“I remember sitting at my mate’s house when the Beijing Paralympics were on … [watching] a couple of cracking games in Beijing, it got me hooked.
“That was sort of the turning point where I really wanted to, you know, try to train hard and try to sort of see if that’s somewhere that I could get to myself.
“I would probably describe it as a light-bulb moment. Pretty much from then I just sort of changed my attitude towards training and my fitness.
In Beijing, Australia lost the wheelchair rugby final to the United States, but the magnitude of the occasion struck a chord.
“I got in touch with a couple of the guys and lent someone’s training program and tried to have a crack at that,” Lees, now 42, said.
“I got a lot of fitter. I probably cut back on a bit of the booze and the junk food and stuff like that and lost a bit of weight.”
The work paid dividends soon enough. In 2009 Lees was invited to a training camp with the national team – with a “no guarantees” message from the coach – but in that same year he represented Australia for the first time.
Lees has since been a mainstay of the successful Australian team which claimed the wheelchair rugby gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics and then defended their title in Rio de Janeiro three years ago.
But for the keen Australian rules and cricket fan who was left paralysed from the chest down after his accident, being actively involved in sport of any sort has been a focal point of his life and in the early years after his accident it allowed him to better connect with others.
“When I got involved with wheelchair rugby, I met people who had been through a similar experience,” Lees said.
“They were great to bounce questions off and [help you] learn how to do things differently.
“You see guys that are driving their own cars and got married and had families.
“In the early days you think that might be something you’ve missed out on – you’re not necessarily going to find someone that wants to start a family with a person in a wheelchair, but as soon as you see all the guys that have gone through that and that’s just part of life, it sort of really just opened my eyes and helped a lot.”
As it turned out Lees met his wife Melanie in 2012 – at a wheelchair rugby tournament in Vancouver where she was on the organising committee – and they now have a family with two young girls.
Tuesday is International Day of People with Disability. Lees agrees that combined with watching disabled athletes at events such as the Paralympics – an experience that he can directly relate with – can provide the right spark.
“It does put it in the spotlight. It showcases the achievements of a lot of Australians that have done amazing things,” he said.
Lees, who works part-time for Disability Sport and Recreation, will be running a “come and try” activity at the Disability Sport and Recreation Festival being held in Melbourne.
“It would be great for parents of a kid who might have a disability to come along and see what’s available out there,” he said.
“The sky really is the limit. For that kid they can play at a social level or potentially go all the way to represent Australia at the Paralympics.”
Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age