The “Choke” doesn’t exist

The Olympic and Paralympic season is great. There is more sport than I know what to do with and I get to fall in love with the magic of one of the things I love most in the world all over again.

With this comes problems. Everybody is an expert. I don’t mind the fact that we all pretend to know things that we don’t know Olympic-Ringsabout the sports we watch, I’ve done that multiple times. The problem I have is that everybody is an expert on what it takes to be an Olympian or Paralympian and how that if an athlete doesn’t perform on the day then it must be a “choke”.

Get off your high horse before you injure yourself.

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But how could you know, you were never an Olympian or Paralympian”.

Darn right I wasn’t, and I’m lucky if more than a few days go by where I don’t think about it. There aren’t any certainties in life, but had things progressed as they were I probably would have gone to Beijing and certainly made the trip to London.

So yes, I do know what it takes to that level. By the time that I finished school in 2005 I was in the pool for close to 20 hours a week with another 5 hours spent in the gym or doing other work out of the pool. I got lucky. My parents never complained about the 5am wakeup or the money that they spent so that I could chase a dream. In fact they worked just as hard as I did for it and probably deserved more credit for the success that I had than I did.

I didn’t suffer an injury, there was no reason I couldn’t keep swimming. I made the decision I made, and living with it isn’t the easiest thing to do, but you can’t change the past, so I deal with it however I can.

It’s not easy to represent your country, but it looks easy because you are at the top of your game when you’re doing it. Failing when you’re at the top of your game isn’t a choke, it’s nothing more than a simple act of human failure, which we all have on a daily basis. I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last few weeks that I’ve seen references to Steven Bradbury, or “Doing a Bradbury”. But that’s probably because the people making the point don’t think he deserved it.

  • 12 years at an international level.
  • Almost losing his life after have a skate go through his leg.
  • A broken neck 18 months before Salt Lake City.

Yeah, nothing at all there screams deserving. He made his race plan, he executed it, and as he once said, his reason for taking the Gold Medal wasn’t for the 90 seconds in that race, it was for the 12 years before it.

Chumpy Pullin was favourite heading into the snowboard cross last night, in fact he would have been certain in his mind that today was the day he was going to reach the ultimate goal for any athlete. But things didn’t work out, that’s life, not a choke.

He doesn’t need people saying he choked, how he feels about it is worse than anyone else can make him feel. Trust me, I’ve been there.

It’s 2004 and the last qualifying event before the trials for the Athens games. Having already qualified for trials there was one more event I wanted to add to my schedule. This particular event was one that I had been targeting for years, even though it had always been just out of reach. Everything was set. All I needed to do was swim within about half a second of my best time and I’d be swimming that event in Sydney in two months time, I was ready and nothing could stop me.

The time to beat was 48.10 … The time I swam was 48.11. Never has something that I wanted so badly felt so far away. .01 of a second can be made up anywhere, and I know that I should have done better, but in that time I did all I could, and I walked away knowing that fact.

That race ended up being my first Open-Age medal at a State swim meet, something which I’m awfully proud of and something that I still smile about today.

So why can’t it leave me? The first Grandparent of mine to pass away passed away eight days before that swim. Death is something none of us can control, and at the age of 16 I don’t think I was in any capacity to level out in my mind, as they had planned to be there watching that day. The two events were and forever will be connected, and now I see it is one of the best thing that has ever happened to me, because it shows that no matter what happens, you can find strength in it.

I didn’t choke that day, I just didn’t achieve what I had in mind, that’s life.

So, next time you think an athlete chokes, stop and think. Nothing is ever what it seems, particularly in the world that so few people get to experience.


Why we need to give Ian Thorpe space

It has been widely reported over the last week, that Ian Thorpe isn’t in a good place. Naturally a select portion of the media in this country see an Olympian “falling from grace” as they describe it and pounce on the opportunity to report. Here’s why I feel for Thorpe and we need to let him take the required steps back to full health.

A lifetime ago I used to swim. Of course it wasn’t literally a lifetime ago, but it has just ticked over seven years since I last raced competitively and that’s what it feels like. I was fortunate in my swimming career (I still am fortunate, but for the purpose of this post I’ll keep the fortune focused on swimming). My parents made sure I could travel to meets anywhere, they drove me to the poolThorpekick and 5.30am and picked me up at 6pm the same night, often without going home from work beforehand. They had longer days than I did with a mortgage to pay and kids to feed and educate, while my two focuses in life were swimming and completing school- often in that order.

Swimming taught me a lot. It taught me what drive can do, it taught me how growing up around people who are now World Record holders can change you as a person and it taught me that anything is possible. But there is one thing that I learnt from swimming that people don’t tell you before you walk in for your first training session as a kid. Swimming is lonely. You don’t train by yourself, in fact you form a great bond with the group that you train with. You might race by yourself, but you are always going to be part of a team. The thing about spending 20-30 hours a week in a pool is that you have a lot of time to think. You focus on the mechanics, you focus on everything that you need to be doing in the pool, but there will come a point where your mind starts to wander. School, friends, sports teams you supported, social life – anything was good to think about because you needed to find a way to pass the time.

What we are seeing with Thorpe now is a result of that process. For the better part of a decade he was in the pool or gym for the majority of time when he wasn’t sleeping. Add to that the fact that the national spotlight shone on him whenever the time came for Australia to compete at home or overseas and you can see why he has fallen to the depths that he has. It’s easy enough to say that athletes need to adjust when they return to being a “normal” member of society, but I find it strange the amount of people commenting on that who have never been in that situation before.

Many who know me don’t know that I used to swim. That in itself is a fair sign that swimming is something you can only see elements of from me. I could have been a Paralympian had a made a few different decisions in my life, but I didn’t and on the days when I think about it for a few seconds too long, I regret how things turned out, even though that might mean that I wouldn’t have everything I have today.

At the end of the day the inside of the mind is a place we can never see, so let’s just all hope that Thorpe can get the help that he needs so we can see him return to being the vibrant person we saw on pool deck.