A Fly in the Pool

Special Olympics athletes are spokespersons for freedom itself – they ask for the freedom to live, the freedom to belong, the freedom to contribute, the freedom to have a chance. And of all the values that unite and inspire us to seek a better world, no value holds a higher place than the value of freedom”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver


The Team Victoria Handbook is on the table. Kate’s name is in it. Representing her State, representing herself, and representing triumph. The National Games for Special Olympics is being held in Melbourne this week. We’re the lucky hosts. All the States and Territories are represented. It’s a monumental undertaking to pull it all together.


As we prepare to leave and take Kate to her pre-Games training camp she’s up in her room singing. Her main concern is that her name tag is on her favourite drink bottle. I’m reading the vast array of instructions that have been issued to competing athletes: where the drop off point is, what to wear, what to pack, security and accuracy of medical requirements, no phones please, no parents calling please, no parents visiting please, etc etc.


Melbourne looks superb. The lilacs are in blossom, the roses are on the great verge and engaged in a titanic tussle with millions of aphids that are sucking the life out of the new buds, and the sun is pre heating the ground for a lingering summer.


The opening ceremony is held at Lakeside Stadium, which used to be the old South Melbourne footy ground: Lakeside Oval. It sparkles. I recall watching football games here in the 70s with some of my cousins; perched on the outer wing, atop empty cans of Courage Draught, peering between the moving heads of adults, trying to catch a glimpse of the players, avoiding the mud under foot, struggling to avoid inhaling the rancid smells of damp woollen duffle coats, and beer urine from the flooded dunnies. And now I sit here in the glorious sun on a plastic seat with a perfect view. Waiting for my little girl to appear in the parade of athletes.


There’s Kate. Smiling. She’s with her great friends Maddy and Harvey. Waving. Laughing. The speeches are bright and enthusiastic. I detect some emotion in the words of the Premier, Denis Napthine, as he mentions his own son who has autism. The New South Welshmen are the most vocal (and have the largest team), but the tiny mob representing the Northern Territory look the most exotic.


Two days later we are at MSAC (Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre). Its stifling inside as the temperature tries to reach 31 degrees outside. Being in an indoor pool can be like breathing inside a plastic bag at the best of times.


Kate’s grand opportunity is the 50 metre butterfly. She’s also competing in the 50 metres freestyle and the 50 metres breaststroke, but the “fly” is her chance.


“I might come first!” she excitedly said as I drove her into the camp on the first day.


The girls march out onto the pool deck for the 50 metre butterfly. I don’t mind saying that my heart rate is slightly raised. I’m hoping she swims a good race. I must resist the temptation to leap the barrier and give her a hug. Kate cranes her neck around. Where’s Mum and Dad? She spots us. Vigorous waving commences. She looks a treat in her black racing bathers, goggles and navy blue “Big V” swimming cap. She looks fit too. An athlete.


We wave back. Grandma and Nanna are with us. I can see Kate pointing at us, one at a time; ticking us off like groceries on a shopping list. She’s mouthing words:


“Mum. Dad. Grandma. Nanna.”


Then her brow furrows. She lifts her shoulders, bends her arms and points her palms towards the ceiling in the classic stance of someone asking a grave question.


“Where’s Grandpa?” she’s asking. “Where’s Grandpa?”


Its moments before the race and she’s searching for Grandpa. Trouble. Frances is holding up her leg and pointing to it. From a distance she must look like a lunatic.


“His leg is very sore!” she’s mouthing back to Kate. “He’s not here.” (Grandpa’s aging left leg has given way in recent times restricting his mobility. He can neither sit nor stand for long periods. Fortunately he can still enjoy a Tullamore Dew.)


The whistle blows. The girls must attend the starting blocks. But Kate is not settled. I can see her muttering too herself. Her universe is not quite in equilibrium. I make a mental note to get a cardboard cut-out of Grandpa that we can sit in the stands for future events. Her competitors are swinging their arms around as swimmers do before the butterfly. I’ve always thought the butterfly is a race for contortionists. They look like aquatic versions of Max Walker.


