Swim Like a Fish, Katie!

Imagine sitting in a quiet corner of the schoolyard and watching hundreds of screaming kids enjoying their lunch break; laughing, giggling, whispering secrets. You want to join in but it’s easier to stay where you are.


If you join in it would be too hard. You might say something silly and the other kids might laugh. You might not be able to hear the conversation. You might not understand the conversation. No, it’s much easier to stay here. And you’ll stay here not because the kids are mean or the school is a terrible place; on the contrary. It’s just easier to sit in your little shaded corner lost in your own thoughts, eating your sandwiches. No harm can come to you there.


And imagine if a kind-hearted kid sees you sitting there and comes over to say Hi. You say Hi too. And you’ll have a little chat and it’ll be nice. But after a few minutes you will run out of things to say because conversation is not something you practise very much. And the other kid will persist for a few minutes but will eventually leave, perhaps even thinking that you’re a little bit rude. And you would feel like screaming out “hey come back!” to the other kid but you won’t because it could be embarrassing. So you’ll sit in your little corner and you’ll hope to do better next time. You’ll probably feel a bit sad that it didn’t go well.


You recall a few years ago that an adult tried to explain to you that things are difficult because you have Down Syndrome. And you know you have something but you don’t know what it is, so when the adults explain to you that you have Down Syndrome at least you know what it is. It won’t mean anything really, but it explains why you are different. It explains why you only understand every third or fourth word people say to you. It explains why numbers are confusing and impossible to understand, why noise is disconcerting and disturbing. It explains why you can’t run as fast as the other kids, or jump as high, or be as cool. It explains all this, but it doesn’t make any of it easier.


And when you get home from school you go to your room and turn on your music machine and you put Taylor Swift or Abba on really loud, and you pick up your deodorant stick and pretend it’s a microphone and you imagine you are a rock star. You pretend you are cool. You’re lost in a beautiful place. Who cares if the neighbours can hear it?


You wonder if you are any good at anything. You get tired of things being so difficult. You can’t even eat the same meals as the rest of your family because some foods give you a belly ache. At least you can eat chocolate. And ice cream. But sometimes you get cross and anxious about everything and nothing is much fun.


But you remember when you were little and your mum took you to a swimming lesson. And you jumped into the water and it was wonderful. It was wet and fun. You could go under and do somersaults in the deep end. And you could sit just under the surface in a peaceful place where no one bothered you or asked questions or stuck their face in yours to study your leaky eyes or infected ears or troublesome tongue. The water was your sanctuary. It still is.


And you remember the swimming teacher coming up to your mum one day and saying, “This little one can really swim!” And you saw your mum smile. So mum took you to a swimming squad training session and you worried that you would fail again. You even got a belly ache worrying about it. You worried about having to talk to the coach and the other kids. What if you say something silly? But you jumped in and did the laps and had a few races and the new swimming coach went up to your mum after the session and said, “This little one can really swim.”


So you go in some official races with Special Olympics and guess what? You win some of them. And you get medals and ribbons and people see you up on the dais and they clap and even take your photo. You are not in your dark little corner of school anymore. And when grandma and grandpa and nanna come to watch you swim they as proud as punch and they clap and shout and you get to show them your medals and ribbons at the end of the day. They also bring you lollies.


Then one day you get home from school and your mum says there is a letter on the table for you. So you open the letter and it has a big blue heading “Special Olympics Australia” and you read the letter and it says things like “congratulations” and “Australian team” and “Asia Pacific Games” and it talks about getting a new tracksuit and new bathers and going off to a camp in Newcastle. So you ask your mum what it’s all about and your mum is beaming and says your have been selected to swim for Australia. And you can’t wait to tell dad.


So when dad is home you show him the letter and his mouth falls open and he smiles like a bear that caught the salmon and he gives you a big bear hug and ruffles your hair and calls you a fish, and a legend and very brave.


“Swim like a fish, Katie” he keeps saying. He drives you a bit mad really.


