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Paralympians dive into Phuket

Paralympians dive into Phuket

PHUKET: The eyes of the world will be on London come the Olympics in July, but for a group of elite athletes currently training in Phuket, their focus lies a few weeks further down the road.

By Dane Halpin

Thursday 24 May 2012, 09:38AM

Paralympic swimmers Annabelle Williams, Jacqui Freney and Michael Anderson.

Paralympic swimmers Annabelle Williams, Jacqui Freney and Michael Anderson.

That group is the core squad of the Australian Paralympic Swim Team, who have been in camp at British International School Phuket (BIS) since last Sunday (May 13) to prepare the London 2012 Paralympic Games in August.

Despite the team not being finalised until July 4, the 14 swimmers currently training at BIS have already had their places confirmed – all are in the top three in the world for their respective disciplines.

“The main purpose of this camp is to get us out of our comfort zone,” swimmer Jacqui Freney, 19, said.

The dual world record holder and three-time Paralympic bronze medalist, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, has been swimming competitively since she was seven, something she believes has continually given her motivation.

“Without swimming I don’t know where I would be... It’s taught me you can never set the bar too high.”

For Annabelle Williams, the school grounds of the training camp are not unfamiliar. The 23-year-old, who was born without her lower left arm, grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and attended the British International School there.

Moving to Australia at age 10, Williams was forced to give up athletics after suffering stress fractures, and so turned her attention to the pool.

She obviously took naturally to the transition; Williams won a bronze medal in the 100 metres butterfly at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, and a bronze in the same event at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games.

But if her achievements in the pool weren’t inspiring enough, Williams has also just graduated from a Law and International Relations degree at Bond University in Australia, completing a six month internship at the Australian Embassy in Paris.

She is also off to Washington DC in December to intern in the US State Department alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s not the only one pursuing academic interests; Michael Anderson, 24, has also just deferred his Bachelor in Sports Management at Griffith University to focus on the London Paralympics.

Anderson, who suffered nerve damage to his legs and has hearing impairment after being diagnosed with meningitis at age three, said the team environment of competitive sport helps keep him motivated.

An intrepid traveller and self-confessed adventure junkie, Michael won a silver medal in the 100m backstroke at his first Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008, and believes he can go one better this year.

Dan About Thailand

Yet despite their humility, all three athletes agree that competitive sport has given an outlet to push their boundaries.

But they have been fortunate in that respect, as they acknowledge the same opportunities are not afforded to those with a disability in Thailand.

The team say they have already noticed that accessibility issues in Phuket can make it challenging to get around, and they have been the subject of curious stares from locals when they ventured outside the grounds of BIS.

“I think it’s different in Australia,” Annabelle said. “It’s a different attitude towards people with a disability.”

Head coach Brenden Keogh believes the attitude in Asia is improving slowly, as is the quality of Asian athletes with a disability. But he said there are still not the same kinds of sporting opportunities here as in the West.

“We’d love for there to be more meets in Asia. It’s something I’ve talked to the Asian head coaches about... if nations like Thailand or Singapore decide to put on regular meets, we’d certainly be interested.”

Of course, for now, the focus remains firmly on the London Paralympic Games, and the team are quietly confident of a big medal haul.

“I think the team’s physical maturity is there, and the mental strength is there to take on the other nations,” Keogh said.

Having now spent more than a decade as head coach, Keogh has confidence in his team’s ability both in and out of the water.

“I actually think the guys here are able bodied and they use what they have to the best of their ability, and that makes them more able bodied than most of the community,” he said.

The team return to Australia on Tuesday (May 29).

BIS are holding a competition on May 26, pitting the school’s best swimmers against the Australian Paralympians. It will run from 9am-midday at the BIS pool. Spectators are welcome.

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