The second whistle. The girls all perch on the blocks, bent in racing mode, touching their toes before the launch into the water. Kate’s lips are still moving. She’s trying to process her thoughts. Arrange things mentally. But the absence of Grandpa has left a void. And all our waving and encouragement has made for a distraction. The feelings inside her must be swirling around like a bushfire in a gusty northerly; flighty, uncontrollable, unpredictable. Her left hand rises to fiddle with her goggles. She hunches over. The pool stretches out before her. I recite the Special Olympics athletes’ oath, with my own personal twist – please let her win, but if she can’t win let her be brave in the attempt.


The high pitched squeal of the starting gun sets them on their way. Kate dives in flat, not what Zac (her swimming coach) has been teaching her, but she emerges quickly, keen to get stuck in.


I don’t believe what I see next.


As she breaks the surface she launches into freestyle! Not butterfly. She’s retreated to her sanctuary, to what’s comfortable and easy, to the stroke she learned first. The raging bushfire in her head has sent her thoughts spiralling. The swimmers next to her are lost in their own battle. Kate takes a breath, then another. We’re yelling, pointlessly, noisily, hopelessly.


“No Kate, no. Butterfly. Butterfly!!”


But it’s too late. Disqualification is automatic. Half way down the pool she realises her error and a clumsy, defeated, ungainly butterfly ensues. She knows she’s gone. As she touches the wall I see her head drop. We’re slumped in our seats. Sad. Sad for her. Sad she’s missed her chance. Sad she couldn’t really show them what she had. No one speaks. I want to leap over the barriers again to commence that hug. I want to tell Kate it’s alright. She has other races, other tournaments, and other days. She exists the pool and darts a look in our direction. Disconsolate. That’s sport.


Eventually Nanna slaps her hands into her lap. Nanna, ever the pragmatist, ever the realist.


“Oh well,” she says, “There are worse things that could happen.”


Too right Nanna. Kate might not be with us at all.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. I really enjoy hearing what Kate got up to next. Looking forward to the next chapter, Dips.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    Your story had won me over when you described your daughter on the starting blocks, searching the crowd for various family members. The fact that she was able to jump in and compete, never mind using the correct stroke, was the icing on the cake. I’m sure you would have congratulated her on her fantastic achievement to represent Victoria no less.
    I have an adult autistic son who has unfortunately shied away from any sport, particularly team sports. So we have had to accept he has opted for solo pursuits such as trail-bike riding and bush-walking with his parents. He keeps an eye on the footy because of my interest and sometimes out of the blue if a player retires, he’ll say, “Didn’t he used to play with Geelong a few years ago?” in his true ‘Rainman’ style.
    We haven’t got a sporty son but he has turned out to be a decent and considerate young man. Seems to me with your daughter you hit the jackpot in both areas.

  3. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Freestyle/Free spirit. Nothing wrong with that, Dips. Onya Kate!

  4. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Dips always love your stories re Kate and this 1 is moving as always and I TOTALLY get your point about the cardboard cut out . How has Kate gone in her other races ?
    Thanks Dips

  5. Wonderful writing Dips.
    There is something a bit Stevie Motlop (I was going to say Travis Varcoe) about Kate – you never quite know what you’re going to get, but its always exciting and worth watching/hearing about.
    As a modest schoolboy backman, I remember being shifted forward in a one-sided game and turning to run (with surprisingly little opposition) to kick a goal – at the wrong end.
    Keep going Kate.

  6. Thanks all. I’ll pass on these messages to Kate.
    Neil, I have little experience with autism but it seems the cruelest cut. So long as your son has interests that must be a comfort.
    Rulebook, Kate got a bronze in the breast stroke (she finished 5th but two other people ahead of her got disqualified!!). And a bronze in the freestyle. The highlight was the medley relay team finishing with silver. Kate swam the butterfly leg of the relay so she got to do one butterfly race!

