Very Special

Please may I win,

But if I can’t win

Let me be brave in the attempt.

 

Over the first week of December I’ve witnessed some truly great moments in sport. Moments that affected me; moments that caught me wiping my eyes and clearing my throat. Unfortunately they will not be recorded in the annals of our sporting history.

I’ve been in Newcastle, just north of Sydney. Newcastle itself is something of a surprise packet. Upon leaving the airport you are confronted with grey metal mining monsters and coal stacks. In the ports ships sit with mouths open like cuckoo birds as conveyer belts run mountains of coal into their bellies. And they line the horizon, waiting patiently for the harbour master to call them in to the feast.

But just beyond the city streets are some delightful beaches and green municipal gardens. The beaches are busy with young surfers and kids kicking the sand in the shallows. The locals have carved some sea baths from the natural rock platforms that line the headlands between the beaches. In the outer suburbs sits the University, which obviously attracts the young people, who in turn keep Newcastle fresh and buoyant. There is a balance here; industry which means jobs, beaches which means lifestyle. I could get fond of this place.

But what took us to Newcastle was the Asia Pacific Games for Special Olympics; 32 countries represented, 2500 athletes competing across oodles of sporting contests, and hundreds of generous volunteers who gave up their time.

Our interest was at the aquatic centre where Kate, our daughter, was competing. This is by far her largest event. She’s been to regional championships, junior Games, and State titles but this is huge. The Governor General took a break from advocating a Republic to attend the opening ceremony, along with a buzzing spectator gathering of over 20,000 people, and a large TV audience live on GEM. Pops stars sang (I didn’t know half of them so they must be popular), Silvie Paladino belted out the anthem, Marina Prior did Marina Prior, and some blokes in black suits calling themselves Human Nature sang a few mouldy oldies. But when the athletes marched onto the arena under the banners of their countries I really felt like I was at an Olympic event. A sense of occasion embraced us. And our little girl was out there somewhere; somewhere in the throng, somewhere under the fireworks.

We wondered what she thought of it all. We hadn’t seen her for a few days because she’d been at a training camp. She was constantly in our thoughts. We hoped she would soak this up and not shrink into herself. We hoped the experience would capture her; invigorate her; enthral her. But our fear was that it could also overwhelm, that she might sag under the weight of the occasion and retreat to the safety of isolation. We needn’t have worried. We found out later it did the former. She’s the bravest kid I know, but I’m totally biased.

Some of the fortitude shown by the swimmers was extraordinary. I will forever remember the women’s 800 metre freestyle final. The Australian girl was a class above the rest and surged through the 16 gruelling laps to an easy victory. But something else was unfolding in this race. A young woman from India, with Down Syndrome, was also ploughing through the water. She was lapped, then lapped again, then lapped again. But she kept at it. We watched her, captivated. Stroke after deliberate stroke, breath after breath; she wouldn’t make it. Surely she wouldn’t make it. She fell 3 minutes behind, then 5, then 6. Splash, splash, splash. Her arms kept rolling over; her tiny round body was quivering with fatigue, her legs flailed along behind her like tentacles on a jelly fish. Maybe someone should stop her?

I noticed the life guards beginning to close in around the pool. They watched her closely. We all did.

Splash, splash, splash. This was agony. This was also magnificent. How audacious. How brave. Her breathing was more desperate now, quicker, maybe even agitated. Each stroke was a masterpiece, each breath a victory. Her body swayed from side to side with each stroke. So long as she was swaying she was progressing. The laps seemed to last an eternity.

People began clapping. And cheering. Did she sense it? Her strokes were soft and floppy. I thought she might be swimming on the spot, but somehow she kept reaching the end of the pool, completing a tumble turn, and slapping through the water again. She was into the last lap. The torture was almost over. The crowd was now raucous in its support. Twenty metres to go. Ten metres. Five. The noise was unbelievable; shrieks of delight, screams, furious clapping. This was Zatopek or Herb Elliott or Cathy Freeman. She touched the wall and touched our hearts. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. A small, rotund arm reached for the sky in celebration. Her head fell back and her smile was as beautiful as a Tahitian sunset. It was a priceless moment; a celebration of the human spirit. How badly wrong do the “win at all costs” drug cheats have it?

Kate swam a disappointing fourth in her Division 2, 100m freestyle final. No medal for fourth. I could see she was deflated. She looked flat and tired. We had a quick chat. Never mind, I said, just give the next race a big go. Frances and Liam gave her hugs. She like hugs. Her smile returned.

“This is my new friend Tara” she said, hugging the girl next to her. They embraced and giggled. I put my arm around her shoulders and told her I was very proud of her effort. Gently, ever so gently, she lifted my arm away and said, “I have to go now. I have to get back to my team.” A little bit more of my lovely girl has left me. Frances and I have been trying to teach her independence. We may have succeeded.

