When most 16 year-olds were enjoying their down time in-between exams, Katherine Downie was winning two gold medals at the 2012 London Paralympics. Four years on, the young swimming athlete is fiercely determined to add to her medal tally at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this September.
Born in Scotland, Downie started swimming competitively after her family moved to Australia when she eight years old. It was her new neighbours who suggested she should develop her swimming skills to avoid being eaten by sharks. Being an impressionable eight-year old, Downie admits she probably took the remark too literally, but she soon started swimming in squads at the local pool and fell in love with the sport.
When she was fifteen, however, Downie’s muscles started to spasm uncontrollably. Doctors diagnosed her with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy right hemiplegia, a condition acquired from a brain injury when she was born.
Despite her diagnosis, her difficulties with day-to-day tasks involving fine motor skills, co-ordination and strength suddenly made sense and Downie persevered with swimming. As she learned more about living with Cerebral Palsy, she found she was still in her element in the water.
“After I was diagnosed I kept swimming because I loved it and I found this side of swimming I didn’t know. It opened me up to what it means to be a person with a disability, and how to overcome obstacles and discrimination.”
Former Paralympian Rod Bonsack became Downie’s coach, and a profound influence on her both personally and professionally. He encouraged her to compete in her first international competition at the 2011 Arafura Games, where she won two gold and three silver medals.
“He didn’t take no for an answer. He used to make us do these horrible sets where we’d be kicking along and he’d say, ‘I can kick faster than you!’ and he’s a double amputee from the waist down.”
Downie is currently training to prepare for the 200 metre individual medley in Rio. She will receive confirmation of her place at the Games on 24 June.
“At my peak I train nine times a week. I also have an hour technical session, and then I do two gym sessions, a spin session and Pilates,” she says.
She finds motivation through her coach, Paul Bruce, and her teammates, whose competitiveness inspire her to work harder.
“It’s other people around me doing what they love, getting through the sets and putting in all the hard work. I like working hard and I like the reward at the end of the day … I can also eat whatever I want which is awesome!”
Downie’s bubbly persona belies the intense preparation, pain and personal sacrifices she’s endured to become an athlete.
In 2015, two weeks out from her national trials, she started to experience extreme stomach pain. She had appendicitis, but was back in the pool just days after her appendix was removed, and figuring out a way to still compete.
She swam backstroke in the nationals with two incisions in her stomach. It was the most painful experience of her life, she says.
“I saw it as a challenge. I thought if I could do it, nothing would ever hurt as much as that did.”
Competing at an elite level is certainly not for the faint hearted, but competing at an elite level with a disability requires its own kind of strength.
“Due to compensation of using my left side over my right, I get a lot of opposing injuries, so my left side will get more tight than my bad side, and that will be a terrible day in the pool.”
But she admits the real challenge is overcoming people’s opinions of Paralympic sport.
“Seeing me with all four limbs, we are perceived differently from athletes with more obvious impairments, such as amputees or those with severe neurological disabilities.”
“It’s about changing people’s perspectives. The Paralympics is about people with different disabilities coming together to compete as what they are – as athletes, as elite athletes with an impairment.”
When she isn’t preparing for the Paralympic Games, she’s studying her second year of architecture at Curtin.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but Zaha Hadid designed the pool I competed in at the London Paralympics, and I remember thinking that it was a wonderful pool. I look back at places I’ve been and they inspire competitiveness, comradeship and patriotism; it’s beautiful to think what architecture can do for an atmosphere.”
Downie juggles swimming and study through Curtin’s Elite Athlete program, which helps and supports Curtin students who are in a state or national representative sport.
“I know that swimming is not going to last forever, as much as I want it to, so I need to have a higher education,” she says.
Despite being diagnosed with a life-changing condition, Downie has persevered to become an optimistic and determined individual. Though she is tentative about her aspirations for this year’s Paralympics, judging from her past achievements, she is sure to make a splash on the world stage.
“Most of the time all I want to do is to do my best. I want to improve on what I’ve done the years before and come out of that race thinking I did everything I possibly could to do that race the best I could.”
Name: Katherine Downie