Young sport stars get plenty of in­spi­ra­tion from a lo­cal le­gend

Dubbo Photo News - - Front Page - By GE­OFF MANN

WELLING­TON’S Par­a­lympic gold medal­list Ben Austin was guest speaker at the Re­gional Sports Awards last Fri­day night. Ben re­called the mo­ment in his early years, lap­ping the Welling­ton Pool, that brought him to an Aus­tralian uni­form.

“I re­mem­ber mak­ing the shadow team for the Par­a­lympics. I was the only coun­try ath­lete in the squad. The oth­ers were amazed that we could only train for five months of the year!

“Without an in­door pool I had to do a lot of run­ning and gym work, but of course that was us­ing dif­fer­ent mus­cles, or at least, us­ing them dif­fer­ently,” Ben ex­plained.

“Some­times I swam in the river. Dad would su­per­vise me in the wa­ter as I swam against or across the cur­rent... It taught me wa­ter safety and aware­ness and was re­ally good for strength­en­ing my kick.”

Ben’s tal­ent was recog­nised early as he left able-bod­ied swim­mers in his wake and then he was se­lected to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia for Syd­ney 2000.

WELLING­TON’S Par­a­lympic gold medal­list Ben Austin was guest speaker at the Re­gional Sports Awards on Fri­day night.

As em­cee of the awards, I had the priv­i­lege of chat­ting with him ahead of the pre­sen­ta­tion of cer­tifi­cates to Aus­tralian, State and re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Ben re­called the mo­ment in his early years, lap­ping the Welling­ton Pool, that brought him to an Aus­tralian uni­form.

“I re­mem­ber mak­ing the shadow team for the Par­a­lympics. I was the only coun­try ath­lete in the squad. The oth­ers were amazed that we could only train for five months of the year!

“Without an in­door pool I had to do a lot of run­ning and gym work, but of course that was us­ing dif­fer­ent mus­cles, or at least, us­ing them dif­fer­ently,” Ben ex­plained.

“Some­times I swam in the river. Dad would su­per­vise me in the wa­ter as I swam against or across the cur­rent. I would pick a marker, a stick on the bank, and keep an eye on it. It taught me wa­ter safety and aware­ness and was re­ally good for strength­en­ing my kick.”

Ben was in awe of the story I re­told of Cal Smith and Aspen Moore who, as re­ported here in Dubbo Photo News through­out 2018, swam in wet­suits out­doors right up un­til June af­ter the lo­cal pools were closed.

“That’s com­mit­ment! To get in the wa­ter in June takes guts and real mo­ti­va­tion – even if you have a wet­suit! It takes ded­i­ca­tion but if you show that in the early stages of your ca­reer it pays off in the long term. You get the re­wards for your sac­ri­fices,” the mul­ti­ple gold-medal­list told an en­thralled au­di­ence.

“That’s the make you or break you stage. Cal and Aspen epit­o­mise the class of coun­try sports­peo­ple who may lack the al­lyear-round fa­cil­i­ties, ac­cess to first class coaches and In­sti­tutes of Sport, but make up for it with te­nac­ity and the strength to over­come what­ever life throws at us.”

Ben’s tal­ent was recog­nised early as he left able-bod­ied swim­mers in his wake and then he was se­lected for Syd­ney 2000.

“It was such a sur­real time. I was very green. I’d barely any in­ter­na­tional rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence so when I was picked they sent me to Canberra AIS to get me some ex­po­sure to what I might ex­pect at the Games.”

Ben said march­ing with the Aus­tralian team that Oc­to­ber, was like a dream.

“I was re­ally ner­vous walk­ing out on the pool deck for my first swim. It was re­ally ex­cit­ing but at the same time my nerves got the best of me. They al­ways had, even when I was play­ing footy for the Cow­boys. I re­mem­ber jump­ing in for my first race, the 200 me­tres In­di­vid­ual Med­ley (IM). It was one of my favourite events but as soon as I dived in the wa­ter, I felt like a brick!

“I was ranked num­ber one in the world for the event and was rock­et­ing up the rank­ings in all strokes, but I was eight sec­onds off my best time in the heat,” Ben re­flected.

“I was re­laxed, I was train­ing well and I was happy, but when I got into the sta­dium the but­ter­flies kicked in big time. It was re­ally in­tim­i­dat­ing. I was so ex­cited and then I jumped in. The crowd, the at­mos­phere, it was such a new thing.

“I just scraped into the fi­nals and had four hours with a psy­chol­o­gist to get my­self to­gether. I ac­tu­ally went un­der the ex­ist­ing world record in the fi­nal but fin­ished just be­hind a Chi­nese swim­mer. “It was such a crazy ride!”

Ben had some sage ad­vice for as­pir­ing ath­letes.

“It is all about men­tal tough­ness. A lot of ath­letes have the tal­ent, the speed, the strength and the po­ten­tial, but it still comes down to your abil­ity to han­dle your body’s men­tal tor­ture. You need to be tough enough men­tally to not let things get to you.”

Ben said as his ca­reer moved on he re­alised it came down to not think­ing too much.

“As ath­letes we train ev­ery sin­gle day at Olympic level. We are do­ing up to 40km a week in the pool, we have all these re­cov­ery ses­sions, we live and breathe sport, but we still find it hard to trust our­selves, to trust our coach. That small per cen­t­age of doubt in your mind takes a lot of en­ergy out of you, more than you re­alise, so in sport it’s re­ally about re­fin­ing that mind­set and mak­ing sure you can swim with an empty mind and run with an empty mind and re­ally trust your­self.

