WATER has been the great equaliser for Jacqueline Freney. The 20-year-old was born with cerebral palsy diplegia. She has never jumped or broken into a jog or run but, in the pool, she is the one who is chased.
Freney has become the star of the pool at the London Paralympic Games. She has won seven gold medals from seven races and was expected to compete in the 4×100 metres medley early this morning.
On Thursday she broke Siobhan Paton’s Australian record for the most gold medals won at a Games. Paton, who coincidentally was coached by Freney’s grandfather Peter, won six gold medals in Sydney in 2000.
Freney was born into a swimming family with her father, Michael, managing a local pool in Skennars Head on the Ballina coast of NSW. Swimming also proved therapeutic for the young Freney, whose parents were told by a specialist she would use a wheelchair throughout her life – something she has never done.
It was a story, revealed to Fairfax last weekend by her father, that even Peter had not been aware of.
”I’ve heard a few things this week that I didn’t know about … but I’m glad he kept her away from a wheelchair and made her get up and walk and get in the pool and swim and [everything] else she can do,” Peter said.
”She could swim before she could walk. She couldn’t walk at all until she was about five and she was swimming at that point. She never ceases to amaze us but every other kid here is the same.
”She’s been around swimming pools since the day she was born virtually, so it was a natural thing to go into swimming. It was one thing she could do in some cases better than her school friends could do.
”Jacqui has never jumped off the floor under her own power in her life; she can’t do it. She’s never run a step in her life; she can’t do it. She takes to swimming and once she gets off the blocks, she’s OK.”
Jacqueline Freney says when she is in the water, she has a freedom her restricted body is not allowed on land.
”On land I’m not really that fast, so it’s great to get in the water and not have any limitations at all on my body and try and be faster than the other people,” she says.
And at these Games, Freney has proved faster than everybody. She has won all seven of her races in dominant showings.
With a beaming smile and a sense of humour that has shone through after each race win, Freney announced after her seventh gold that she was in ”seventh heaven”.
”I knew I had a good chance in some events but never seven gold, that’s just unbelievable,” she said. ”I can’t even comprehend what I’ve just achieved. It’s beyond words.”
Peter agreed that the scale of her success in London had ”been a complete surprise”.
”We thought that she would probably win the 400 freestyle. She’s probably only swum two or three 100 backstrokes in her life in competition, and she came out and won that one, and the medley was a complete surprise because I think she’s only done two of those before this because she couldn’t do breaststroke,” her grandfather said.
”Her breaststroke was pretty woeful until we got working on it a little bit. It was a complete surprise to me and the family and, I’m sure, Michael. It’s a pleasant surprise.”
However, the basis of the success was simple.
”Hard work, that’s the secret. That’s been the secret with my coaching and with Michael’s coaching,” Peter said. ”We’ve probably worked them harder than any other coaches work their kids.”
”Siobhan was on the same sort of program. They train nine to 10 sessions a week covering something around 40,000 metres a week, and a lot of that is hard endurance work. It pays off.”
”She does a lot of gym work and she does things in the gym that are quite unbelievable as far as I’m concerned. On the rowing machine she’ll do 5000 metres of fast rowing, not buggerising around, but getting into it so that gives her the endurance … she a pretty strong girl.”
It has helped her cause that her main rival, American Mallory Weggemann, was reclassified just before the start of the Games into the S8 grouping for athletes with less severe disabilities. Freney was reclassified from S8 to S7 late last year.
”I really didn’t expect to go so well in this meet because I had Mallory Weggemann in my classification and she was classified up to a S8 unfortunately,” Freney said. ”I was really looking forward to racing her in the 400 free … after I was reclassified into an S7 the only chance I got to race her was in California, which I am pretty disappointed about, so it’s all kind of gone my way and everything’s fallen into place and the stars are all in alignment.”
Freney, who describes herself as ”quite the bookworm”, said she would swim on to Rio and had set herself new goals that she would not reveal.
”Let’s just say I’ve got another goal in mind for Rio but I won’t tell you what it is,” she said laughing.
Peter said he did not know how much more improvement Freney could make on her performances.
”I don’t know how much development is left in her. She’s fully grown, she’s trained virtually to the limit now. We’ll just wait,” he said.
He said Freney was ”a very happy-go-lucky person, always smiling” and had found a welcoming place among the Australian Paralympic team.
”I must say the Australian Paralympic swimming team is the best swimming team I’ve ever had anything slightly to do with,” Peter said. ”They support one another magnificently.”
As for breaking Paton’s record, Freney said she had been inspired by what Paton had done in her career, which was cut short after Sydney when athletes with an intellectual disability were banned from competing at a Paralympic Games until London because of the cheating controversy that surrounded the Spanish basketball team in 2000.
”She’s been sending me hero messages and emails, and we’ve been keeping in contact through this whole week,” she said.
”She basically said at the start of the week that I could be as great as her. She’s been one of my main inspirations for the meet.”
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