knee, losing movement in her foot.
It ended her Wallaroos ambitions but effectively launched another career.
A year after that terrible injury, Nikki’s goal of playing for the Wallaroos was replaced with a quest to compete at the Paralympics.
In 2020, she made her Paralympic debut in rowing, finishing fourth in the mixed coxed fours.
Now, at 32 years of age, Nikki has her sights firmly set on gold at the Paris Paralympics next year in what will be her final international regatta.
And there is solid reasoning behind her optimism. Nikki and Jed Altschwager won gold this year at the World Titles in Belgrade in the P23 mixed double sculls.
The win qualified the boat for the Paris Games, but Nikki and Jed still have to go through a selection regatta in March to cement their place in the team.
To ensure that nothing is left to chance, Nikki has relocated to Adelaide to train day-in-day-out with Jed in the lead-up to the selection races.
“Jed and I are challenging ourselves and I’m really enjoying the challenge. I train with Jed every day and it’s making a difference. A big part of it is the joy I get out of training, and there’s a great rowing culture in Adelaide.”
An added incentive for Nikki to make the Paralympic team is the prospect of competing in front of her family in her final races.
This is in stark contrast to the Tokyo Paralympics where spectators were absent because of COVID.
“The prospect of competing in Paris is exciting with my family being there. They have been an enormous part of my life, and winning gold would be the greatest honour for my family and my country. It’s all about the journey!”
That journey had many twists and turns, but Nikki says she will leave the sport knowing she gave it everything.
“That is the discussion I had with Jed. I wanted to be fully committed to this campaign and I wanted to make the move to Adelaide.
“It’s probably my last hurrah, but there are many other things in life which I am keen to do.”
There’s little time to contemplate life beyond next year’s Paralympics, though, as she works at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide after graduating from midwifery earlier this year.
It’s a packed life, but you get the impression Nikki wouldn’t change a thing.