At the Paralympic Games, the first time that you walk in to the competition venue is pretty special. Its quiet. Very quiet. The stadium lights are on but the stands are empty. Its almost eerie. You walk in, look around and know that this is it. You could walk away from this with something amazing.
As the days go on, the nerves begin to build and over the coming days you will brush shoulders with the best swimmers in the world. Most of them you know well, having swum against them for years. However, the Paralympics throw up the occasional new contender. A young pup that is hungry to win. They might look wide-eyed and oblivious on the outside, but on the inside they are walking around with a fire in their belly and would love nothing more than to destroy you in the pool.
I watched Paralympic champions growing up on TV. Everybody knows that I will forever be Natalie Du Toits biggest fan. When you see the Games on TV as a little kid, you almost imagine the athletes have super powers and know something about sport that you don’t.
Ill let you in on a little secret: its exactly the same race as when you were a little boy or girl. Its just faster. Stronger. Competitive. Practiced.
The athletes that are at the Games are the ones that get themselves out of bed, watch their diet, get to bed early, wake up early and don’t stop until the Games are finally upon them. They are the survivors. They have not only survived their own trials, but out of thousands who started their sports, the Paralympians and Olympians kept at it longer when most had given up. We aren’t the worlds most genetically gifted specimens that are walking the planet, we just had the hunger and drive to keep going.
So, standing behind the blocks in Rio, I have found that I feel so separate to what I think a Paralympic swimmer and champion should be. I have always felt like that. Its just me standing there. I feel the same nerves that I did in my first swimming race when I was an 11 year old girl. I have the same expectations; I want to win. This time though, Ill make sure that my goggles don’t fall off.
The worst part of competition day is waiting at the warm-up pool. You do your once over body check and stretch out the muscles that are still waking up. You see other swimmers heading off for their race, and a little later can hear the crowd roar them home. Some walk back Paralympic champions. Some walk back with their head in their hands. That stuff can really make your stomach churn.
Now, it was time to get ready for the 400m Freestyle - an event that I am not confident in. But when you have raced for over a decade you know the pain that you are in for.
In the call room, you look around at your competitors. Some of them are familiar faces. Some are staring straight ahead, some of them look at the floor, some are excited and jumpy. You can feel the nerves in the room. I get myself mentally ready for the pain train.
I sat there with my cap and goggles in my hand and kept telling myself : 'Yes, it will hurt. Yes, it will be agony. But, the pain will stop when you touch the wall. Just ignore your body when its screaming. It doesn’t understand what you are trying to do. Don’t be afraid. You will not die. YOU WILL NOT DIE'.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
I watched Brendan Hall walk out for his 400m. He is the King but never acts that way. I watch him on the TV win his gold medal and hope that I can follow suit.
Walking out onto pool deck is a special moment. The first thing that I do is find my family and give them a wave, then turn my head to find my team. They know how it feels to be down there.
Standing on the blocks, the crowd goes deathly silent. Its the same eerie silence that you feel when you walk into the competition venue for the first time. When you hear the siren, you just act on instinct. Its difficult to keep yourself composed for the first few strokes. You want to get going - theres a long way to go though. The first 200 meters was cruisy. Roll the shoulders over, stay relaxed. I knew that my biggest threat for the gold was one of these young pups who were looking to destroy me. I kept my eye on her with every tumble turn. Every turn, she was there. I would gradually build my speed to try and shake her off but she was trailing off my toes. The pain was slowly building with every stroke. It takes everything to keep your technique together. Keep your strokes long, your body position high in the water.
The feeling of agony I just mentioned? That hit me pretty hard at the 350m mark. I turned at the wall and saw Nuria was just slightly behind me. One last push to try and lose her. 50 meters to go. I kept my eye on her for the stretch back home. She was gaining on me. She was coming up fast. My muscles were screaming. Everything was hurting. My arms hurt. My head was throbbing and the lungs were burning. I think even my ear lobes were hurting. We were head to head and I was in physical agony. But you have to ignore that. This is a Paralympic final after all.
‘I have worked this hard for 375 meters, I am not going to give up’.
Time to bring out the big guns. Don't breathe for the last 15 meters. Just get to the wall as fast as you can. Go, go, go.
Touching the wall on the last stroke I instantly went into the unknown. The pain stopped. I had no energy to turn around. I was trying to return oxygen back into my body as quickly as I could. I glanced up at my team mates in the crowd and saw that none of them were on their feet. I knew in that moment that I hadn’t won.
This young pup had destroyed me in 0.02 of a second. She wasn’t just a wide-eyed and oblivious girl after all. She was going to be good. Really, really good! She just proved herself on the world stage - the Games newest gold medallist.
I looked over to her and saw in her eyes how happy she was. She couldn't believe it. It was the same feeling that I had four years prior when I had won my first Paralympic gold medal.
You can’t beat that feeling.
I realized quickly that Nuria Marquez Soto was something special. In four or eight years time, when she is dominating in the pool, I can look back and say that I was part of her first gold medal race.
Now, how often do you get the say that? I am now Nuria Marquez Sotos biggest fan.
I am up again tomorrow for the Womens 100m Freestyle. The light never goes out. Go Aussies!