Don't Swim for Medals // by Matt Levy I ParaSwimming
Updated: Jun 9, 2019
Paralympian Matt Levy tells Parasports World about his exciting life, challenges and positive experience as a para-swimmer, and much more.
I wasn’t a water baby, far from it. In fact I didn’t like the water much.
The first time my parents took me swimming I was around 8. The reasons for doing it were fair enough. It was good for my health, especially the asthma that I had. But it didn’t mean that I liked it. Fortunately for me, my parents weren’t taking no for an answer, so giving it up wasn’t really an option.
It helped that the whole family were in on it. Everyone knew where the Levy family were on Sunday morning, in the pool, swimming squad. Every week my Mum and Dad rounded up me and my two sisters into the car and we headed for our local swimming pool, I wasn’t given any special privileges.
By the time I was 11 or 12 my dislike for the water had softened to a tolerance, before turning into a true love and passion for the sport which stays with me until this day. I loved the challenge, and I loved to test myself. An outsider looking in might think that swimming with Cerebral Palsy and a Visual Impairment is the challenging part, but that wasn’t the biggest hurdle for me. It was myself.
Matt Levy: A young me gets some crawling training in and I start to get to grips with my new toy car/wrecking machine
The strokes in swimming are the same the world over, I just need to adapt them to suit me. Medals and times are important, but they’re not why I do it, I’ll still be swimming when I’m 80. What swimming does give me is the chance to challenge myself every day. To improve, to swim faster, to do better than I did the day before.
This way of thinking has set me in good stead when it comes to competition. I look at a Gold Medal victory in the same way I look at a fourth place finish. There were still things I could improve in both, but the difference was that I was either the fastest that day or a few other guys were quicker. I rarely get low after a loss, I just see it as an opportunity to improve.
I think that comes from my parents. Maybe it’s something to do with the mind-set you have to have if your child is born 15 weeks premature. They weren’t overly positive all of the time, it wasn’t that, but they always had a view that if you put the work in, things would work in the end. That stays with me today and it allows me to keep an even keel, so even when I pick up a Gold Medal I’m not getting too carried away, I’ll see the performance first.
Swimming has also given me the chance to prove my abilities, to show what I can do. Being a teenager can be a difficult time wherever and whoever you are. Like most kids with a disability I went to a mainstream school in Australia, which was great, I didn’t want to be treated differently. But of course there was the odd comment, a bit of bullying. Honestly, it didn’t bother me and I’m sure it helped that I had swimming as a source of confidence.
It was also around this time that I had my first brush with Parasport, when the Paralympics came to town in 2000. The event was on my doorstep in Sydney and I headed down as a 13 year old spectator. It was this bombastic, loud, inspiring experience, the likes of which I’d never felt before. I had to be a part of it.
That was the point that I decided that swimming was going to be my future. I’d seen first-hand what the Paralympics looked like and I wanted in. I stepped up my training programme and committed to swimming in a serious way. Everything in my life had to fit in around swimming. School, work, friends, family. Almost 20 years later I still live like that, it’s ingrained in me now.
The hard work paid off when I was selected for the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004. I was only 16 at the time and let me tell you, selection is a pretty nerve wracking process whatever your age. You know the qualification times, but the final call is up to the coaches, dependent on how many slots they have open on the team, for each class category and based on how many men and women they’re taking. So even if you’re pretty sure, you can’t be totally sure until you get that tap on the shoulder and the words you want to here.
Fortunately I’ve been selected for every Paralympic Games since, so I’ve never yet had to experience the shoulder tap followed by the words you don’t want to here. I’m just going to keep going until they tell me otherwise! If I look back to myself as a 16, 17 year old trekking off to Greece in the Summer of 2004 I have to admit I was totally overwhelmed.
The attention the Paralympic Games bring are huge. You’re up against a standard of athlete unparalleled in any competition you’ve face in the last 2 years. You’re wearing your national colours and suddenly everyone wants a piece of you. Honestly, it got to me a bit.
I’d broken the 200 m freestyle short course World Record in 2003 so it wasn’t as if I was heading there just to take part, there was a bit of expectation. But rather than enjoying the challenge, a bit of fear crept in. I started to worry too much about my times, started to force things a bit in training, started looking at what my competitors were doing.
I didn’t medal in Athens, but it was the best experience I’ve ever had in terms of the amount I learnt just from being there. Exposure to the Paralympics, the heat of competition, the glitz, the unrelenting attention, you can’t recreate that and it helped me maintain my focus at the subsequent Paralympic Games.
Honestly, I don’t like to dwell too much on the achievements in my career. That’s for other people to do. The medals, the records, the personal bests, it’s great. They’re a tangible result for all the hard work and they’re a great excuse to celebrate the people that helped you achieve them, but they’re temporary. There’ll be a new Paralympic champion, a new World Record holder, you’ve got to be happy looking forward.
I always remind myself why I swim. I think it’s important to do so. It gives me freedom, control, a place to challenge myself and a place to develop. That hasn’t changed since I was a teenager bundling into the family car with my sisters and my parents to do squad swimming on a Sunday morning. The trimmings of being a Paralympic Champion are great, but they’re just that, they’re the by-product, the cherry on the cake, but they’re not the reason I’ll be in the pool at 5.30 am tomorrow morning, I’ll be there to see how fast I can swim.
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