Special Olympics – Swimming: Please Let Me Win


Kate with her silver medal



Saturday morning was a bit chilly. First time I can recall wearing something on top of a T-shirt for quite a while. I’m sitting in a hall next to the Veneto Club in Bulleen (Melbourne) waiting for the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics Victoria State Games to commence. The local Manningham Shire Big Band is in full swing, and when the athletes enter the hall to beating drums and a boisterous brass section I reckon there are enough smiles in the place to hold up the roof.


Our daughter Kate is representing her club, Melbourne Inner East, in the swimming events. If she can win a gold medal in one of her events she will go to the national Games to be held later in the year in Adelaide. Butterfly is the best chance. But rather than spending the pre-carnival moments imprisoned by nerves and thoughts of what might be won or lost, she is consumed by the buzz of friendship and giggling in her group of swimming comrades. Embraces are given out freely, hugs, back slaps, and even the odd hair ruffle are all part of the routine. This is pure fun and delight.


The athletes’ oath is read out during the Opening Ceremony:


“Please let me win,

But If I can’t win,

Let me be brave in the attempt.”


I’ve volunteered my services across the weekend and been allotted the poisoned chalice of “Check Starter”. The Check Starter’s responsibility is to ensure that the right swimmers are in the right lane, that they know what event they are swimming in (ie, freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly or backstroke), and that they understand how many laps they need to complete. Because it’s a 25 metre pool I ran out of fingers and toes when calculating the laps required to complete the 800 metres freestyle. But that was the least of my problems.


The intellectual disabilities that the athletes have are many and varied, from quite profound to rather slight, so the explanations required for each athlete could last three seconds or two minutes. This is how a conversation went with one of the athletes. I’ll call him Con.


Me – “Do you know what lane you’re supposed to be in Con?”

Con – “Yes I do, sir,” says Con in an American accent. Con always speaks with an American accent. His parents are mystified as to why.

Me – “Lane 2. Yes?”

Con – “Correct”.

Me – “Then why are you standing up here next to Lane 8?”

Con – “Oh yes. Lane 8. I like Lane 8.”

Me – “But someone else is swimming in Lane 8. You need to go back to Lane 2.”

Con – “Lane 2 is for losers.”

Me – “Maybe, but it’s your lane. Do your best.”


I physically escort Con back to Lane 2. He doesn’t mind. The race is about to commence. He stands at the ready, waiting for the starters instructions, looking at the roof and muttering to himself. The whistle blows for the swimmers to climb onto the blocks. Con lifts up both arms, then cups his right hand around his mouth and makes a very loud trumpeting sound, as if Her Royal Highness, the Quanger herself, is about the enter the stadium. Then he bellows out,


“Lane 2! The winners’ lane!!”


The gun is fired and Con plunges in. He starts badly then completely slackens off. He comes last by miles. But when he makes his final touch against the wall, I can still hear him talking away to himself under water (fair dinkum), happy as a lark. When he exits the pool, I catch him on the way past.


“Good try,” I say as cheerfully as possible.


“Yes sir,” says Con like that Sergeant Major in the military. “Thank you for Lane 2.”


This is pretty much my weekend. Brilliant banter. Exhausting banter. To this young woman, I need to be gentle and quiet, then to another I must cajole and jolly along, then later still I need to get a bit stroppy and pull a belligerent bloke back into line. Its delicate work. Emotionally draining. And magnificently rewarding. There are heaps of smiles, some tears, enough hugs to bottle, and huge cheers from the full house of spectators for all kinds of efforts. First, second or third is the aim for most competitors. Others just want to get to the end of the pool. Their victory is just as great. Twenty-five metres of water is a frightening prospect for some. When they conquer it, they are Edmund Hillary or Neil Armstrong. They are alive!


Kate has a crack in the 50 metres butterfly but can only manage second. She swims well. Beaten by a better athlete on the day. Sadness descends. Her big chance to go to the Nationals in 2017 is blown. I can’t go and give her a hug as I need to organise the next group of athletes, but I see her wrap the towel around herself and saunter out of the pool area; head down, tears floating to the floor like autumn leaves, shoulders hunched. It’s the walk of the defeated. It pains me. But that’s life. Better to fight and be defeated than to never fight at all. That’s what my old man (Kate’s Grandpa) used to say. In a macabre sort of way, her being sad about losing a swimming race is a delightful distraction from her other difficulties, which are not insubstantial. Down Syndrome is a many-edged sword and some of the edges are cruelly blunt.