  7. Freestyle ,butterfly. Buggered if I can tell the difference. Fantastic to see that Kate has stuck with her swimming and representing the Big V with distinction once again. Tell Kate that the Almanac community was spiritually in the stands if Grandpa wasn’t. Cheers TR

  8. Mick Howard says

    Wonderful commentary Dips, A child representing the state is a wonderful achievement for everyone involved. The journey as usual is more important than the result. Nanna sounds like she is on to it..

  9. Hi Dips. It’s sad to hear that Kate swam freestyle in a butterfly competition, but you have such good positive thinking. It was not the end of her swimming. I guess that she might be upset for not seeing her grandfather. But she has more chances. I wish all the best to you, Kate, and the family :) Yoshi

  10. Wonderful.

    Well done Kate. Keep loving your swimming.

    [Thanks Dips]

  11. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi Dips and family, wonderful yarn, great effort by all, cardboard cut up of Grandpa can be a accompanied by an Almanac group cardboard cut out because we’re cheering from the sidelines. And not just for the swimming. Your writing is superb and I love when you tell stories about what Kate is up to. She’s a dynamo!

    Well done all


  12. Yvette what a brilliant idea! A fold up, portable, weather resistant, 10 seat (at least) , multi-coloured, bring-your-own, cardboard cut out Knacker crowd! Think of the multitude of uses!
    I’ll call Amcor in Monday.

  13. Terrific story Dips. Thanks for sharing. For a few short moments Kate’s attention was on ‘where’s Grandpa?’ rather than ‘what stroke am I meant to be swimming?’ What’s not to love?

    I see Kate still managed some outstanding results in other events. Go Kate!

    Cheers, Burkie

  14. G’day Dips and g’day Kate.
    Congratulations to you both for putting yourselves out there.
    There’s a lot to remember in this life, I reckon.
    But there’s a lot to be gained from having a go.

    Keep going.
    Well played.

  15. I should acknowledge that Lindsay Fox paid for all the athletes and their families to attend Luna Park after the closing ceremony. Would have cost a bomb. Probably 1500 people there at least I guess. Such generosity seldom makes the news pages.

  16. Congratulations Kate and Dips. A truly emotional story, you are both winners.

  17. Hi Dips

    Loved it. Beyond Kate’s swimming skills and cognitive processing difficulties is something much more important to her: family. She’s already ahead of the pack with that perspective.


    PS, when, oh when are they going to drop such antiquated and patronising terms such as ‘special’?

  18. RK – its a hard one, the use of “Special”. In the 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver was getting the whole thing going it had to be used – it was the terminology of the day. Now I’m not so sure. I find it an awkward and somewhat demeaning word in some ways. Patronising probably, though without that intent.

    However the efforts displayed at these and other Games are very special. There is a bloke who has cognitive problems, is deaf and is blind. He gets in the water, gets a tap on his arm when the starters pistol goes, and thrashes his heart out until he gets to the other end; miles behind the others. Its extraordinary to watch. Special indeed. I wonder what drives him.

    I’m not sure what other word to use, without it sounding contrived.

  19. Luke Reynolds says

    Nanna’s right. Go Kate. Great writing Dips.

  20. Dips
    I enjoyed every word.
    Well done Kate.

  21. Peter Fuller says

    I reckon Kate should be very proud of her efforts. Being third best in Australia in your non-preferred strokes is a magnificent achievement.
    I had the pleasure and honour to meet your father at the Stawell Gift Almanac Dinner earlier in the year, and he was as memorable in person as his storied record would suggest. Kate’s obviously bred in the purple as the racing folk say, with such a distinguished sire and grand-sire. Yet she also has that other characteristic for which no amount of talent can compensate – indomitable will-to-win. I’m sure that so many of the Almanac community have shared in spirit, Kate’s wonderful adventures in the pool, which you have so memorably recorded on the website
    We marathoners have a mantra, which I think applies to all sports and particularly to those engaged like Kate:
    There are three categories of winners in the marathon, first across the line, everyone who makes the finish line, and everyone who makes it to the start line.
    For mine, Kate won the “fly”.

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