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Australian of the Year 2022 finalists share their inspirational life journeys

The Australian of the Year 2022 candidates are champions of change in diverse fields. (Supplied: AOTY)

How do you change society for the better? You act.

That's the overwhelming message from the nine finalists for the 2022 Australian of the Year award.

Drawn from vastly diverse backgrounds, the finalists have pioneered innovations in medicine and sustainable science, inspired millions of fellow Australians on the international sporting stage, campaigned for greater awareness about the scourge of domestic violence, reshaped the perceptions of people with disability, championed First Nations communities, and advocated for a cleaner environment.

But to reach this glittering point in their lives, most have had to overcome spirit-crushing adversity.

Here are their inspirational stories. 

'I used to hate my disability … now I love it'

Dylan Alcott, Victoria's Australian of the Year 2022. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)

As a teenager, tennis player Dylan Alcott was bullied over his disability and "dreaded being in a wheelchair".

"Whenever I turned on the TV or radio or read the newspapers, I never saw or heard anybody like me," Mr Alcott said.

"When I did, it was road safety ads where someone was in tears and thinking their life was over after a car accident due to drink-driving.

"I thought that was not my life."

Then, he discovered sport — and a prodigious talent for wheelchair tennis. Now 31, the international champion has clinched four Paralympic gold medals, 23 quad wheelchair Grand Slam titles, a Newcombe Medal and a history-making Golden Slam, in which he won all four of the tennis Grand Slams in one calendar year.

Sport has not only given him a new purpose, it has given him a platform. 

Mr Alcott has used success on the tennis court to reshape perceptions around disability through involvement in the Dylan Alcott Foundation, Get Skilled Access and AbilityFest — Australia's first accessible and fully inclusive music festival. 

"It may shock a lot of people but the thing I am proudest of now is my disability and I love it," he says.

'I learnt about racism from a very early age'

Leanne Liddle, the Northern Territory's Australian of the Year 2022. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

The Northern Territory's Aboriginal Justice Unit director, Leanne Liddle, "learnt about racism" from a very early age.

"Racism was everywhere for me, growing up in Alice Springs," Ms Liddle said.

"I saw it when I tried on dresses in the dressing room and when I walked out, the shopkeeper sprayed freshener in the dressing room and told me I had to buy the dress because I had tried it on."

Unwilling to accept her circumstances, the Arrernte woman worked hard to become South Australia's first Aboriginal policewoman.

"My parents gave me the courage when there were injustices at play and taught me that I have the strength to be able to withstand the people who pulled me down and call out those injustices."

After leaving the police force, Ms Liddle's fight for justice continued.

She completed a law degree with honours, and was eventually appointed as director of the Aboriginal Justice Unit in the NT government's Department of the Attorney-General and Justice. 

"The power of change could sit with me and I could stand up for those less fortunate than myself," she said.

Ms Liddle is committed to ensuring the voices of Indigenous Territorians are heard in the justice system.

"With the wisdom of my grandmother, I realised I could influence change and shift the attitudes of people towards Aboriginal people," she said.

Ms Liddle is a tireless advocate for the NT's first Aboriginal Justice Agreement, which is designed to promote the inclusion of Aboriginal leadership in the legal process, ensure justice for Indigenous people and reduce recidivism and prison sentences.

'She told me she was going to kill herself that afternoon'

Paul Litherland, Western Australia's Australian of the Year 2022.  (ABC Radio Perth: Kate Leaver)

As a police officer in the Technology Crime Unit, Paul Litherland encountered a victim of cyber bullying — a teenage girl whose boyfriend had leaked explicit images of her to the school network.

"Thirty or 40 minutes into the call, she told me she was going to kill herself that afternoon," Mr Litherland said.

"That hit me so hard because there were so many young girls in my life — family and friends whom I could be talking to right now."

In the end, Mr Litherland was able to persuade the girl that ending her life was not the answer.   

Frustrated at the limited legislative tools to combat internet crime, Mr Litherland began conducting cyber safety presentations at schools. 

"This world is going way too quick and no-one out there is really protecting them [young people]," he said.

"I don't believe the networks are doing their job and I feel compelled to shift the culture."

By 2014, he'd turned his passion into an educational campaign — founding Surf Online Safe to educate teachers, students and parents about internet awareness and safety.  

"For me, it's about being a voice for them and making their playground a bit safer," he said.

Mr Litherland has spoken at hundreds of schools and organisations, delivering his cyber safety message to more than 250,000 people. 

'Our world collapsed that day'

Sue and Lloyd Clarke, Queensland's Australians of the Year 2022. (Supplied: Queensland Government)

Sue and Lloyd Clarke's daughter Hannah was on a school run with her three children when her estranged husband ambushed them in their car and set them on fire in Brisbane's Camp Hill on February 19, 2020.

"Our whole world collapsed that day. It was just terrible," Mr Clarke said.

"After losing our three grandchildren and turning Hannah's life-support off, we were numb," Mrs Clarke said.

"I felt I hadn't done enough to help my daughter and my three grandchildren," Mr Clarke said.

The Clarkes channelled their grief into setting up their foundation, Small Steps 4 Hannah, to educate the community about the dangers of coercive control and empower domestic violence victims to speak up.

"Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey become H-A-L-T, and that's what we are trying to do — take small steps for Hannah to halt domestic and family violence," Mr Clarke said.

"Listen to your friends, check with your friends, ask if they are OK and plant a seed into their heads that it is OK to leave if they are not OK and you are there to help them," Mrs Clarke said.

