Disability swim camps putting athletes like Declan Budd on a path to the Paralympics

The 2032 Brisbane Paralympic Games are still a decade away but 14-year-old Declan Budd can already see himself standing on top of the podium with the weight of gold around his neck.

Declan, northern Sydney, contracted swine flu when he was just 18 months old, leaving him with brain damage and a mild intellectual disability that impacted his speech.

“I got it when I was little because I was really sick and it affected my learning, hurts my head and it affects my speech,” Declan said.

Swimming became a therapy tool but there was no denying his talent in the water.

“I feel like I’m a normal person,” he said.

“It makes me feel like I belong there way more and I can still keep up with my friends.”

People living with disability can find it more challenging to learn to swim, mainly because there are so few opportunities to hop in the water.

Mastering the skill
But swimming camps are helping athletes overcome their doubts and have even set some like Declan on a path to the Paralympics.

For Declan, it all kicked off at a session hosted by the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Swimming Australia.

Paraswimmer and coach Lizzie Slack was one of his first coaches and knew Declan was one to “watch out for”.

“On the land a lot of these swimmers or athletes are less able than their peers but then they get in the pool and they can do so much more,” she said.

Ms Slack has dedicated her work to building people’s confidence so everybody could get into the pool like she did at a young age, which led her to compete internationally.

She said swimming was far less physically demanding than most other activities, so many people could continue for life.

“Their bodies can move more freely, they can participate and they can be almost equal to their peers, so that kind of then gives them confidence out of the water,” Ms Slack said.

Camps have recently been held outside of Sydney for the first time in five regional areas, including in Orange, New South Wales, where it can be much harder to access disability-friendly resources.

“In the city we have the advantage of having lots of clubs, lots of pools and lots of coaches so you can pick and choose to find one that works for you,” Ms Slack said.

Invaluable for recovery
Ten-year-old Mackenzie Miller, from Orange, had two strokes about five months ago that left her with limited movement on her left side.

She has since been undertaking rehabilitation with the team at Ronald McDonald House in Sydney and can now be spotted swimming with the use of just one arm and one leg — even giving her older brother a run for his money.

Mackenzie said she had been able to learn new swimming skills at the camp.

“We got to play a bit of water polo and then at the end we got to compete against some other kids,” she said.

“It was really fun.”

For her father, Daniel Miller, it highlighted how far she had come since her accident.

“It is an emotional thing to watch your daughter go through what she did, but it’s also probably just as enjoyable to watch what she gets here,” Mr Miller said.

“She gets in the water and it’s like the brain just wants to get the arm going again.”

Her bigger goal, however, is to get back on the netball court and play with friends, as well as to compete again in the school swimming carnival.

For Mackenzie, and others like her, the swim camps are offering a first step towards such dreams.