But here is the beauty of sport. It’s a practice run at living. We fly the kite but sometimes it crashes to the ground and we must learn to get up again, disability or no disability. Kate’s sporting kite crashed today and she has to deal with that. She’ll recover, and what’s more, every time her kite does crash she’ll handle it better.


The Special Olympics organisation is an extraordinary thing. Started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the USA, a remarkable woman whose energy and zest for ideas was almost unmatched (perhaps the wrong Kennedy was President), it spread to Australia in the early 1970s, and now provides wonderful opportunities for people like our little Kate; opportunities to shine, opportunities to learn, and perhaps most importantly, opportunities to teach the rest of us.


If you only watch one video this week make sure it’s this one. Kennedy Shriver’s “You have earned it” speech in this video is one of the most brilliant ever made. It goes toe to toe with JFK’s “Ask Not” effort. It is powerful and enlightening. It should be the story of all humanity.




Click on the link, then click on the little hyperlink that says “watch”.




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. Great stuff. Thanks Kate and Dips. I have watched “Brave in the Attempt” a couple of times. I can remember being in awe and almost tears the first time, and then sitting down with AE to watch it again together. The whole 30 for 30 series is amazing. Any Foxtel Sports subscriber can find it in Anytime.
    Kate – you sound like me after the 2005 and 2015 GF’s. Second is glorious and galling at the same time. So near and yet so far. I aspire to come second in a golf comp one day………
    Dips – you are right about effective communication being emotionally exhausting. That thing of gauging a person’s body language and emotional energy and working out how to get the message across. Exhausting and worthwhile.
    Love it. Thanks.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Dips superb and as some 1 who has helped out re various disabilities and events I was nodding and smiling re Con spot on re exhausting and rewarding,keep at it Kate all the best !
    ( Dips your stories re Kate’s life are a almanac treasure )

  3. Hi Dips. Another lovely read from you. I’ve been a bit quiet on here for a while but the opportunity to catch up on what Kate is up to was more than enough to draw me in. These events must be magnificent to behold for all involved.

  4. Neil Anderson says

    Another moving piece on the trials and tribulations of your daughter Kate. I wonder if she realizes how much she has achieved already being eligible to compete for a possible place in the National Swimming Championships.?
    Your details of guiding Con to the right starting block and just how exhaustive the communication process is certainly rang a bell. My son on the autism spectrum needs his daily- diary sorted when he first gets up in the morning, which usually means one of his parents has to be available to confirm what he expects to be doing for the day. No-one in this family has the luxury of winging it each day.
    Reading about Con with his preference for a particular starting-block and not wanting the ‘losers-block’ sounded very familiar.
    I’m sure you know how much Kate has achieved already. Now comes the exhausting bit as you try and convince your daughter of those achievements after her set-back.

  5. Hear! Hear! Rulebook.

  6. Wonderful story Dips. Sounds like you’ve got the Check Starter role nailed down for future events.
    Congratulations to Kate for her podium finish. Her kite will fly again!

    Cheers, Burkie

  7. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Oh, Dips, If only everyone in this world could have a weekend of check starting, listening to others, adjusting to another, refining for others … the delicate and hard work of humanity indeed! Bravo to you for embedding yourself in the practice. And thank you for sharing it with us.

    It’s funny too, I think in our kids’ disappointments, we learn a lot about our own responses to similar circumstances. How I felt you watching her leave in tears and then the strength in your response. They are such teachers, coming from behind us and leading us from the front. Hope Kate recovered amply.

  8. Wonderful comments. I love the thought that Kate has touched so many people. She is so strong and so fragile. Appreciate everyone’s good wishes.

  9. I found this story both rewarding and uplifting, old mate.
    I have nothing but admiration for Kate and all of the other athletes.
    And congrats to you, Dips, for your efforts as check starter. Indeed it does sound exhausting.

    Re the process of observing your own child’s disappointment and/or heart-break: parents certainly experience a unique kind of sadness, mixed with helplessness, mixed with the knowledge that it is all part of the journey of life for them. But that does not make it any easier to witness.

  10. Cat from the Country says

    Thanks Dips for sharing Katie with us.
    Your family has many blessings Katie amongst them.

