My mum, Sherryn, is the glue that held us all together. She literally started again from scratch. We all restarted our lives and, from then on, it was just us girls.
I was born in Wodonga in country Victoria, the middle of three daughters who are all very close in age, and we moved to Queensland when I was three for my dad’s job.
But, two years later – on my fifth birthday – my parents split up. Things had become really stressful at home.
Mum was going through treatment for thyroid cancer at the time. She was doing her best to raise the three of us, including caring for me and my cerebral palsy.
My condition meant I had developmental delays and was constantly visiting the hospital and doctors for physio, OT and specialist appointments.
During this period, I began falling over all the time, just out of the blue, which suggested something else was going on. Soon we discovered those falls were drop seizures and I was diagnosed with epilepsy. A lot was happening.
I think it all became too much for my father to handle and an abusive relationship towards my mum formed. It got to the stage where there was some abuse towards me and my sisters, too.
I don’t remember much of that time because I was very young and also because the epilepsy affected my memory. But I do remember what it felt like – like my whole world was falling apart and there was nothing I could do to fix it. It was a very tense time for us all.
Finally, my mum made the decision. She packed us kids and the cat in the car. She had $50 on her. We had a little tablecloth, which became our core piece of furniture.
It was our dining table and our place to do homework. We ended up staying with friends until we got our own place and started again.
We moved around a bit over the next little while until we settled on Bribie Island, which became our little island paradise. It was amazing.
One of the best things about it, for me, was that the community around us was incredibly supportive. At home, Mum and my sisters, Tehlia and Kiarna, made sure I had a go at everything and they never focused on my disability.
It was the same at primary school on the island. The teachers and students treated me the same as everyone else.
They were encouraging and generous. There was always interest in what I could do, rather than what I ‘couldn’t’ do – focusing on my abilities over my disability.
The result was that, from a young age despite a tough beginning, I didn’t feel much different to everyone else. There were challenges, for sure, and it would take me longer to do normal everyday things.
But I felt encouraged and well supported. I like to say that I’m not disabled, I am ‘uniquely able’ and those challenges taught me to become adaptable and find innovative ways of overcoming obstacles.
Again, it was my mother who deserves so much credit. Once she got custody of the three of us, one of the agreements was that we couldn’t leave the state.
That meant we couldn’t visit family in Victoria, so all the responsibility fell onto her shoulders. She went from zero to hero.
Mum did an amazing job raising us while working three jobs to keep us afloat. She provided us with a great life for the next few years and we lived on the island until I was about 14.
Eventually, we moved off Bribie because we were all working or going to school off the island, and the travel times and daily commute were becoming too draining. But the island will always hold special memories for us girls and Mum. We still live close by and regularly visit.
SWIMMING WAS MY RELEASE
I was born breech – meaning my bum was first instead of my head. After scans showed my incorrect position in the womb, Mum was scheduled to have a Caesarian, but I came too quick and they didn’t have time to go through with it.
Due to the incorrect position of my body when I was born, I was deprived of oxygen and my body turned blue. It caused a stroke and I needed resuscitation.
The trauma at birth led to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy left hemiplegia, which affects movement, coordination and balance on the left side of my body.
Mum was open to all sorts of suggestions and treatments to make my life easier, but being a middle child, my main motivation was to just try and keep up with my sisters in whatever we did. I was encouraged to try and play different sports, which was a positive thing.
After trialling many different things, I found that swimming was the one sport in which I felt really at home. It started as therapy, a way to manage my muscle pain and help me gain mobility. And it blossomed from there.
It wasn’t until swimming came into my life that I found I was on a near-even setting with my sisters. I felt free in the pool and the water on my skin felt magical. I had a sense of belonging, which was a new experience.
My sisters were swimming in squads and I set myself the goal of reaching the same squad and beating my older sister, Tehlia. There was some very healthy competition between us! When I finally reached the same squad as Tehlia, it felt like a really big achievement.
