Sharyn Smart talks with Dean Probyn

“I don’t let my chair dictate my life.”

Dean close up 1Dean Probyn lives his ‘One Life, One Decision’ motto every day since a car accident in 1990 left him a tetraplegic.

In 1993 the New Plymouth local took an opportunity to “pay-it-forward” and share his story by speaking to school children, clubs and groups around the country.

He took his “pay it forward” a step further in 2013 and contacted the American Military to offer his skills as a motivational and inspirational speaker sharing his daily life experiences with the wounded soldiers.

After seeing such successful results from his one talk the military now want him back for a longer period of time to reach more soldiers.

“I wanted to do something to just say ‘hey thank-you’ to the soldiers and see if I could help in anyway.  I suppose it’s about paying it forward.  I’ve been blessed with friends, family, good mates and a good life.  So I got in touch with the American Military and got clearance to go in and give a talk.”

“I don’t pretend to understand what they’ve been through.  I talk to them about what I went through and what helped me get through things.  Your family, your friends, your mates, they are all important to you.  You have to be willing to talk about things because that helps.”

The response Dean got from them was just over-whelming with one soldier gifting him a sea shell that held significant personal memories.

“The guy said he found it when he first came back from Iraq and it has never left his side.  He rubbed it all the time it has been in his pocket, using it as a coping mechanism for his stress.  Something that I said has clicked with him and he has given it to me.  To be able to hand that over to me … people might think it’s just a shell … but it’s that full meaning behind it.

“To be able to just sit there and hear these soldiers tell of what they have gone through and for them to know it’s something that you have said that’s helped them so much, I realised what a privilege it was.  It’s a real humbling experience.

“Everybody has a story to tell and if you can help someone by sharing your experience whatever it may be, I believe in doing that.  That’s why the US Army wants me back over there.  Not just to do a talk this time but they want me to do a programme for a few weeks or even a month.  I can’t afford to do that and unfortunately because of budget cuts they can’t pay to have me there.  It’s something I would love to do.  I know that I’m destined to do it.  Just with that one talk it has shown that I have something unique that can really help those soldiers and it’s worked.

“I talked to the wounded transition battalion.  They are the ones that are getting ready to be medically discharged from the army and go back to civilian life which is a really scary thing for some of them as the army life was what they chose.”

Dean’s own story starts August, 18, 1990 when the car he was a rear seat passenger in crashed leaving two of the occupants dead and two others with broken bones.  Dean was the fifth occupant in the car, breaking his neck between C6 and C7 vertebraes and is an incomplete tetraplegic.  He has movement in his right arm and leg but very little in his left arm and none in his left leg.

“I was going into my third year as an apprentice mechanic at Mountain Motors in Stratford and I was four months off my 20th birthday.

“The last thing I remember was seeing my rugby mates pull up on the bus at the bottle store.  I had taken the season off and when they pulled up I jumped on the bus and had a swig of beer with them.

“The next thing I remember is getting flown down to Christchurch to the Spinal Unit.”

Dean was resuscitated at the scene of the accident and suffered such severe facial, head and neck injuries, including breaking his jaw in five places and scalping himself, he wasn’t expected to live.  Over the next two and half weeks he arrested a further seven times.

“Dad was actually met by two priests at the door.  He said ‘Is he alive?’  They said ‘yes but’.  He said ‘No buts I just want to see him.’” I had a red line across my chest.  He said ‘What’s the red line for?’  The doctor replied ‘He’s broken his neck and that’s where he will be able to feel from. ’My brother didn’t actually recognise me as I had no structure to my face, my jaw was just quivering skin and the top of my head was scalped.

Dean’s quick rehabilitation process has been through sheer determination and a positive attitude.

“Before my accident, I was a very strong willed, head strong person.  I suppose it goes back to my beliefs and a supportive family.

“Right from the beginning I made the conscious decision to see things as a challenge and not a problem which I believe was the key.”

“I believe that everything happens for a reason and I’m in this chair because I was strong enough to take it on and help other people deal with their disabilities as well as educating able-bodied people to understand and help see past the chair and defect and see me for me.

While he was in the Spinal Unit they told him he would never walk again which Dean replied with ‘OK where to from here?’