Her next race was a division 1, 50m butterfly final. We weren’t overly confident. Division 1 can bring out some strong competition, but the butterfly is her favourite stroke. She started poorly with a flat dive into the water. The other competitors shot away. She was fourth when the race settled down. The leader was in a league of her own. It was a race for the minor places.

Kate sensed her predicament and dug in. She overhauled one woman from Malaysia at the half way mark. She was now third. With about 15 metres to go she was a body length behind a Korean who was wilting. The silver medal was up for grabs. Kate kicked hard and drew level. We were yelling like crazy. Liam was willing his sister home. She kicked again and hit the wall a clear second. Immediately her head appeared out of the wash of water and in her delighted state she yelled out, “I came second!” to anyone who would listen. I felt like I might burst.

Kate also got a bronze medal when her team came third in the 4 x 50m freestyle relay, and that night she got to eat chocolate. The world is a beautiful place.

It was a marvellous week, an enlightening week; the sort of experience that resurrected my jaded faith in humanity. I don’t recall seeing a scowl the whole time I was there.

When we returned home a letter was sitting on the kitchen table from Government House, addressed to “Miss Kate O’Donnell”. She tore it open and had a read. “Who’s this?” she asked handing over the letter to Mum.

We looked over her shoulder and saw a hand written note on a Christmas card that read,

“Dear Kate, best wishes for Christmas. Warm regards, Quentin.”

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.

Comments

  1. Thanks Dips. The ongoing story of Kate and your family is really inspiring. I feel like Kate is the Almanac team mascot.
    But your account of the young woman from India competing in the 800 metres really touched me. I’ll just get another tissue while no one’s watching.
    P.S.: I think you need to review your opinion of Eagles and Collingwood players. How cool is it that Kate got a Christmas Card from the Q-Stick. He’s a good country WA boy who gives a 100% all the time, whatever his shortcomings. Must have read about Kate on the Almanac.

  2. give yourself a polish Dips – thanks for sharing the joy.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic Dips I a love the articles you write re , Kates swimming they are a brilliant reminder of family , strenghth , support so many different emotions . I love the
    Special olympics and the meaning and significance of them and again
    WELL DONE KATE Dips thank you for this brilliant heart warming piece and I hope you have got the card framed !

  4. Steve Fahey says

    Magnificent stuff Dips, I quickly found myself engrossed in the story. Congrats to Kate and to all competitors

    A colleague went up for it as a relative of hers was one of the organisers of the opening ceremony and spoke about how moving it was.

    Peter B, your P.S. is one of the Almanac highlights of the year !

  5. One hell of a story, Dips. And one that is indeed recorded in the annals of our sporting history, courtesy of the Almanac. Long may Kate swim.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic Dips. Well done Kate, great effort.

  7. Bravo.

  8. Thanks for the comments. We had a ball in Newcastle.

    PB – hilarious. I’m not sure which Q would make the best CHF.
    Malcolm – the card went straight to the pool room.

  9. Congratulations, Kate. Congratulations, Dips.
    Congratulations, all competitors and volunteers. Brilliant.

  10. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff, Dips. Love reading about Kate’s ever growing list of achievements and her dad’s pride in sharing in them. Congrats.

  11. Dips

    Awesome read, so happy for Kate’s achievements, well done to her

    Sean

  12. Brilliant, Dips

  13. Hamish Townsend says

    Love it, especially the gentle removal of your arm in front of her new friends. Nothing quite like that feeling.

  14. Hi Dips, great read. Love reading about Kate making her way in the world. The story of the Indian girl also had me reaching for some extra tissues – how great to be able to experience it. All the best to Kate and the family and I look forward to reading some more in the future.

  15. Superb piece Dips, gave me a big Tuesday arvo lift. “Each stroke was a masterpiece, each breath a victory.” Magnif stuff

  16. Thanks Dips & Kate,

    I need tissues everytime I read about the everyday wonder that is your family’s life.

    They are joyous tears tho,

    Congraulations to Kate and her family.

  17. David Downer says

    Awesomely awesome. From every aspect

  18. Peter Flynn says

    VVS

  19. Beautiful Dips. Priceless. Thank you.

  20. Wren Thomas says

    Congrats Kate and family xo

  21. Andrew Starkie says

    Thanks Dips. beautiful.

  22. Wonderful piece Dips. Kate and the young Indian girl show us what sport is all about. How could we not be inspired?
    Cheers, Burkie

  23. Thanks for the article Dips magnificently written and very touching. Congrats to your family on the medal. The piece about the Indian swimmer was touching reminding me a bit of Eric the Eel. This is what the spirit of competition is all about.

  24. Kath Presdee says

    Congrats to Kate on her performance. What a joy to read!

  25. Appreciate the comments. Kate provides a lot of people with a lot of joy. As do her mates. Cheers.

  26. Malcolm Ashwood says

    I agree with , Fllynny that , VVS Laxman would love the story also

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