Beyond matching my sister, swimming wasn’t about competition for me. In fact, it wasn’t until I watched the London 2012 Paralympics on TV that I realised Paralympic sport even existed!
I remember staying up late to watch the swimming in London, just because I was enjoying my swimming so much at the time, and it was great to see all the incredible athletes, who had already overcome incredible odds to get to the stage of representing Australia and winning medals.
I remember sitting in the lounge room and saying to Mum that I was going to compete at the next Paralympic Games, in Rio, and I was going to win a gold medal. Mum was like, ‘Ah, OK, well, if you work hard, then maybe!’ I was 13.
I think she was quite surprised and thought I was very ambitious. But she was always willing to support me in any way possible.
I went to training the next day and told my coach at the time the same thing. My coach looked into how I could become classified, meaning I could compete in Paralympic sport, and then I went to a few local competitions to try and get qualifying times.
Having that goal was really important for me to focus on something, and feel like I had a purpose, which led to some fast improvement. At 14, I made my first national development team, which was really exciting. And the following year I made the national team for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
It all happened very quickly. I was able to beat some champion swimmers who were twice my age, people I really looked up to. It felt overwhelming in some ways, but I think it also ignited the fire to keep working hard and see what was possible.
The Games in Rio was a great experience. Coming home with two gold medals, two world records, three silver and a bronze felt incredibly satisfying.
With the nickname ‘Lucky’, people often say I’ve achieved what I have through luck. But I believe otherwise. I agree with the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who said, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’. If you work hard, results will follow.
I was ecstatic that with immense hard work and support from those around me, I achieved the goal I’d set myself just four years earlier.
And I was so happy to make my mum proud. Even though she couldn’t get to Rio to watch me compete, she was eagerly watching at home.
She sacrificed so much to ensure I was able to follow my dreams. We’re saving hard at the moment and hoping she and possibly my sisters can get to Tokyo for the Paralympics next year.
Swimming has added so much to my life and helped me overcome a lot of challenges. But the one unfortunate thing that’s gone along with my success has been the way in which some people have reacted and criticised me, in the form of cyber-bullying.
It began way back in 2014 when I was only 15, almost as soon as I started competing internationally.
I think it was because I came onto the scene pretty quickly, which led some people to question my ability out of jealousy.
As I got faster, it became worse. Sometimes the abuse has come from social media accounts that have been set up with fake usernames, sometimes it’s from disgruntled parents, most of it’s from overseas but unfortunately home in Australia as well.
I’ve made a conscious effort to not engage in it. Everyone says to not think about it, but it’s very hard to do. It’s disheartening that some people don’t care about the emotional effect they can have on others.
I know it would be so much easier to quit swimming, but that would be giving in to the bullies, and quitting isn’t in my vocabulary.
When the times get tough, I like to remind myself why I do what I do — I swim because it’s healthy for me and I love it. I love the opportunities it brings, and I love how there is always room for improvement.
I just have to focus on the positives as they well and truly outweigh the negatives. There’s not much I can do about the other stuff.
The best revenge is hard work and success. I’m never going to give up. I was taught that from a young age. When somebody tells me I can’t do something, I push even harder to prove them wrong.
I’ve been very fortunate to have such great support and it’s a big reason why I feel it’s so important to give back and help others.
All it takes is one person who is willing to invest their time and energy in you, and that can change your life. It has definitely changed mine, that’s why I strive to do the same.
When I can, I volunteer at the Queensland Children’s Hospital and work with numerous charities and organisations.
One aspect of my work that really taps into my story is being an ambassador for Aspirations4Kids in Sport, which assists Queensland school children facing a range of hardships, including disabilities, chronic illness and remote living issues.
Aspirations4Kids is run by cricket legend Ian Healy and, as a past recipient of funding and support from the organisation, I feel so pleased to be able to give something back and help other children reap the benefits of sport – much like I did.
I am also currently studying for a Bachelor of Architectural Design fulltime. Using my experience of being an athlete, who also happens to have different abilities, I hope to design sports architecture around the world, as well as help create a more accessible built environment for everyone.