From Wellington to Berlin by Finlay Langelaan
From his ordinary job at a supermarket, a young Newtown man is about to embark on an extraordinary adventure. Matthew Di Leva, who has autism and ADHD, has been selected to represent New Zealand in athletics at the 2023 Berlin Special Olympics. He will be a part of a team of 40 travelling to the German capital next year, where they will compete against some 7000 international athletes. I spoke to Matthew and his mum Maria to get the inside scoop on this incredible opportunity.
So, you’re representing NZ in athletics. Do you have a favourite discipline?
Matthew: I’m going to do running but I do like relay. It just depends on who’s there.
How did you get into running in the first place?
Maria: Matthew is the youngest of five boys, he was diagnosed with autism between two and three, and having lots of boys I knew the best thing was to keep him busy with sport. When Matthew first started running, he didn’t know where the finish line was, so someone from the family would have to stand there at the end to tell him when to stop. Luckily now he knows where to stop. He’s a very fast runner.
How did you end up getting selected?
Maria: We got told a while ago that he was being considered, that 40 people were going from NZ, and then a couple of weeks ago we got a call to say that Matthew had been selected as one of three athletes from Wellington, two in athletics and one in equestrian.
Do you do a lot of sports?
Matthew: I’m going to Hamilton next month for the National Summer Games, where I’ll be running. I do a lot of sports. Basketball, swimming, hip-hop dance, and I used to do indoor bowling. I used to volunteer at the Kilbirnie Library but now I work at Newtown New World.
Maria: He’s been to every National Summer Games and always wins a medal.
I understand you went to a training camp at Silverstream over the weekend. How was that?
Matthew: The camp was so much fun. I met the other members of the team. There’s 40 athletes and nineteen support staff going to Berlin. I ran the 200 metres, 400 metres, and relay, we did lots of fitness, and we learned a special haka to perform at the Olympics. I got to know all the other people going. We’ll have another camp next year.
I’m sure you’ve come across some unique challenges on this journey. What are some that you’ve overcome together?
Maria: When he was young, we went to one doctor, and he told us there’s nothing wrong with him. The next day he was climbing out of a fourth-floor window. He’s two and a half, he’s not behaving how his brothers did, not talking, so I took him to a different doctor. He told us the diagnosis was very bad, that Matthew has autism and ADHD. He told us to consider putting Matthew in a home. I was mortified. That doctor’s dead now. I’d like to say to him ‘look, look how far he’s come’.
We went home, spoke to the family, and decided we will just give him lots of love and try and raise him like we did his brothers. I taught him a letter a day and used wine gums to teach him colours. His older brothers were great, they supported him so well. Everything other kids would just learn normally, Matthew had to be taught.
Change is quite hard for Matthew, but he’s always had a lot of support, we live in Island Bay which has such a great community. The village raised Matthew really. Along the way we met other parents with special needs kids, and we all supported each other. He’s had a great journey and made a lot of friends.
What are some of the highlights of your athletics career?
Matthew: My very first coach was Chris, my brother.
Maria: We went to Cairns in 2016 for the Trans-Tasman Tournament and that was when Chris started coaching. In Matthew’s first race he came second, and his brothers decided that wasn’t good enough, so they went down and whispered to him. Next minute, he’s in the semi-finals with his brothers running along beside him yelling ‘Don’t let anyone pass you!’ And he’s so focused on that that he just runs and runs, and he won.
What are you looking forward to most about Berlin?
Matthew: I’ve only been to Australia, going to Berlin is my first big international trip. I’m looking forward to actually doing the running, I’m quite focused.
Maria: One of his brothers will go with him, he’ll be with his team, he’s going to represent his country; it’s quite a big deal for a 26-year-old with such a diagnosis.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Matthew: Try really hard, participate, and don’t let anyone pass you on the racetrack. Always do your best and always have a go.
Maria: Right from the beginning Matthew had goals. One goal was to go flatting, to get a job. Before that it was finish school, learn to read and write, simple stuff. Now he flats in Island Bay. It was our family home, but we left it so that Matthew could live there with three flatmates, while still being in a familiar environment.
What’s next for you after the Olympics?
Matthew: I love athletics, I’m going to keep competing. It’ll be back to work after the Olympics, I just want to keep trying hard. I’d like longer hours at work, and I’ve started doing more maintenance around the house. I’ve got a lawn mower, so I’ve started to do some gardening. I want to be more independent.
You mentioned you’re into hip-hop. How long has that been going on?
Maria: Matthew’s very good at dates, he’s a savant. Can you remember exactly when you started?
Matthew: That was September the 14th 2010.
Wow, that’s impressive!
Maria: It was a group of mothers with special needs kids who saw a need, so we started with just three, and now how many are in your troupe?
Matthew: Now we’ve got 10. We’ve performed at Chinese New Year, Newtown Festival, Hannah Playhouse, BATS Theatre, and Fringe Bar. We’re called Just Dance Krazy.
Is there anything else you would like to say for the article?
Maria: Matthew loves life, and people love Matthew because of that big smile that’s always on his face. We were blown away when he got selected for Cairns, when he got a job, and now he’s going to the Special Olympics! Matthew has just exceeded all expectations. From what his diagnosis was to what he’s achieved is nothing short of a miracle. It’s just amazing, we’re so proud of the young man he’s become.