Rachael’s ‘surprise’ gold years in the making

As Queensland rookie Rachael Watson powered towards Australia's final gold in the pool this morning in a Paralympic record time the commentators crooned this was the surprise breakthrough swim of the Rio Paralympic Games.

But having mentored Rachael through her Games experience I know it was no surprise, we'd even discussed preparing what she would wear to the medal ceremony and media interviews and having it packed easily accessible post race long before she'd left Australia.

You see, as swimmers who use wheelchairs something as basic as being able to get into a medal tracksuit quickly in time for the ceremony takes planning. Whether to put it over a wet fast skin swimsuit, or seek assistance from a carer to remove the suit first, which is painful to sit in, depends on how much time is available.

Then there is the ramp entry bus transport to and from the pool, on which thousands of athletes who use wheelchairs sit in spaces with seats removed. With the nerve and muscle pain these trips, with the chair and body bumping at every turn, can cause muscle pain and fatigue. So our plan grew to include a strap for the bus, avoiding unnecessary travel and regular full body massage.

I have been speaking with Rachel since she qualified for the Australian team at the national championships in Adelaide during March. During trials Rachel was naturally nervous but in the best of hands, with Dawn Fraser taking the first time nationals competitor under her wing and continuing to offer support over social media and at lead up events.


As the only other Australian to win Paralympic medal in her classification since the 1980s, and her mentor through Sporting Dreams the program I started to empower athletes with disability I was thrilled when she contacted me with the news she made the team- and asked for my help. I wasn't sure how I could compete with 'Our Dawn' the national living treasure though. I assumed this would be about psychological preparation for racing and adjusting to life in a Paralympic Village. I soon realised it was my unique perspective as Australia's only other swimmer in the same lower classifications which was needed.

The story that unfolded over ensuing months is what makes that medal even more remarkable.

The very first plane flight she had taken since using a wheelchair was to Adelaide for the Paralympic trials, and her very first questions were how to deal with needing the toilet on an aeroplane when you are a wheelchair user, and how athletes like us are to avoid developing pressure sores during long haul flights from sitting (we must use special pressure relieving cushions). Having qualified for the Paralympic team provisionally because she did not yet have an international classification, her next stop was Berlin for the IDM Open with members of the Australian team.  So in this year of firsts she took her first plane flight to her first nationals, leading to her first international trip and first Paralympics all within a year.

To understand the significance of even qualifying for the national team it's important to understand some of Rachel's back-story.

The 24-year-old Brisbane resident had been name Queensland young volunteer of the year for her community services, was in her final year at university, contemplating moving out of home driving independently and did not let the fact that she had been born with cerebral palsy stop her. She was able to walk and competed as swimmer in the s8 classification.

Suddenly three years ago at the age of 21 that life came to a grinding halt when she was admitted to hospital paralysed and doctors struggled to diagnose her condition.

During Rachel's time in hospital it was initially hard not know what had caused her sudden paralysis, and facing with life as a wheelchair user was very challenging. Even more challenging was adjusting to this new way of life which involved many months in hospital, coming home to not completely accessible households, waiting months for government funded vital medical equipment such as power assisted wheels. Not to mention the mere sight of the 'dreaded' wheelchair was a daily reminder of going from being a completely independent young woman who could drive and was attending university to needing assistance with the most basic daily tasks and not knowing what the future held.

The entire ordeal took a great toll on her incredible family stepped in to help her with her recovery and dedicated themselves 100%. "This medal is as much for my family as it is for me, she said. It's the best way I can repay them for everything they've done."

When Rachel reached out initially from hospital I never imagined myself a mentor in the swimming sense any more, I believed the role had transcended sport and shifted to peer support in learning to live life in a wheelchair.

To start off with we had to deal with the incredible boredom and a lack of hope, which comes from being in hospital day in day out for months not knowing what is wrong. We spoke about looking for something every day she could look forward to even if it was as simple as watching a favourite TV show or listening to a piece of music. A talented pianist we even mooted the idea of playing the keyboard as both for fun, and to become more active.