    It is so hard to watch our children deal with disappointments.

    Katie is a winner getting to the State Special Olympics.
    And she does have a medal even thoigh it is not gold.
    Bless you all

  11. Dave Brown says

    Second is awesome, well done Kate! Keep going. I’m a great fan of your old man’s attitude, Dips, and this piece. The nobility lies in giving your all, the outcome belongs to the Fates.

  12. Dips

    You did it to me again. I need to remind myself not to read your pieces about Kate at work. Doesn’t do my hard nosed pr*ck image any good if I am shedding a tear.

    Great read as ever. I’m with Rulebook on the treasure line and echo Mathilde that we should all do a lane check role once in a while to remember to have perspective.

    Kate the super fish is lucky to have a dad like you, and clearly, as much as you are lucky to have her as a daughter.


  13. Earl O'Neill says

    Great piece, Dips, many thanx. Con made for a genuine lol.
    All best to Kate, butterfly is a shocking stroke ffor swimming.

  14. E.regnans says

    Thanks Dips, and through you thanks to Kate and to Con.

    In the world of children, and (moreso?) in the so-called adult world, It seems that ideas of Justice and fairness are often confused.
    What is fair in this life?
    What is just?
    What just is?

    Well done Kate, Con, and you Dips.

  15. Rick Kane says

    Dips, I’m in step with what everyone else has said here. Kate, as we have come to know here through your stories will get up again and we will look forward to her next adventure and your telling of it.

    And I support anything that tires you out!


  16. Luke Reynolds says

    Just wonderful Dips.
    Well done on your volunteering efforts, events like this just don’t happen unless people like yourself help out.
    Thanks for sharing.

  17. Anne Myers says

    Oh, Dips. Perfect. The experience of losing and being sad with that; how human. Con made laugh till I cried. Exhausting and rewarding. The lanes of life.

    Eunice Kennedy Shriver. What an amazing woman. I didn’t know her story. Using her privilege to make a difference, for her sister and the world.

    Thank you for sharing.

  18. Hello Dips – Your Mum and I have just been reading some of the posts about Con and that moving Lane – I really want Lane 2 but hell you are sending me to Lane 8! And then we moved on to your moving account of Kate getting second place and the disappointment she undoubtedly felt. We felt her pain and if we could change it, we would! Good on you Kate, your plucky nature will fight to try and try again. We were very touched by all the other comments of support for Kate. See all the good she has done! Beautiful reading for Easter Saturday afternoon. Well done Kate. Mum and Dette.

  19. Glad I came here today and read this Dips. Beautiful and funny and written just right.
    I’m swimming in the ocean at Lorne every morning and constantly outdistanced by pregnant women, old men etc. One old bloke goes twice as far in a hundred strokes as i do in less time.
    One morning I complimented him on his swimming and he said, ‘I was never quite good enough to beat Murray Rose or Jon Konrads.’
    It’s a good thing defeat is so educational or I’d be a lot less smart.

  20. Cheers ajc. I’d hadn’t seen this for a while. Reading it again brought back that couple of days. Sensational stuff.

    Love the old bloke saying he was never good enough to beat Murray Rose of Jon Conrads! Crikey. I was swimming (pathetically slapping the water really) at the Balwyn outdoor pool a while back and got chatting to a life guard as we watched this young bloke doing freestyle laps at an incredible pace. Gun swimmer. I muttered to the life guard “what does he do that I don’t?”

    “He’s only 25” she said.

    Nuff said.

  21. Kevin Densley says

    Very fine piece, Dips – the love shines through!

  22. Thanks KD.

    Kate is a star. Had a greater impact in her 24 years than I could have in 3 lifetimes. And she wouldn’t even know it!! Priceless.

  23. Glad this one has resurfaced, Dips. What an incredible experience is the Special Olympics. I’ve been in your shoes as a soccer coach at state games level and you’re bang on the money about different abilities/emotions requiring a different tact. I know hot shot project managers who would keel over just thinking about it. But you do most of the heavy lifting in your heart I reckon. Even though it may be a child or sibling who got us involved in the first place, it just goes without saying that all the athletes give cause to have a crack in a support role.

    Our respective champions are worthy of more chat at the pub when we can get there.

  24. Excellent Jarrod. Can’t wait to have the chat and that beer!!

  25. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks Dips. Look forward to seeing you at the NFA sometime soon.

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