Matthew Cowdrey might have expected that becoming Australia’s greatest Paralympian – with a haul of 12 gold medals in three Games – would make him the nation’s undisputed star of the 2012 Games.
And in any other Games it might, but not London, where a young woman from the NSW north coast burst onto the pool deck to demand equal billing.
Early yesterday, Jacqueline Freney became Australia’s greatest paralympian in a single Games, claiming her seventh gold medal. Between them, 23-year-old Cowdrey, who has a congenital amputation of the arm, and 20-year-old Freney, who has cerebral palsy diplegia, have won 11 of the 14 Australian gold medals in the very pool where, less than six weeks ago, the much-lauded Olympic swimmers couldn’t take a trick.
Where the team of James Magnussen, Stephanie Rice and company floundered – winning a single gold medal, in a relay – the Paralympic team fired, unburdened by public expectation, buoyed by packed houses. The natural sporting order was restored. The Southern Cross was hoisted with regularity. And the British reacquainted themselves with Advance Australia Fair.
The national head swimming coach Brendan Keogh feels blessed to be leading a team spearheaded by two extraordinary talents.
”In 2004 we took a team to Athens where the average age was 17.9 years, so it was pretty much a school age team. We knew from there that in Beijing we would be dealing with a youth team, and then, come London, we would have a fully-matured team, in which the core of the team would be about to hit its straps.
”Matt and Jacqui have been phenomenal. And I can’t say enough great things about Matt. He wouldn’t care that he is being overshadowed by Jacqui because for Matt it is all about how the team performs. He is more than happy to see others getting the spotlight.”
That Freney can stand tall on the victory dais – pride of Skennars Head, toast of the world – is due to the single-mindedness of her parents, who refused 18 years ago to accept the gloomy prognosis of a paediatrician. ”He said, ‘I’ll put it this way, your daughter will probably be in a wheelchair.’ And, fair dinkum, then he said ‘And she won’t compete for Australia,’ ” her father and coach, Michael Freney, told The Sun-Herald at the athletes village in London
”That paediatrician knew nothing about me. He didn’t know I was a swimming coach. I was devastated. And angry. So angry that someone could say that, that someone could label my kid and decide her future. He didn’t know what opportunities there were for her, what we could do for her future. I didn’t accept what he said. We took a wheelchair home after seeing him but we never used it.”
Instead, they put their little girl in the pool, and what started as therapy to relieve severe muscle tightness in her legs and an arm soon became a desire to compete, then to win and, after three bronze medals at the Beijing Paralympics four years ago, to conquer the world.
”It is unbelievable. I did not expect six gold,” Freney said before going back for a seventh serve of London gold, passing the record of six gold medals in a single game held by Siobhan Paton, who, in a twist, was coached by Freney’s grandfather, Peter.
Keogh said the individual success of Cowdrey and Freney had inspired the whole team, from the nation’s youngest Paralympian, 13-year-old Maddison Elliott, who, with cerebral palsy, won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay (34 points), to Brenden Hall, who demolished the field in the S9 400m freestyle, lowering his own world record by nearly four seconds.
”He is quite an imposing athletic figure. He must be a little over six foot four at this time and still growing – and he is only 19. We put fertiliser at the bottom of his bed every night,” Keogh said of Hall, who had a leg amputated after complications from chicken pox as a six-year-old.
”We have had a huge number of PBs [personal best times] at this meet. This team has a saying within it: ‘Our team is our family.’ When someone is succeeding they are there supporting, and when someone isn’t they are still there supporting.”
No one has needed that support more than Esther Overton, who, with an S1 classification, is among the most disabled athletes at the Games. She has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which affects muscle control throughout her body, as well as brittle bones. She has broken her arms more than 40 times.
As Overton cannot use her arms to pull her through the water, she propels herself with a dolphin-like motion, completing her races by touching the wall with her head. ”Earlier this year in Colorado she gave herself a bad concussion by touching the wall. Since then she has had some pretty severe neck issues. She has gone through a really tough time over here and a lot of the time she is lying on her bed, which is very isolating,” Keogh said.
During the week, she finished fifth in the S2 50m backstroke final. ”She is probably the toughest swimmer we have on the team, when you look at what she goes through,” Keogh said. ”And her swim in that race is probably the bravest I have seen this meet.”
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