Aspiring Paralympian says the Australian Catholic Youth Festival changed his life

ACYF youth ambassador James Bertalli aspires to be 2020 Paralympian and is proud to promote ACYF after great experiences at previous ACYF events. Source: ACYF

James Bertalli is a young man who likes to aim high. Two of his biggest goals are to compete in the Paralympics and to encourage young people from the country to travel to Sydney for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) in December.

James, 19, is an ACYF Ambassador and his two immediate goals give an insight into the twin pillars of his life – sport and faith. Living with cerebral palsy, which affects the left side of his body, has never slowed James down.

“I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of things,” he says from his home in Grafton in northern NSW. “At the moment, I’m aiming for the 2020 Paralympics and I’m also on a long list for the Commonwealth Games (in 2018).

“I got into athletics in Year 5. I wasn’t looking to be a future Olympian or Paralympian. I just did it for a bit of fun. But once I realised I was quite good at it, I really started to put the effort in.”

That effort paid off, with James now holding two Australian Under 18 records in shot put and discus. While sport plays a big role in James’ life, so too does his Catholic faith, nurtured by his family and strengthened by his attendance at previous Australian Catholic Youth Festivals.

“Growing up, Mum made it her duty to take us to Church every Sunday,” he says. “When I was younger, I wasn’t really into it. But in high school, I really gravitated towards my faith, to keep me grounded. Academically I found high school hard, so I gravitated towards sport and faith.”

James says it really helped that during that period, his mum, Margaret, was the Religious Education Coordinator at his school, McAuley Catholic College, Grafton.

“She played a big part in my faith development. Without her, I’d not have as strong a faith as I do,” he says.

James cleaning up on the athletic field.

The first ACYF event James attended was in Melbourne when he was in Year 9. It was a big step for a boy from country NSW.

“I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about and I was quite uncomfortable about going because I’d never done anything like this before,” he says. “But before long, I’d met some people from my own diocese who were there and I went to a lot of the rallies and talks and I really enjoyed it.

“If I hadn’t gone to that, I wouldn’t be where I am now with my faith.”

Following on from the Melbourne experience, James attended the Ignite Conference for youth in Brisbane.

Into practice: James is pictured holding his award for Christian leadership

“Again, it was just this overwhelming sight of all these people worshipping together. And it was when I realised that all these people were interested in the same thing I was, that it made it a lot more comfortable and enjoyable.”

When a relative pointed out that the organisers of the ACYF were looking for Youth Ambassadors to promote the big event, to be held at Sydney Olympic Park from December 7-9, he jumped at the chance.

James is working as a teachers’ aid at St Joseph’s Primary School, South Grafton, completing a Certificate 3 and 4 in education support, and concentrating hard on his athletics.

“This year outside of school, I felt my faith was being tested a lot more,” he says. “You’re doing it more on your own and I found that quite hard in the first few months, so this role as Ambassador was a great way of anchoring myself in my faith again.”

Christian leadership award Remembering his own tentative foray to his first ACYF, James is encouraging other young people, particularly those from country areas to take the leap and sign up.

“It’s a great opportunity to meet new people, to strengthen your own faith and to have once in a lifetime memories of hearing inspirational speakers who’ve gone through their own life’s journey,” he says.

Asked if he thought many young people from the country would make the trip to Sydney for the ACYF, James says that his own Lismore Diocese is bringing its biggest group ever, with about 400 signed up so far.

To register for ACYF visit: www.acyf.org.au
Full day registrations $280