“They said I would have to go to the gym and do all that sort of stuff.  I said ‘Well let’s get into it then because I’m not going to spend my 20th birthday in here.’ They said ‘So when is your 20th birthday?’  I said ‘Dec 18th.They said ‘That’s less than four months away.  There is no way you’re getting home before that.’

“I flew into New Plymouth on the 16th December and had my 20th birthday at home.  I’d say I was 80% independent and because of that I had 5 hours a day home help.”

Dean and LynDean’s charismatic personality and cheeky wit are very evident in his day to day life.  He says his “charming personality” attracted his wife Lyn into his life.

“Coming up at our next wedding anniversary it will be 10 years.  She never knew me before my accident, she’s only ever known me in my chair.   It’s my charming personality she likes.  It’s the old story of one of the reasons I’m in a chair is with the personality I have and the looks I’ve got, god put me in a chair to give the other guys a chance!” he says as he roars with laughter.

After hearing about Dean’s story and his out-going personality a crime prevention officer asked Dean if he would be interested in sharing his story.  He saw it as an opportunity to “pay it forward” and share his story to help and inspire others.

“She asked if I would be interested in talking about the effects of drink driving at New Plymouth Girls High School.  I said ‘Yes, no worries’.

“We actually got the police photos of the accident and they were handed around.  We then opened it up for questions.  It just came naturally talking about it.  But it used to get quite tiring because you are trying to relive every memory and make it as detailed as possible.  We never prepared our speeches, it was just all off the cuff which I still do that today.

From this first talk Dean has gone on to speak to many clubs and groups around the country as well as doing one-to-one mentoring.

“To me a true motivational speaker is talking about how you live life and sharing your experiences so that you can help others.”

Dean has always had an adrenalin addiction and since becoming a tetraplegic he has not slowed down.

“I’ve represented New Zealand in shotput, discus, javelin and lawn bowls.  I’ve played wheelchair basketball and quad rugby.  I’ve gone bungee jumping, parachuting, off-road go karting as well as go-karting.  I was the first tetraplegic to have gone on an aqua-bike.

“I just live life, I don’t let my chair dictate it.  I can do a lot more than people think I can.  I love doing manual stuff like welding and making things.  I will do something that will take me 8 hours but it might take someone else who’s not in my position 2 hours.  Why get someone else to do it when I can?  Yes it will take more time but I will get there.”

Dean’s adrenalin serves him well as he races his speed boat, aptly named Lucky Break, against able-bodied drivers.

“My dad used to race until he broke his neck when his boat blew apart at Ratapiko.  We would always go and watch racing even after his accident.  He was very lucky not to have any lasting effects which brings out the old “they don’t make them like they used to” which I reply “I just do it right the first time and stop complaining about it” as we both broke the same vertebraes.

Lucky BreakDean believes he is the only person in a wheelchair to race powerboats in the world and has been recorded at a speed of 73.948 m/ph (119 k/ph) which is a lot slower than what he is going now.

“After passing a medical and then competing in 5 races, an official watching from control makes the decision if you get your race licence or not based on how safely you control the boat. It is motor sport so there is no leniency for me being in a wheelchair, probably the opposite in fact. I have to prove to them that my disability will not impair my control or endanger the safety of anyone else, including myself. After the first meet they came along and said give us your provisional, here’s your full licence which was an amazing personal achievement.

“Some people think just because I’m racing boats that I must have a lot of money.  I saved up for years to be able to get the hull and I then saved up to get the motor.  I save up all year so I can do about four or five meets.

2014 sponsor photo“I’m privileged to have Hydraulink, Valvoline, Supercharge Batteries, Eagle One and Falcon Engineering as my major sponsors.”

Living by his motto ‘One Life, One Decision’ Dean hopes that people will take a look at themselves and think of the lives of others before they make the wrong choice.

“It’s about taking control of your life, taking responsibility for your own actions.  If you’re out there racing like I am I’m responsible for my own actions.  I chose to do it and must deal with any consequences.  If I screw myself doing it, if I die, then it’s on me”.

“You can only look forward and change the future.  You have to focus on achieving what you can and not what you haven’t.  If you want to achieve you have to work for it.”

Anybody wanting to contribute towards Dean’s self-funded venture and help “pay-it-forward” please contact Sharyn Smart at


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