Ultimately it was a great form of therapy. It was about getting through day by day, until eventually she had a diagnosis and treatment plan and committed to an exercise program called making strides working hard in an effort to walk again and also building up vital body strength which would later aid her swimming.


The other issue facing Rachael, like anyone with a serious diagnosis was constantly comparing her current situation to her old life and to her peer group who had moved on and graduated from University and were now living a life that she was supposed to.

For once I knew what to say, compare yourself to where you were last week or yesterday so you see the small progress, not to the former version of yourself or to other people. Yes it's important to grieve the loss but little by little this will get easier as it becomes a 'new normal. 'This was something I could relate to, having been forced to retire from swimming after developing an overuse injury in my arms while already a paraplegic and losing much of my own independence- yet being happier than ever after using adaptive technology to continue my career as a speaker and journalist and run a charity.

I was both amazed and heartbroken one day over a year and a half ago to see a post on Facebook with Rachel returning to the pool for the first since her diagnosis- but now wearing a life jacket supported by other people in the water. She persisted day by day until she could swim unassisted, and began training at Chandler swimming Club initially as part of her rehabilitation. Fast forward 18 months here we are preparing for Rio.

I take day leave from hospital to attend the Grand Prix event in Brisbane; a final race is Australia for our Olympic and Paralympic teams before Rio. While the crowd whips itself into frenzy over Cate Campbell's world record I leave the party for retired swimmers and head to Rachael and the team staff at the warm up pool. We talk about keeping warm out of the draft due to temperature regulation issues, and Rachael swims the individual medley for the first time qualifying to swim it in Rio. This have come full circle as I sit with the head coach and impart the 20 years of wisdom I acquired as a swimmer on how to get the best out of myself. Being an athlete only able to use your arms means thinking outside the box- it's not cookie cutter coaching like training able-bodied swimmers.

I learned that on the trip to Germany there had been issues with pain, pressure and dehydration during flights, challenges with managing in unfamiliar environments not readily accessible and the fact she had never been way from her parents help before.

From Brisbane the team headed to a staging camp in Cairns where Rachael kept a diary of daily disability related challenges, from access to rooms to needing somewhere to laydown to put on a fast skin with help from a staff member in relative privacy (although I assured her I'd rolled around on the floor of a change room for half an hour many a time as we wrestled my leg through a hole the size of an apricot). The timing of getting into the suit was also crucial for me- too early and you find it cuts into your shoulders and belly, given it's designed for standing and swimming. Too late and you don't have it on for warm up, which is very important and the racing suit changes your body position in the water which is essential to get used to in pre race warm up.

Bit by bit we workshopped every challenge she may face.

In the weeks leading into her departure for Rio Rachael and I poured over those diaries and together with team staff we formed plans to manage each situation. From putting mats on the side of the pool to protect skin while transferring, and being lifted in and out of the water, to training slightly later than squad mates allowing more time to use the communal bathroom and also to swim in a less congested lane. We looked at the race schedule and chose rest days carefully, baring in mind her main event fell on the last day. We discussed doing a trial run of putting the suit on until it was the quickest and least painful process possible.

We discussed doing a trial run again in the village with timing for catching buses, putting on the suit. I even divulged my greatest secret of 3 Games- if there is a line up for the accessible toilet when you need to get into your fast skin wander outside or to a public area away from the pool to one of the many wheelchair access portaloos always found at a Paralympic Games.

And then the dream started to become real.


By the time she arrived at the University of Alabama for the team staging camp I was thrilled to see her bopping away in the teams lip-synced video clip of "high school Musical" and holding an eagle with her team mates.


There was the proud moment of being presented her Paralympic pin, team ring and inducted onto the Australian team as the 296th para swimmer for Australia ( I 'm number 192).


Yes we had some issues to brainstorm which reminded me of the many times I travelled overseas to find I didn't fit through the door of the 'accessible' room and had to walk to public toilet blocks while racing for a world championship. In this case the rented shower chair was not self propelled meaning accepting needing assistance- which was embraced with a 'whatever it takes to help me succeed in Rio' attitude.

