Michael Roeger loves to run. It’s not a chore for him to hit the lake foreshore or the hills around Stromlo each morning. For him, it is a form of meditation as much as anything else.
He is the T46 World Record holder for the marathon. He broke his own world mark in Houston earlier this year, which was a qualifier for the Paralympics.
This was going to be his year. Heading into his fourth Paralympics in Tokyo, he was in red-hot form, injury-free, and the fastest marathon runner in his Paralympic category.
Then COVID-19 struck and the sporting world was thrown into chaos. Events were being cancelled left, right and centre.
One of those events was the Boston Marathon in April, a point-to-point race with a history of fast times.
When Boston was postponed then cancelled, Michael saw it as an opportunity rather than a setback. Following consultation with his coach, Philo Saunders, he decided to run a marathon around Lake Burley Griffin.
“The aim was to see where I was at,” says Michael. “Training had been going well; I felt as though I needed to run.”
And run he did, through the weekend traffic of walkers, runners, cyclists and pets. You name it, they were all on the track around the lake that day.
Michael ran a 2:23 marathon. This is just four minutes shy of his world record earlier in the year.
The cancellation of the Boston Marathon turned out to be a precursor to other major events that would also disappear from the sports calendar. The Olympics and the Paralympics being the most prominent. As a result, Michael was forced to re-set his goals.
“I’m 32 years old. Four years is exhausting enough. It’s mentally tough. I feel robbed of an opportunity to compete in front of my family and friends who had been planning to go to Tokyo this year.”
And at this stage, it’s uncertain whether overseas travel restrictions will be eased, coupled with the possibility that the event could take place in empty stadiums.
That prospect doesn’t diminish his motivation to succeed.
“The desire and will to be better is there, and the goal is to hear the national anthem,” says Michael. Having said that, it is not his primary motivation, as he adds, “medals don’t matter as much”.
More often than not these days, Michael is providing inspiration and motivation to others. He speaks about his journey from being born without the lower half of his right arm, adding plenty of tales about being attacked by a shark or crocodile for dramatic effect.
Despite the obvious disadvantage, his ambition was to play AFL. “Growing up in country South Australia, I ran around the vineyards and farms. I was good at long-distance running but I just wanted to kick a footy around.”
Michael sees this positive context as formative.
“I’ve been lucky. My twin brother Chris took me under his wing and people around me treated me no differently.”
But it was a visit to his school by six-times Paralympic gold medallist Neil Fuller which opened his eyes to the Paralympics. As a result, he moved to Canberra 11 years ago to train at the AIS.
As well as training on scholarship, he also works as a research consultant at Sport Australia.
It would be wrong to think that Michael’s journey has been without its setbacks.
Michael almost died after collapsing halfway through the 800 metres at the 2012 London Paralympics. Suffering from internal bleeding in the lead-up to the race, he wanted to compete for his family and the community that had supported him back home. He spent four days in hospital and underwent a blood transfusion to help recover from a gastrointestinal bleed caused by a combination of anti-inflammatories and being in an altitude tent in Cardiff for six weeks on iron tablets.
Today, Michael remains ready to take on anything that gets in his way. And as with most marathon runners, running is cemented into his life.