Katrina Porter is an Australian Paralympic swimmer, an Associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an active member of the North Cottesloe Surf Life Saving Club. Swimming has been a part of her life since she was a child, though her relationship with the sport has changed over the years. She started swimming for hydrotherapy, later moving towards competitive swimming. Kat went on to represent Australia for 12 years, winning gold at the Beijing Paralympics. This year, she completed her seventh Rottnest Channel crossing, and her first ever solo swim.
My name is Katrina Porter. I was born with a disability called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, it’s a condition that affects my ankles, my knees, my hips, my left arm, and my jaw. It’s a condition from birth. Essentially, when I was a baby I just looked like a Barbie doll. Everything was stiff. Over time, I’ve been able to go from being a baby that was never expected to walk, to age six and learning to walk (to the best of my ability). From then I’ve sort of, not bettered my disability, but I’ve been able to get the best out of myself, considering my disability. I’ve proved the doctors wrong. Through swimming and just being head strong, I’ve been able to develop myself physically and also mentally so that I can really handle the way that life throws curve balls.
The doctors did a lot of work on me as a baby and toddler. I had 13 different operations in the space of two years at Princess Margaret Hospital. They were cutting me open, pulling me, prodding and doing everything that they could to really help me. But when they took the plasters off, everything would just revert back to its initial state. So eventually the doctors said, ‘Let’s give this hydrotherapy a go.’ They put me in the hydrotherapy pool and they saw such dramatic improvements that they said to my parents, ‘This is what she should do.’ I was very fortunate that I enjoyed it as well. For me, the water was and still is a place of freedom. It’s somewhere that I’m not limited by my disability. I don’t have to use crutches to get around the pool, I don’t have to worry about slipping over on the concrete or falling up the stairs.
I remember the first time I watched the Paralympics on TV. I think I was about eight years old and I was in hospital after having surgery. I didn’t know what the Paralympics was but I was watching TV and it was the first time that I identified people that looked like me achieving something. Because the only real experience I had with people with disability was in hospital corridors—and they’re not really happy places or places where you are set to achieve great things. So watching the Atlanta Paralympic Games as an eight-year-old, seeing the flag raised and the national anthem play for people who became my heroes, was a really big point for me at a young age to see, like, ‘That person’s on crutches and they’re winning gold medals and people are throwing flowers from the crowd.’ That for me was really momentous. When you see someone like you—they’re not huge, big, buff, strong. Everyone’s got a different physicality about them but they were able to put that aside and get something out of it. For me that was really amazing to see.
I won gold in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics for my 100-metre back stroke. I remember every metre of that swim. However, following my retirement from swimming in 2012, I swore I would never swim again. I absolutely despised the water because I had put so much pressure on myself. I was swimming for my coaches, for my family, for my friends—I had never really felt I was swimming for me. I felt I swum because that was expected of me. So, when I retired, I was just like, ‘I’m never touching water again.’ I think that lasted probably a week, then went back and it was really liberating to be able to swim just because I wanted to swim, full stop.
I signed up to do a solo at the Rotto Swim this year, and it was the first commitment I had made to swimming since retiring. I really surprised myself, because I expected to have to grind my teeth and get it done, given how much I hated swimming a few years before. But the fact that I was just doing the Rotto Swim for me, and no one else, made all the difference. The entire day panned out so well. The conditions were completely 110 per cent suited for me. They were great for a lot of people but they were amazing for the way that I swim. I knew that when I got down to Cottesloe Beach in the morning that it was going to be a pretty good day. There’s always the niggles in the back of my mind, I’ve got a sore back, what if I get bather-rub and what about those big fish. But once I set off, everything just sort of came to plan. I am a distance swimmer—so I knew that I would be strong—but I have never swum longer than 10 kilometres in one go. I knew I could get to 10 kilometres, but what about the next bit.
The first half I was controlled and I felt quite good. I knew I was making good time. I got to 10 kilometres in 2 hours and 45 minutes which is faster than my qualifying swim, so I thought, oh no, I’ve gone out too hard too early and this is going to be the hardest next 10 kilometres I’ve ever done. But I felt really good, so I also thought, I’m actually doing okay. I just felt so strong. As I was progressing, I felt like I was actually getting stronger. It was just amazing because I had energy upon energy and it kept building. I also had an amazing support crew that knew what to say and didn’t just keep cheering all the time, but they were there when I needed them. As my boat left at the 19 kilometre mark they said, ‘You have smashed this.’ So I thought, oh, I must be doing well. And then at the 19.25 kilometre mark as my paddler left me, he said, ‘You’re going to break six.’ From there it set in, I’m going to make it and I’m going to break six. Which was so out of my expectations. If someone said I would break six, I would say, ‘That’s a pretty good joke.’ I couldn’t have dreamt it. Everything went right. The day was amazing.
If I had to summarise how I feel when I swim in one word, it would be freedom. The water is a place for me where I am completely free of my disability. Crutches, wheelchairs, splints, fear of falling, having to always be on edge of everything around me—it’s somewhere I don’t ever have to think about that. Once I’m the water, it’s like my brain just goes, ah. So, for me, it’s a real place—an escape from reality in a way. An escape from reality in the physical sense, but also an escape from technology, from the outside world. It’s somewhere I can be completely alone with my own thoughts. I tried to explain it to someone the other day: I get in the pool, I open up a cupboard and it’s just a filing cabinet with paper everywhere. You don’t know what goes in what slot and it’s just all too much. But after my swim, it’s like I’ve reordered my filing cabinet, prioritised the folders, I know what folders to deal with in what order. My analogy is that everything’s shuffled, then I get out of the water and everything’s ordered and I know how I’m going to tackle my day.
Katrina successfully completed a solo crossing of the Rottnest Channel Swim in 5 hours and 47 minutes
Copyright © 2018 Katrina Porter
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