Sports enthusiast has the perfect business

Long-time workmates Barry McCallum (left) and Richard Hill have been in business for 10 months at Oamaru Sports and Outdoors. Photo by Sally Rae.
Long-time workmates Barry McCallum (left) and Richard Hill have been in business for 10 months at Oamaru Sports and Outdoors. Photo by Sally Rae.
A rugby game back in 1979 changed Richard Hill's life forever.

The 18-year-old teenager was playing openside flanker for his Excelsior club in a game against St Kevin's College when he broke his neck. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.

''It only takes one second to change your life,'' the affable and inspirational Oamaru sports enthusiast said.

A few months ago, Mr Hill returned to Burwood Hospital's spinal unit in Christchurch, where he had spent four and a-half months following his accident. He spoke to patients and told them: ''there's more to life than lying in bed and not getting out''.

Mr Hill has lived life to the fullest, and after many years working in the sports trade, made the transition last year from employee to employer, opening Oamaru Sports and Outdoors with Barry McCallum.

An opportunity arose last year for the two men to open a sports shop in the same building where they had both spent so many years working for Barry and Linda Wilson, who then owned Wilsons Sports.

The pair had both finished previous employment and their passion for the sports trade was ''still pretty strong'', Mr Hill said.

Going into business themselves was not, however, a decision they made lightly and it did take some thinking about, although they were ''pretty enthusiastic to do something'', Mr McCallum said.

While working on the shop floor was still the same, the administrative side of running a business was something they had to get used to. But they were enjoying the opportunity to work for themselves and control their own destinies, they said.

The pair, workmates for years, worked well together and were able to bounce ideas off each other. They employed one permanent staff member.

Mr McCallum joined what was then John Edmonds sports shop after leaving school in 1978. It later became Wilsons Sports.

Before he broke his neck, Mr Hill had been working in the cattle yards at the local freezing works. Once home from Burwood and after a period of ''doing absolutely nothing'', he was offered work experience on the switchboard at Oamaru Hospital. He ended up working in the hospital laundry, surrounded by women, and it was ''awesome fun''.

Then his ACC case manager told him he had a job interview with Barry Wilson at Wilsons Sports. He was taken on with a three-month trial ''and here I am today, still in the sports trade and loving it''.

Having a staff member in a wheelchair was also a learning curve for Mr and Mrs Wilson and their staff, he said.

They had to adjust to ''someone sitting on their butt'' who would say ''I need that off the wall . . . or I need a hand to lift something''.

Customers also had to adjust to being served by someone in a wheelchair but, after a while, they started to ask for him.

Mr Hill bluntly acknowledged that he could have ''crawled into a sack and not got out of bed'' after his accident but the encouragement he received from Mr and Mrs Wilson and colleagues, including Mr McCallum, enabled him to ''get where I am today''.

He doubted such support would have been available in a large business.

''You would get lost,'' he said.

When he visited Burwood last year, he urged patients to get out and become actively involved in their communities. Sitting or lying in bed would never get them to where they wanted to go, he said. Mr Hill remembered leaving the security of the spinal unit, surrounded by others in wheelchairs, and returning to Oamaru to re-establish himself in the community. The community support, however, was ''awesome''.

He recalled his mother pushing him into town from their North End home to do some shopping but never getting the shopping done because people kept stopping, wanting to know how he was getting on.

A benefit rugby match was held in his honour, with a crowd estimated at nearly 5500, to watch Canterbury playing an invitational North Otago side. It was one of the last games that Alex ''Grizz'' Wyllie, later All Black coach, played and he presented Mr Hill with a rugby book signed by the members of both teams.

Mr Hill was grateful to Excelsior stalwart John Tito, who took him on board as manager for a senior side, saying if it were not for him, he did not know if he would have become as actively involved with rugby as he did.

He later coached a senior B side and managed an under-20 team and, when Excelsior faced a coaching crisis, he and Darryn Stewart took on coaching the senior team to get it through, which was an ''awesome experience''.

He had eased off his involvement in rugby, particularly with the new business, saying that work had to be a priority.

Oamaru Sports and Outdoors opened in March last year and had enjoyed ''unreal'' public support. The pair aimed to provide old-fashioned service and they were both grateful for the continuing support of Mr and Mrs Wilson. Mr McCallum was in charge of stringing racquets and also gave advice on general sports, while Mr Hill looked after fishing - ''I'd go fishing every day of the week if I could'' - rod and reel repairs, firearms and water sports.

''Not that I'm a great water skier.''

The pair's aim was to continue to increase sales and ''enjoy what we're doing'', Mr McCallum said.

- sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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