So when you get up on the blocks before the races in December, with your bathers on that say “Australia” across the back, you won’t really care about how hard it is going to be, how sore and heavy your arms might get, how floppy your legs will feel half way through the race. You won’t care about that stuff. Instead you’ll look up into the grandstand and you‘ll look for your mum and dad, and your brother and sister and you’ll wave madly to them and they’ll wave madly back. And everyone will be excited and happy. You are really cool and the whole stadium will be watching you and the other kids in this important race.


Then the man will say “take your marks” and you’ll bend over and get ready. But you always have trouble hearing the starting gun’s squeaky sound, so you’ll look to your side and wait until the little red light comes on just above the starter’s gun, and when it does you’ll plunge into the water, a place that is so familiar and comfortable for you, and you’ll have your mum and dad’s words of advice screaming in your ears.


“Swim like a fish Katie!”

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. This yarn speaks for itself. Fantastic news Katie. Congratulations.

  2. Peter Schumacher says

    This contribution is exactly why the Almanac site is so terrific, I found this and the telling of it extremely moving.

  3. Dear Damian,

    thank you for writing this, thank you for sharing Katie with us. Fantastic news and I’m so happy for all of you. Go Katie, you are already the Almanackers winner.



  4. Geez Dips, that’s a beautiful tribute to your daughter. A pleasure to read. And you know, even if she can only understand one fifth of your words, I’m sure she senses 100% of the love and pride you have for her.

  5. Pamela Sherpa says

    Fantastic Dips . Wonderful news for Katie .

  6. David Wilson says

    Good on you, Katie.
    And good on you, Dips.
    Brilliant story.
    A really heartening story.
    Thanks very much for sharing that.

  7. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Dips, wonderful news for Kate. Beautifully written mate. Go get ’em girl!

  8. Anne Myers says

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Katie is one lucky girl who 1. Has found something she is passionate about and that gives her a voice and 2. has a dad that loves her and can articulate that.

    Thanks Dips for sharing …

  9. Thanks for all the comments.

    Kate is a little beauty.

  10. Peter Flynn says

    This diminutive one can really write.

  11. Dips, Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with us. Go Katie!

  12. Peter Fuller says

    Your regular bulletins of Katie’s remakarble exploits are heartening and life-affirming – especially welcome when my weekend was buggered up on Friday night at the MCG.
    Go girl, do yourself proud.

  13. Rick Kane says

    Beautiful Dips, I’ve got leaky eyes reading it. This was my favourite piece (of an essay that just kept giving):

    And you could sit just under the surface in a peaceful place where no one bothered you or asked questions or stuck their face in yours to study your leaky eyes or infected ears or troublesome tongue. The water was your sanctuary. It still is.

    I can relate.


  14. Beachcrave says

    Thank you for sharing this.

  15. Just beautiful, Dips – and fantastic news about making the Australian team, Katie. What a champion!

  16. Dips

    You can’t keep doing this, it’s ruining what reputation I have if people see me sitting at my desk with tears welling in my eyes.

    Great great writing, as well as a beautiful story.

    Go Katie, you are a star, (and so’s your old man)


  17. Nice one Sean. Thanks for the comment.

    If your work mates ask about your tears just tell them you’ve read the names in the Australian Ashes squad – they’ll understand. .

  18. I can’t say it any better than the others already have, Dips. Just superb.

  19. Cheers Gigs. Have you been looking up the Ashes squad too?

  20. Dips, an excellent telling of a great story. As Peter fuller said, Katie’s exploits ARE heartening and life affirming. It was great to hear about them and see good parental advice portrayed in that way. We are all behind Katie and the family. All the best

  21. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic Dips. To be an Australian representive in anything is an outstanding effort. Good luck to Kate when she puts on the Green & Gold in December.

  22. Great stuff. Thanks, Dips.
    I look forward to reading more of Katie’s swimming!

  23. Dette Hodgkinson says

    I just re-read Dips story about Katy before I forwarded it on to a friend. A beautiful piece of writing about a lovely, happy and funny kid within a loving and affirming family. Go Katy!

  24. Malcolm Ashwood says

    What a wonderfully written Piece Dips of Love and compassion Go Katie Go
    I am helping in a small way d4d Dignity for Disability over here in SA and will 4wd this on Today to several people who will really appreciate this article
    Thanks Dips Go The Knackery

  25. Cheers Malcolm. Good luck in your work in SA.

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