A beloved wheelchair basketballer champion and disability advocate who once made headlines after being forced to crawl off a Jetstar flight has tragically died, leaving behind her young son.
Natalie Curtis, 34, was an icon in Townsville – a celebrated athlete and business woman who owned disability service provider Vital Supports and Supplies.
She once represented Australia in wheelchair basketball and was also an avid disability activist – going viral in October last year after revealing she was forced to crawl off a plane when Jetstar staff couldn’t provide her with a wheelchair.
Now, the north-eastern Queensland community is in mourning after Ms Curtis’ sister Emma revealed she suddenly died on the evening of Sunday, February 5.
The cause of her death hasn’t been made public.
‘If you knew Natalie, you would know she was the most beautiful, kind and talented person,’ Emma wrote.
Australian wheelchair basketball silver medallist, disability advocate, business owner and mother-of-one Natalie Curtis, 30, (pictured) has tragically died
‘She was a daughter, a sister, an aunty and a mother to a beautiful little boy.
‘Everyone who knew her loved her instantly, she had such a kind soul and would do anything for the people she cared for most.’
Ms Curtis, who was born with spina bifida – a birth defect where the spinal cord fails to develop properly – was immersed in sport from a young age.
She started as a swimmer but dropped out in childhood after her young sister tragically drowned in the family’s backyard pool.
At 14, she picked up wheelchair basketball and trained hard into adulthood – later securing a spot in the Australian Gliders and claiming a silver medal at the 2013 Japan Oceania Championships.
However, her dreams of competing on the international stage were dashed when she was in a serious car accident after returning from the games back to Townsville, which left her with five spinal fractures.
In the years that followed, as she worked towards her recovery, she set her eyes on new pursuits – marrying, adopting a son, Malakai, and starting her own business offering home care packages to those living with a disability.
Ms Curtis also trained and coached a wheelchair basketball team, worked for Sporting Wheelies to bring wheelchair basketball into schools, and was a proud ambassador for the Australian Institute of Sport.
Ms Curtis played for the Australia Gliders at Japan Oceania Championships in 2013
Ms Curtis trained and coached wheelchair basketball teams and worked to bring the sport into schools
In 2021, her Olympic hopes were reignited when she was selected for the Australia Gliders squad to prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics.
In recent months, Ms Curtis was again thrust into the limelight after her ordeal with Jetstar.
While boarding a flight from Singapore to Bangkok on October 27 last year, she was offered a free customised wheelchair that fits plane aisles – however, when she landed, she was told she would need to pay to be wheeled off the plane.
She refused to pay, and instead crawled to the door of the plane before getting into her regular wheelchair, with her story later going viral after footage of the incident was shared with Seven’s Sunrise program.
Ms Curtis also recently featured in mini-documentary series Fearless Films which follows the stories of people living with disabilities as they carve careers, with her segment titled ‘The Working Supermum’.
In the episode released in December, Ms Curtis detailed her IVF struggles, subsequent adoption of a relative’s son and her struggles with homelessness after separating from her husband.
Ms Curtis was forced to crawl down the aisle of a Jetstar plane after she was not offered a complementary wheelchair (pictured) in October last year
Labor state MP Aaron Harper, who met Ms Curtis a few years ago at the local business development centre, said he was ‘devastated’ by the sad news of Ms Curtis’s death.
He said she had ‘only days ago’ signed a lease on a new building to expand her business.
‘Nat had great personal drive and determination to start her own business Vital Supports and Services,’ the member for Thuringowa wrote on Facebook.
‘Recently we met at the release of the Fearless series, another of Nat’s inspirational stories of overcoming many obstacles in life to achieve so much in wheelchair sport & to start her own disability support business.
‘Our entire community will miss you Nat. May you rest in peace.’
One local said Ms Curtis’s loss was ‘absolutely devastating’, while a man described her as a ‘true warrior’ and ‘leader in the community’.
Not-for-profit organisation Sporting Dreams said Ms Curtis was a ‘young soul taken too soon.’
‘She was so much more than an athlete,’ the organisation said.
‘A vibrant human being, wife, mother to a small boy, business founder and manager of her own company supporting people with disabilities.
‘Someone who leads by example. RIP Natalie.’
Ms Curtis has been remembered as a ‘kind soul’ who was determined and driven
Ms Curtis’ sister Sheree Poggioli has launched a GoFundMe to help their ‘shattered family’ with funeral costs and setting up a trust for her five-year-old son ‘to shine just as his mother did in life when he is older’.
Ms Poggioli told Daily Mail Australia her sibling was an ‘amazing person’.
‘Everyone knew her as a basketball star, but for my family she was so much more,’ Ms Poggioli said.
‘She was a mother, a daughter, a sister, sister in-law, aunty and friend to many. She was always just a phone call away when we needed her.
‘It’s very hard to comprehend the loss of Nat. She will be incredibly missed by everyone that had the opportunity to know her.
‘I promised her I would be there for her son and I’m holding on to that promise and will do my very best to give him a bright and happy future, just as she always wanted.’
Local residents are also seeking to have a basketball hoop erected near where she lived in honour of her memory.
Ms Curtis will be farewelled by loved ones in a ceremony at Morleys Funerals at the Lakes at 10am on 17 February.
WHAT IS SPINA BIFIDA?
Spina bifida is a birth defect involving the development of a baby’s spine and spinal cord during the first month of pregnancy
It affects about 150 babies born in Australia each year
The condition can cause several problems depending on its severity, which can include: muscle weakness in the feet, hips or legs, loss of feeling in parts of the skin, bladder or bowel incontinence, hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), learning difficulties, spine problems such as scoliosis, sexual problems or Chiari malformation (where part of the brain pushes down into the spinal canal)
Evidence suggests that its development is causes by both genetic and environmental factors, such as low folate in a mother’s diet while pregnant
Spina bifida may be diagnosed during ultrasounds and blood scans during pregnancy.
There is no cure, with treatment depending on the severity. Surgery may be applied in some cases to reduce future disability.