The couple is now lobbying for coercive control to be legislatively recognised as a crime as a tribute to their daughter.

"We hope our nomination will raise further awareness and make it a better society out there and keep the conversation going about helping families," Mr Clarke said.

'I was feeling a great deal of emotion seeing these animals suffering'

Craig Leeson, Tasmania's Australian of the Year 2022. (Supplied)

Award-winning filmmaker and journalist Craig Leeson came across a plastic bottle cap inside the stomach of a dead seabird while making one of his documentaries.

"I realised it could have been one that I threw into the ocean a decade ago and felt culpable because I wasn't aware of the problem of single-use plastics," Mr Leeson said.

"I was feeling a great deal of emotion seeing these animals suffering in the ocean because of a design flaw that we humans had created.

"I wanted to take that feeling of personal responsibility to the audience and documentary filmmaking is a great medium to do that."

Mr Leeson's documentaries, A Plastic Ocean and The Last Glaciers, have raised awareness on plastic pollution and climate change among millions of viewers around the world. 

"Many of these leaders are unaware of the human health impact of that biodiversity loss.

"These pieces aim to call for young entrepreneurs to redesign our economic and financial systems so it allows for a cleaner environment for the future." 

Mr Leeson now provides counsel to Plastic Oceans International — a not-for-profit organisation with the purpose of extinguishing single-use plastics within one generation.

As the CEO of Leeson Media International and Ocean Vista Films, he has established A Plastic Oceans Foundation to support this target.

'The loss of a child to an infectious disease within 24 hours is just unimaginable'

Professor Helen Marshall, South Australia's Australian of the Year 2022. (Supplied: AOTY)

As a medical student in Samoa, Helen Marshall was responsible for the management of children suffering from gastroenteritis because of the lack of doctors and medical officers on the island. 

"I have seen the devastating effects of infectious diseases when immunisations are not available," Professor Marshall said.

"The loss of a child to an infectious disease within 24 hours is just unimaginable."

As a young paediatric trainee at the Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide, Professor Marshall witnessed the severe impact of serious infections, such as meningococcal disease, when vaccines were not available

"If they don't die, there is a four-in-10 chance that a child will have a complication such as deafness or blindness or require surgical amputation of one or more limbs," she said.

"During my training in my public health degree, I had one of those light-bulb moments where I understood for the first time the power of public health and how good policy decisions can improve the health of the whole population.

"This really inspired me to continue my work in immunisation and public health and the opportunity to provide better protection for children through immunisation."

She began researching ways to prevent meningococcal B and became involved in game-changing studies that have had a global impact.

Professor Marshall now specialises in vaccinology, public health and infectious diseases at the University of Adelaide's Robinson Research Institute.  

Since 2004, she has published 211 peer-reviewed papers and been awarded 17 research grants totalling more than $33 million.

Throughout the pandemic, Professor Marshall has provided advice about meningococcal B and COVID-19 to the South Australian Minister for Health and the Chief Public Health Officer.

'We can have a big impact on our environment'

Veena Sahajwalla, New South Wales' Australian of the Year 2022. (ABC News: Mridula Amin)

Growing up in Mumbai, Veena Sahajwalla witnessed the bustling scenes of repair shops in her hometown.

"The excitement was just overwhelming and I loved every bit of it because I could see that entrepreneurial spirit," she said.

"People wanted you to come in there and be happy that your clothing or shoes have been given a new lease of life.

Now a materials scientist, engineer and inventor, Professor Sahajwalla has made her mark by pioneering the high-temperature transformation of waste — turning it into a new generation of green materials and products.  

One of her most notable works is the invention of polymer injection technology, also known as 'green steel'.

In 2018, she inaugurated the world's first e-waste microfactory, and created her own green ceramics and plastics microfactories the following year.  

"I love listening to all the amazing and inspiring stories of hope and optimism and all the amazing things people do, because they help me think about all kinds of creative solutions that I could be developing to solve our environmental challenges," she said.

Professor Sahajwalla has also used her influence as a judge on ABC TV's The New Inventors to raise awareness of the importance of science and engineering in building a sustainable world.

"Collectively through our micro actions, we can have a big impact on our environment," she said.

'It is much bigger than sport and basketball'

Patty Mills (right), the ACT's Australian of the Year 2022. (Supplied)

Basketballer Patty Mills has made his mark on the international stage by winning the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and recently helped the Boomers clinch the first-ever Olympic medals.

But despite his international fame, Mr Mills has not forgotten his First Nations background. 

"Whenever I introduce myself, I present myself as a Kokatha man from South Australia and a Muralag man from the Torres Strait," Mr Mills said.

"It is my job to continue to educate people outside Australia about Australian culture and people."

Mr Mills created history when he became the first Indigenous Australian Olympics flag bearer.

He credits his parents with inspiring him to make a positive impact on First Nations communities.

"My dad, for example, worked at the United Nations and helped in the creation of the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, while mum did women's health and community health," he said.

Mr Mills uses success on the basketball court as a platform to lobby for positive change and inspire the next generation of Indigenous Australians. He founded Indigenous Basketball Australia to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in pursuing their sporting dreams.

"This is the national entity for Indigenous basketball within Australia, because the current system in Australia right now doesn't cater to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and females," he said.

"The initiative aims to get these kids involved in something that takes them off the streets and inserts them into a program where they feel welcomed and excited.

"It is about their health and wellbeing and can be a very powerful thing."

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