Others should aspire to this star’s ability and humility
The difference between the winning times in the men’s 50m freestyle swimming finals at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics was just 3.79 seconds.
At the London Games in July, Frenchman Frances Manaudou won gold in the 50m with a time of 21.34 seconds.
At the Paralympics last week, Australian Matt Cowdrey won gold in 25.13 seconds. Cowdrey’s time was a new Paralympics world record. It was just a touch over four seconds slower than the Olympic world record of 20.91, set by Brazil’s Cesar Cielo in 2009.
The difference between Matt Cowdrey and these other two swimmers is that Matt Cowdrey is missing half of his left arm. Due to a congenital birth amputation his arm ends at the elbow, yet he still powers through the pool faster than any of us mortals could ever dream of, and not much slower than the people who get all the media attention, all the acclaim, all the sponsorships.
Cowdrey does have a sponsor - Uncle Toby’s - but is still not financially comfortable enough to ensure that his parents were with him in London to watch him become our greatest Paralympian of all time. The gold medal he won on Wednesday was his record-breaking 11th, and on Thursday he went one better and won his 12th.
His dad Peter is a graphic designer who is now only working part-time, meaning he and his wife Vivienne simply couldn’t afford to be at the Games. Cowdrey’s sponsors have kindly now paid for a flight for his parents to go to London, but the fact that they weren’t there in the first instance was a terrible shame and indicative of the lack of money which is part of life for those in the Paralympic movement.
If Cowdrey could give us alleged “able-bodied” types a lesson in athleticism, he could also give a few of the world’s so-called “elite” athletes a lesson in behaviour.
Adelaide-born Cowdrey is a genuine sporting superstar in his own right. But despite his world-beating ways, Cowdrey displayed neither arrogance nor triumphalism ahead of his performance or after his victory.
He didn’t go to London thinking it was a done deal. Nor did he use his success to pump himself up as the new king of the world.
Overall, Australia did a pretty good job at the London Olympics back in July. There were several inspiring individual efforts; Tom Slingsby in the sailing, the remarkable cyclist Anna Meares, hurdler Sally Pearson. But it is also fair to say that the vibe of our effort was overshadowed if not soured in the lead-up and first week by the petulance of some athletes. There was all sorts of ill-discipline early on, all of it conducted in public fights over the gender of the flag-bearer, the married shooters complaining about wanting to share a room, the questionable racism claims by John Steffensen.
When the competition began, the swimming team imploded. Silver medals weren’t good enough for some of the strung-out and highly pressured young swimmers. And after coming away without a gold medal, James Magnussen came to regret the cockiness he displayed by declaring “brace yourselves” at the world swimming trials back in March, but with no comment to offer after things fell apart in the relay. By the time our swimming team had almost finished its defence, it was hard to muster so much as a clap for a bloke like Magnussen.
It wasn’t because any of the athletes did anything really bad, or really unforgivable. There was nothing that happened at the London Olympics which brought acute shame upon the nation or did serious and enduring harm to our reputation. But it was just hard to get excited about because a few people seemed to have had a perspective bypass.
These people would do well to spend a little bit less time worrying about themselves and more time looking at how an athlete such as Matt Cowdrey goes about his business
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