06 November 2018
Linda Pearce writes about how Local Sporting Champions funding helped Kyle Chalmers go from Port Lincoln in South Australia to the the top of the dais at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
As a child of country South Australia, Kyle Chalmers grew up in the tuna-fishing town of Port Lincoln playing football, cricket and basketball, kicking a soccer ball, having a hit of tennis, swimming a lot, then swimming very fast.
“My life revolved around those different sports,” Chalmers, the Rio 2016 Olympic 100-metre freestyle gold medallist, said during a recent trip to the AIS.
“Obviously you had your winter program and then your summer program, but swimming was one that I could do all year round and it’s I guess one that I always used as a good fitness thing and it also allowed me to travel quite a lot as well.”
In the early days, before celebrated trips to FINA world championships in Russia, junior competitions in China and Singapore, and that glorious South American adventure in 2016, it was travel of a more tedious kind: specifically, the 800km round trip from Chalmers’ Eyre Peninsula home to Adelaide.
It was not a cheap exercise. Nor was getting young Kyle to various interstate meets, and trials. Which is where Sport Australia’s Local Sporting Champions grants program gave a helping hand to the strapping lad with the man-sized feet.
“Local Sporting Champions was huge for me as a young kid growing up in Port Lincoln,” Chalmers says. “It’s about a seven-and-a-half hour drive to Adelaide and we were doing that quite regularly for not necessarily always swimming, but for sport, and it comes at a huge cost for my family.
“I know they had to sacrifice a lot, so any grant that they could get, they tried their luck at. And having the Local Sporting Champions one, was amazing for me, and I know that it really set me up, and it kind of made me feel like I was part of the AIS, as well, as a kid … it was a cool thing to be a part of.
“Grants have a huge impact - especially on kids … obviously country kids have to do that little bit extra travelling. And then when they go to the big cities like Adelaide you have to pay for accommodation and then you’d have your swimming costs on top of that, with racing suits, goggles, caps, so it is a huge expense. Those grants have really helped my family out, helped me reach my goals.”
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Initially, that was to play AFL, where his father, Brett, had spent six seasons as a ruckman/forward for Adelaide and Port Adelaide in the late ’90s, before returning to Port Lincoln with his young family. By 2012, they had shifted back to Adelaide and, in 2015, Kyle jeopardised his world championships debut as a relay swimmer having suffered wrist and ankle injuries in a school football match. Clearly, a choice to be made.
“Swimming took priority,” he says, recalling the injuries as a wake-up call louder than any race-starter’s buzzer. “It was kinda like ‘I probably can’t do both any more’ and I decided I wanted to swim for the Australian swim team in Russia that year. So that was my main focus, and I’m really glad I made that decision, because a year after I was at the Olympics.”
Not that Chalmers dreamed of what was to transpire in Rio, where he arrived hoping merely to reach the final of the blue riband sprint event. As the fastest qualifier, the 18-year-old schoolboy phenomenon hurtled through the two laps in a world junior record 47.58 seconds to become the first Australian man in 50 years to claim 100m freestyle gold.
He is indebted to his supportive parents, Brett and Julie, and grateful for the understanding of a loyal group of friends who accept that training and racing are his priorities, and thus there are social occasions he will inevitably miss. Indeed, the 20-year-old lizard collector and owner of three Olympic and five Commonwealth Games medals has some sage advice for aspiring athletes: all the sacrifices will be worth it, eventually; and not every day will be a great one.
“So make sure you’re back there the next day giving it your all, and (making sure that) everything counts,” says Chalmers, “and your dreams will become reality.”