My final challenges came as the team arrived into the village and Rachael was informed she needed to work on a new backstroke start, as she had not been given permission by the Paralympic Committee to do the one she'd practiced. We poured over my old race videos- to devise a new technique but just as much to reassure her I'd been in the same position once when the team issued swimsuit didn't bend at the knees for my usual start.


Doing the hard yards were Rachael, her carer, team coach and team doctor to implement all the plans…. So she could achieve that childhood dream to swim for her country.

That dream came true when she stepped out to race in her first event and received a handshake from the head coach "congratulations you are now a Paralympian." In the grandstand above her team mates cheered her on with the war cry "Cooeee" developed in Alabama to replace the tired "aussi aussi aussi oi oi oi."

So today while commentators say she only took up the sport 18 months ago the story of Rachael's Paralympic race really pre dates 2010, when a teenage Rachel who was then able to walk attended a sporting dreams award ceremony, looked at my display of medals and the Olympic torch and began to dream about competing herself for Australia.

Although she had never made it to a National championships before contracting Gillian Bare syndrome she competed regularly and medalled at the Queensland State Championships, taking the first steps towards being an elite athlete.

As a result in 2012 we were fortunate enough to award a grant encouraging her Paralympic dream. I'd invited her to attend the Sporting Dreams Hall of Fame induction for the four athletes who had gone on to represent Australia at the London Paralympic Games in the hope it may inspire her, and she was presented her award by then QLD attorney general Jared Bleijie.

Needless to say no one (well maybe besides her mum) is happier than me this week to see that dream realised after all she has had to overcome.

Rachel qualified to race in three individual events at the game as well as lead of leg for the first ever mixed gender 20 point  4 x 50 m freestyle relay team which placed 7th on day two.


Despite absolutely loving it, when race day came Rachael like may first time athlete was suddenly so nervous, it hit out of nowhere and she focused on deep breathing and stretching.  I make a mental note how glad I am that we'd discussed beforehand the environment she best needed to perform- chatting to people or being alone to focus on the event ahead. So she had her strategy that although meeting her rivals for the first time would be interesting, the marshaling area was all about focusing within, breathing and limbering up.

Two days later she came out in my former race, the 150m individual medley swimming a personal best time but missing the final.

On day four she dedicated her swim to me for my birthday in my favourite race, against my former competitors the 50m breaststroke Sb3.

This was the student surprising mentor-after the previous swim we had dissected her start, the competition I subtly shifted her attention away from the previous race   to the event ahead. At the end of the conversation I was astonished she remembered it was my birthday saying I'm going to try and do well in the breaststroke as my present to you.

I was incredibly moved and the 7 second personal best time she swam to place 9th is one of the most satisfying gifts I've ever received.

After that it was time to enact the final stage of the plan- -rest up before her main event today. All athletes get tired over a ten day competition, but even more so if you can only use your arms and also experience neuromuscular challenges. So rest and well timed recovery massage is the final piece of the puzzle.

After the race I receive a message from her mother:

"I just wanted to thank you for all your support of Rachel. We are all so proud, crying and overwhelmed by her amazing swim. Thanks again :-) " Rachael's Mum.

Then Rachael posts on Facebook, with a comment thank you to Marayke for your mentoring.

As her golden day draws to a close Rachael is messaging again, this time because she can't sleep from excitement. She's dreaming up plans to celebrate with free McDonald's in the village dining hall tomorrow and thanking me for my help. 

Well now it's time for me to say thank YOU Rachael, because you were amazing and did amazing things. I've just been an ear on the end of the phone reliving life on my beloved Australian swim team through the eyes of a rookie and happy my experience can be of some help. It's been a privilege to share the long journey to you becoming an 'overnight' success. I'm so proud. Coooee.

Parabéns and Origato.


Marayke is a triple Paralympian and medallist, now motivational speaker and journalist. Visit www.marayke.com