“If you do this, it also al­lows you to have fun. You know, fun’s a big part of your mind­set. When you take things too se­ri­ously you have a lot of bur­den, you put a lot of pres­sure on your­self, so it’s keep­ing that fun in what you do and de­vel­op­ing that men­tal tal­ent. It takes time; it takes a lot of prac­tice,” Ben of­fered.

When the Man­ches­ter Com­mon­wealth Games came around in 2002, it was an­nounced the Aus­tralian team would in­clude four Elite Ath­letes with a Dis­abil­ity in an in­te­grated swim­ming pro­gram.

“It was a big mo­ment for me. Be­fore Man­ches­ter I was an IM swim­mer but when the op­por­tu­nity to swim at the same meet as the able-bod­ied, I had to ad­just to be­come a freestyle sprint racer. At the AIS I had spent two years do­ing a lot of dis­tance work and a lot of spe­cific train­ing for med­ley. I wasn’t that fast in terms of pure speed.

“I think I over­trained a bit but it was ac­tu­ally a bless­ing. Com­ing from the bush with no mileage at all was a bit of a shock.

“It took two years to get used to that ex­treme work­load. I had to train ev­ery sin­gle ses­sion know­ing that if I didn’t meet the high stan­dards I would lose my spot at the AIS. That train­ing bore fruit at the tri­als for the Comm Games. Once I started do­ing freestyle, I fresh­ened up and found some ex­tra speed I didn’t know I had.”

Ben said he also made some mi­nor tech­ni­cal changes.

“Un­der the as­tute eye of the coaches in­clud­ing my dad, I switched sides from breath­ing on my left side with my short arm, to the right, and it made an im­me­di­ate dif­fer­ence. I took four sec­onds off my sprint time!”

Af­ter nearly 15 years at the top, it was time to get “back into real life”. “It was a tough tran­si­tion! “I re­mem­ber go­ing to Delhi, my third Com­mon­wealth Games. I was go­ing to re­tire af­ter Bei­jing in 2008 but I de­cided to go to Delhi be­cause I felt I hadn’t re­ally had the com­plete per­for­mance. I was al­ways in search of that.

“Once I got to Delhi and won the gold medal I felt I had achieved what I had set out to do and it was time to move on.”

Ben said it was more about find­ing out what it meant to have a men­tal edge.

“You have full trust in your­self and just get in and swim. I achieved my goal – and my gold medal – at 30 years of age and over­came the young guys who kept telling me they would cut me down!

“I re­mem­ber the dis­tinct feel­ing af­ter that race that this was it! I didn’t have the same mo­ti­va­tion or feel­ing for it any­more.

“You can’t re­ally plan it. It’s just when your mind and your body tells you that’s it. So af­ter that race – and it was very abrupt – I just knew it was my time to fin­ish.”

What has Ben been do­ing over the past ten years?

“I’d been so fo­cussed on my swim­ming, I hadn’t de­vel­oped my pas­sions to come through. Hav­ing lived for over a decade as an elite ath­lete I de­cided to travel and I ended up liv­ing in the US for a while and ac­tu­ally I spent a good decade find­ing my­self out­side of sport.”

Ben be­gan shar­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences on a Pub­lic Speak­ing cir­cuit.

“It al­lowed me to make sense of my jour­ney and in­te­grat­ing the ups and downs into my whole life. Once I had done that, I be­gan to move for­ward.

Ben Austin is now back home in Welling­ton and “liv­ing a nor­mal life”.

“I re­ally think it’s im­por­tant for ath­letes to fo­cus on pas­sions out­side of their cho­sen sport and pre­pare for later when it is not the cen­tre of ev­ery­thing. We talk a lot about plan­ning for tran­si­tion but when you’re fo­cussed on what you are do­ing it’s hard to hear those other voices, so I’d en­cour­age ev­ery­one to be­come aware of the sup­port net­works. It will make the fu­ture steps eas­ier.”

Ben also had good things to say about the great Kurt Fearn­ley.

“Kurt and I have the cen­tral west con­nec­tion and would of­ten share jokes about the bush when we were at train­ing or at Games. We are both re­ally proud of our bush roots.

“Kurt per­son­i­fies never giv­ing up. It’s not just the sport­ing achieve­ments, he’s con­tin­u­ally find­ing a way to show hu­man­ity that there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Even though he’s a vet­eran ath­lete now, he still finds ways to com­plete those mon­ster marathons. He’s crawled the Kokoda Trail. His at­ti­tude’s in­cred­i­ble,” Ben said with to­tal ad­mi­ra­tion.

“Kurt’s hard to sum up in a few words be­cause I think he is still evolv­ing as an ath­lete and as a per­son. He keeps on sur­pris­ing the pub­lic.”

PHOTO: MEL POCKNALL

Welling­ton Par­a­lympic gold medal­list Ben Austin speak­ing with Ge­off Mann at last Fri­day night’s Dubbo Re­gional Sports Awards.

PHOTO: REUTERS/YAN­NIS BEHRAKIS

Ben Austin of Aus­tralia (left) and Fu Xiao Wang of China dive in for the Men's 100m But­ter­fly, cat­e­gory S8, at the Athens 2004 Par­a­lympic Games. Austin won the sil­ver.

Welling­ton Par­a­lympic gold medal­list Ben Austin speak­ing with Ge­off Mann at last Fri­day nights Dubbo Re­gional Sports Awards. PHOTO: MEL POCKNALL

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