My Paralympic Journey
Lyn's story about becoming a champ in the swimming pool.
My Paralympic journey really started many years ago in Albury when, at the age of about 9 months, I was taken to the local swimming pool for hydrotherapy for my legs after catching polio at 6 weeks of age. What a journey it has been! Now as I look back and reflect on that time I realise not only what a privilege it is to be a Paralympian, but also how fortunate I have been – it enabled me to travel to places I probably never would have been to, see some incredible sights and to meet so many people of different cultures (and taste their foods!).
Polio left me completely paralysed from the waist down. For the first 18 months of my life I was carried or crawled, pulling myself with my arms. It was a whole new world out there when I received the first callipers and crutches at about 18 months and learnt to walk. From there on, my childhood became “normal.” I attended local schools, joined the Brownies, played with the neighbourhood children, etc. During this time my parents continued to regularly take me to the pool for hydrotherapy. I took to the water like the proverbial duck, venturing further out into the deeper water, using my arms in swimming motion, till one day I ventured a little too far and had to be rescued. My father decided it was time I learned to swim properly. This I did and, although being able to use only my arms, competed in the secondary school carnivals, usually coming last.
In 1964, on completion of schooling, I moved to Melbourne to live and there was introduced to the Victorian Wheelchair Sports Club. Living in what was then a small country town (now Albury/Wodonga’s population is approximately 100,000) there was no sport at all for disabled people, so to be able to be a member of such a club was a real experience. I joined the swimming squad and, with other paraplegics, trained weekly under the guidance of a coach. Under him I learned the four strokes correctly: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and my favourite, butterfly!
What was once called the International Wheelchair Games (now Paralympics) began, in a small way, in 1944 when, at the request of the British Government, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain, and in time, rehabilitation sport evolved to recreational sport and then to competitive sport.
On 29 July 1948, the day of the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games, Dr. Guttmann organised the first competition for wheelchair athletes which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games, a milestone in Paralympics history. They involved 16 injured servicemen and women who took part in archery. In 1952, Dutch ex-servicemen joined the Movement and the International Stoke Mandeville Games were founded.
These Games later became the Paralympic Games which first took place in Rome, Italy in 1960 featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries. Since then they have taken place every four years. In 1976 the first Winter Games in Paralympics history were held in Sweden, and as with the Summer Games, have taken place every four years, and include a Paralympics Opening Ceremony and Paralympics Closing Ceremony.
Since the Summer Games of Seoul, Korea in 1988 and the Winter Games in Albertville, France in 1992 the Games have also taken part in the same cities and venues as the Olympics due to an agreement between the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.
In 1964 the International Sport Organisation for the Disabled (IOSD) was established which offered opportunities for those athletes who could not affiliate with the International Stoke Mandeville Games (ISMG) - the visually impaired, amputees, persons with cerebral palsy and paraplegics. At the start, 16 countries were affiliated to ISOD and the organisation pushed very hard to include blind and amputee athletes into the Toronto 1976 Paralympics and athletes with cerebral palsy in 1980 in Arnhem. Finally, on 22 September 1989, the International Paralympic Committee was founded as the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement.
The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para” (beside or alongside) and the word “Olympic”.
Its meaning is that Paralympics are the parallel Games to the Olympics and illustrates how the two movements exist side-by-side.
My first team representation was with the Victorian team in 1968 in Perth at the National Games. It wasn’t the most auspicious competitive debuts – I didn’t reach the end of the 50m pool in my first race and needed to be helped out! However, with continual training I improved and again represented Victoria in 1970. I then moved to Sydney, joined the NSW Wheelchair Sports Association and represented that State in 1972, 1974 and 1976. It was from the 1976 National Games that I was chosen for my first Paralympic team, to Toronto, Canada, where I won two silver medals.
The following year I moved to Adelaide, married, and due to work and family commitments dropped out of sport until 1982 when I decided to try to make the Australian team to the Far East South Pacific (FESPIC) Games in Hong Kong. These Games were held every three or four years. They were primarily for the development of disabled sport in the less developed countries but Australia usually attended with its developing athletes and to assist other countries in sport development. I again competed at these Games in 1989 in Kobe, Japan – an amazing cultural experience! I remember some of our team members decided to catch the train to the mainland (we were on a man-made island) but they didn’t realise that Japanese trains actually ran to schedule – they arrived at the station just as the train was leaving, on time! Lesson learned. It was also the first multi-country competition that Russia admitted it had disabled athletes, mostly men who had been injured whilst fighting in Afghanistan.
In 1987 I returned to training in an attempt to be selected for the team for the Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea. These were the first Paralympics which would be using the same venues as the Olympics – indeed a big step in acknowledging disabled elite athletes. Because of Australian troops having been in Korea in the 1950’s, the Australian team was made very welcome, receiving an incredible reception from the crowd when we entered the arena at the Opening Ceremony.
Vast improvements had been made by this time in the treatment of the various disabilities – the competition was very strong, particularly from the USA team. Australia came 2nd and I won 1 silver and 3 bronze medals, making my Paralympics tally 3 silver, 3 bronze. I was again selected for the Australian team to Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 and, although I reached the final in all my events, medals were elusive.
Between Paralympics I competed at 3 more Stoke Mandeville Games and the inaugural World Multi-disability Games in 1990 in Assen, Holland. It was time, though, following the Barcelona Paralympics to hang up my international bathers. Competition was coming from much younger, stronger athletes. Overall I had collected 46 international medals, including one world record, which I held for approximately six months, until it was broken by another Australian disabled swimmer.
For many years I swam at State level meets, and now as a member of Australian Masters Swimming, regularly compete at National and Australian Masters Games in my age group. This has given me a wonderful opportunity to travel to different places in Australia and meet so many fellow swimmers. Although I now use a wheelchair due to shoulder problems, regular weekly training keeps me healthy and maintains my upper body strength to enable me to be an active member of my community and enjoy special moments with friends and colleagues.
Now in the “autumn” of my life I can very positively say I have had a blessed, productive life, much of it due to my sporting involvement. I sometimes wonder where the road would have taken me if I had not caught polio all those years ago.