Swimming For Life

Sometimes sport can surprise you in an unexpected way. It can catch you off guard and make you reassess. But perhaps it’s not the sport so much as it is the participants.
Last Sunday I was at a swimming carnival. It was held at the Doug Ellis Pool on the grounds of Monash University in Clayton. One of my children was competing. It was her first competition. She obviously doesn’t get her swimming ability from me; I had all the aquatic ability of a house brick.
I entered the pool and was immediately hit by that indoor pool stuffiness. I hate it. It takes my breath away. Kids and young adults were everywhere, officials (all volunteers) gathered at the end of the pool and tested their stop watches, and parents, grandparents and other spectators sat on the damp wooden benches. We joined the huddled masses.
The races weren’t starting for about 20 minutes so I turned on my radio to see if I could pick up the Geelong v Richmond game. All I got was the dreaded sound of fuzzy noise pollution. I thought it was going to be a long day.There was a young bloke sitting next to me. He noticed me fiddling with my radio.
“Trying to get the footy?” he asked.
“Yeah” I said. He was looking at me intently. “I’m Damian, what’s your name?” I asked him.
“Edward” he said. “Who do you barrack for?”
“The mighty Cats” I said. “You?”
“Hawks” said Edward, “But the Tigers are my second team.” A broad smile immediately spread across his face. “Do you want to know the scores?”
Before I could answer Edward had flipped open his mobile phone and was working it like a pro. He went to Pocket News.
“It’s early in the game. A goal each. C’mon the Tigers!” his face broke into the enormous smile again.
Edward was called away to swim in his first race. It was the 100 metre freestyle. He battled hard. I watched his endeavour. Arms and legs flew about but there was rhythm there. He got through the water a lot better than I could. He finished fourth.
“Good swim” I said to him when he returned to the seat.
“It was OK” said Edward a bit deflated. “I could have won that. What’s the footy scores?” Once again he went to the Pocket News. It was the second quarter. The Cats were kicking away a bit.
“Cats by 15 points” he said. I began to feel a bit more comfortable.
The swimming carnival unfolded before me. Kids and young adults of varying abilities had a go. Some could swim like fish, some just splashed about and barely kept afloat. But they had a go. My daughter came second in her 100 metre freestyle. She was very excited. After returning from the marshal’s table to collect her ribbon she presented a certificate. It was in recognition of her swim being a PB. Smiles all around. I could see her confidence growing before my eyes. No amount of parental encouragement can quite replace a sporting achievement.
Edward was muttering away next to me, talking largely to himself. He spent a good part of the afternoon doing it. The swimming carnival had captured my attention. My willingness to keep up with the football scores had receded.
Edward went well in his second race and his mood picked up. He returned to his seat beaming.
“Whooh!” he said “That was great”. I don’t know exactly where he finished but he was very pleased. He walked up and down the pool deck with his arms in the air like a bloke who’d just won the world heavy weight title. He pumped his fists. No one seemed to mind in the least.
“Yes” he was saying “YES!”
“Great swim” I said. He gave me a high five.
For some minutes he sat next to me and continued his muttering. He was reassuring himself. Telling himself to stay with it.
I was enthralled by the ability of some of these swimmers, and even more enthralled by the willingness of the others to compete, especially given the huge hurdles many of them must overcome on a daily basis. The place was full of enthusiasm, team mates cheered for each other, competitors embraced each other after a close race, smiles abounded, parents laughed, coaches gave out encouraging comments to everyone even the few who couldn’t see their races out. I couldn’t help feeling that this is what junior sport should be – a celebration of the activity, of the competition. Try your hardest and come what may.
I felt a nudge in my ribs. It was Edward. He looked at me earnestly. I knew he was going to let me in on one of his secrets.
“I’m keeping my Olympic dreams under my hat for the moment.” He said. It was priceless.
“By the way” he said “The Cats are leading by 12 points. Its three quarter time. Go Tigers!”
My daughter had a go at the 50 metre backstroke and came fourth. She was most displeased. Her coach patted her on the shoulder and said great effort. However in the 50 metre freestyle she was leading at the halfway mark (it was a 25 metre pool). As she turned for home her team mates got involved. We yelled her home. Her first win in the pool. If I could bottle her smile at the end of the race and send it around the world I reckon we would see peace in our time.
“Cats by a goal” said Edward.
A few moments later – “Scores level. Go Tigers!” It was deep in the last quarter.
Funnily enough I didn’t really care. I was in a happy place. The Cats, the AFL, the ruthlessness to win; none of it belonged here.
The carnival finished and Edward disappeared. I went outside and turned on the radio. I heard the Cats theme song. They must have got up. I was surprisingly mellow.
The carnival I attended was the Southern/Westernport Regional Aquatic Games for the Special Olympics. All the kids and adults who competed have disabilities, mostly Down Syndrome it seemed to me. Some have profound difficulties, others less profound. Their participation is remarkable. Winning is joyous, but just being in the pool is their real victory.
We hear all the bad news too regularly but there are some wonderful things going on in our community.

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. Magic, Dips. I bet she’s still smiling.

  2. I have to stop reading this Almanac stuff. Keep going teary. Turns a bloke into a sook. Or maybe the eternal adolescent into a man. Thanks Dips.

  3. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great piece Dips. Ditto Peter B. That moment of truth, when you see your daughter smile from the depths of her being, stays with you and gives you so much hope and perspective.

    Edward did a great job seeing he had to carry the burden of following Richmond into into the meet.

  4. Matt Zurbo says

    Top stuff, Dips!!!

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Dips!
    Just wonderful.

  6. Peter Flynn says

    Fantastic day by the sound of it Dips.

    “I’m keeping my Olympic dreams under my hat for the moment.” That is very funny.

  7. Brilliant, Dips.

  8. Steve fFhey says

    Very nice piece Dips, we need regular perspective-checkers

  9. I’m a house brick too my daughter puts me to shame in the water also!
    Lovely piece, thanks

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