Going For Gold
The elite USC Paralympic High Performance Squad training out of our own backyard in Sippy Downs is home to global swimming superstars, including Paralympic gold medalist Blake Cochrane and internationally-renowned coach Jan Cameron.
With powerful movements, Blake Cochrane slices through the water, following the black line along the bottom of the pool on his way to a streamlined victory.
Later, he pulls on the green and gold jacket of Australia’s pride to step onto the podium, swimming his way into the world record books as an Australian champion and Paralympic swimmer.
Today, Blake is number one in the world in the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke events, he has swum for Australia in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Paralympic games, was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2014, with a host of school, regional and state representative swimming awards.
Blake, 24, has been swimming since, “I got too big for the bathtub”. Growing up in Redcliffe, his parents introduced him to swimming, nippers and surf lifesaving to help with asthma, but Blake soon developed his own love for being in the water.
Blake has a congenital limb deficiency from birth, which means he is missing his fingers and toes on both hands and feet.
“I use every component of gear you can when it comes to swimming (training),” he says.
“There are a few modifications that are made to some of my equipment, like with my flipper I have an attachment that goes into the fin so I can wear it on my foot.
“But in competition there is no assistances or aids, you swim with what you’ve got.”
Blake explains within Paralympics, swimming is the only sport to have a ‘functional classification system’, which means swimmers of all disabilities compete against each other. Swimmers are assessed and given a permanent classification when they are aged 18, which can be contested by opposing countries twice during a swimmer’s career.
“It’s not the perfect system...it can seem a little bit unfair but the way I’ve looked at the system is that you’re at a disadvantage in some events, but you’re at an advantage in another,” he says.
After entering competitive swimming in 2006, Blake’s own first international event was in 2007 at the Arafura Games in Darwin; an “eye-opener”.
“I learnt very quickly that if you want to step up in the world you have to be putting in that time and effort,” he says.
“Growing up I was a breast stroker so I was fortunate to have natural talent; but when you build hard work on top you can definitely come away with some pretty strong results.”
The talented swimmer went on to set a new world record in the men’s 50m breaststroke at the 2013 Australian Swimming Championships (a time of 36.13), take home two gold medals at the 2012 London Paralympics in the 4x100m freestyle and the 100m breaststroke, a silver medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games in the 100m breaststroke, and an individual gold medal at the 2010 IPC World Championships in Eindhoven in the 100m breaststroke and again in the same event at the 2013 IPC World Championships.
He’s also represented Australia and medalled at the 2008 Beijing IPC World Championships, Commonwealth Games including 2010 in Delhi, 2014 in Glasgow and the Para Pan Pacific Championships in 2011 in Canada and 2014 in California, and the IPC World Short Course in 2009, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It’s a reward of all the time and effort you’ve put in leading up to that one moment,” Blake says of those podium finishes. “We put in almost 24 hours of work a week and our main event lasts less than a minute-and-a-half, so you do a lot of training for that one moment of glory.”
On top of training nine times per week in the pool, Blake tackles regular gym sessions and when it comes to academia, he’s certainly no fish out of water; currently studying a Bachelor in Exercise and Clinical Science at the university, which will see him graduate as an accredited exercise physiologist.
With recent records including a new world record in the 100m breaststroke at the Berlin International swim meet in April 2015 in a time of 1:16:84, Blake was hopeful the momentum would carry him forward to the 2015 IPC World Championships held in Glasgow in July, where he took home a silver medal in the 100m breaststroke and a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay. He is now aiming towards the next Paralympic games in Rio in 2016, with an eye on the 2018 Australian Commonwealth Games.
As a former Olympian and with her fair share of competitive aquatic accolades, USC Paralympic High Performance Squad coach Jan Cameron brought her stellar coaching pedigree to the coaching position in 2013. From pool to podium herself, Jan has represented Australia at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, winning a silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for her part in the 4x100m freestyle relay, and with more than 47 years of swim coaching behind her, including high profile roles for Swimming New Zealand, came out of retirement to head up the Coast’s Paralympic High Performance Squad.
It’s not the first time I’ve coached Paralympic swimmers, but it’s the first time I’ve had a whole squad of Olympic swimmers – there are seven of them in the squad here.”
Back to where it all began, Jan was studying to be a teacher at a Wollongong university when her ex-husband, former Australian national coach Don Talbot, recommended her for a swim coach position at a local country club. Aside from a three-year break following the birth of her son (Scott Talbot – who would go on to become a representative swimmer and swim coach for New Zealand), Jan has been coaching ever since, from being a sole coach, assisting Don Talbot in Sydney, developing a swimming club from scratch in Canada, coaching high performance squads in the US, ‘feeding’ young swimmers through for the Olympics and coaching in New Zealand; upon retiring, Jan moved back to Australia and settled on the Sunshine Coast.
“I was asked to relieve the former coach for a little bit and one thing led to another and they asked me to apply for the job so I did,” she remembers.
“It’s not the first time I’ve coached Paralympic swimmers, but it’s the first time I’ve had a whole squad of Olympic swimmers – there are seven of them in the squad here,” she says.
Jan now trains the squad alongside the ‘able-bodied high performance squad’ in a recent collaboration spearheaded by former Paralympian Dr Brendan Burkett, in a move that will see them merge as the USC Spartans Swim Club.
Jan also inherited three senior Paralympic gold medallists in Blake, Rick Pendleton and Michael Anderson, along with a clutch of younger swimmers for the squad’s succession planning.
“It’s very tough to get on the Olympic podium so that’s why it’s so special to have three on the Olympic podium here in the program for the others to see what has to be done,” she says.
“They can mentor and be role models for the younger swimmers.”
Jan has just travelled with six of the seven-strong squad to the world championships; with up-and-coming Lakeisha Patterson scooping a gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay, silver in the 50m and three bronze medals; while the rest of the team brought home an assortment of bronze medals and finalist rankings.
But for Jan, it’s not always about the medals.
“It’s about seeing young people grow, mature and achieve in life. That’s really for me, the most satisfying.”