Diving in head first

November 30, 2018

Diving in head first

Having led an active lifestyle in and out of the pool, Professor Brendan Burkett didn’t think twice when diving in head first; his physical structure may have changed, but his fortitude never wavered. Having achieved the highest of accolades as an athlete, Brendan is now ushering in the next generation of swimming stars, as head coach of the Australian Paralympic swim team.

Professor Brendan Burkett
Professor Brendan Burkett

On New Year’s Day in 1986, Brendan Burkett’s left leg was amputated, and while it may have been his sedative state talking, he remained positive, saying, “At least I’ll
be starting the new year on the right foot”.

It’s this can-do attitude, which he credits to growing up in Central Queensland, that has seen him overcome hurdles and represent his country at the highest level.

Back in December 1985, Brendan was an active young man, playing footy and swimming – life was great.

“I’d finished my final exams and passed my four-year engineering degree, working two jobs to travel overseas and play football in Europe, when I was involved in a hit and run accident while riding my motorcycle on the last day of uni.”

Brendan’s left leg was shattered in 13 places and his pelvis broken in three, and he was airlifted from Tannum Sands to Brisbane. Over the next 10 days, Brendan underwent several operations, before doctors had no choice but to amputate his leg. 

The next three months were spent in hospital recovering, and Brendan admits there were some, “Heavy, dark times,” but he was determined to walk again.

“To go from running around on a footy field, tackling people, to learning how to walk; you get through that and I made it back for my graduation, albeit on two walking crutches, but I made it and continued from there,” he says.

As soon as Brendan’s stitches healed and he got the all clear from his physio, he was back in the pool as another form of rehabilitation, not even considering it competitively.

“Everything looked the same as when I was a kid. In my eyes, there were lane ropes, there were coaches, there were swimmers and it was just like normal, so I just jumped in and swam, but to all of the other swimmers and coaches, they looked at me as a guy with one leg, who was different, but I didn’t see that, so to me it was just training,” he says.

Did Brendan have to change his swimming technique?

“It’s a really common question and was something I didn’t even think about. To me it’s a pool and I dive in, coach yells out what you’ve got to do and you do it – arms move, you breathe and you kick,” he says.

“Your body somehow automatically adjusts, I can’t remember walking with two legs so your body just deletes those things, I don’t know. When I’m swimming, I don’t consciously think, ‘I’ve got to kick here and don’t have a leg here so I’ve got to do something different’.”

In 1988, Brendan won a silver medal in the 4x50m freestyle relay in Seoul; he won bronze in the 50m freestyle in Barcelona in ‘92; won silver at the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games in the 100m freestyle; at the ‘96 Atlanta Games, he won gold in the 50m freestyle and silver in the 4x100m freestyle; at the 1998 IPC Swimming World Championships in Christchurch, he won a gold medal and broke a world record in the 4x100m freestyle; then in 2000, Brendan won silver in Sydney in the 4x100m freestyle and was the Australian team’s flag bearer.

Retiring in 2001, Brendan continued with the Australian Paralympic swim team as a sport scientist, coach and manager – to the point he’s known as the ‘Swiss army knife’.

“It’s been a great part of my life and a great journey and the most rewarding bit has been being able to give something back and see people achieve their dream and perform to their potential,” he says.

“The Games is an 11 out of 10 adrenalin rush and the high is a whole plethora of challenges. To see an outstanding human performance in front of you is indescribable. It’s an addiction I want more of.”

And his wish has been granted with his appointment of head coach of the Australian Paralympic swim team, superseding former University of the Sunshine Coast colleague Jan Cameron, who passed away in April.

Having experienced competitive swimming prior to and after amputation, and wanting to understand how the body adapts the way his did, in 1994, Brendan launched into a PhD in biomechanics. 

Having completed his PhD, Brendan started teaching anatomy at USC in 1997, then joined the sport and exercise science team and more recently was appointed USC’s Director of High Performance Sport.

“There’s truckloads of new knowledge and information now to help you understand what’s going on, but there’s just as much that we don’t know. We can quantify and measure things now but the trick is then interpreting it and applying it, and you can see it with any sport, it’s one thing to identify it, but it’s another to determine what actions do we take to make it work?

“I still bring it back to the most important thing, which is athletic performance, and that’s what we should be focusing on; not the fact that Roger Federer has a better tennis racquet, or Usain Bolt’s shoes are three grams lighter, it’s the athletic skill of Roger and Usain.”

As Brendan prepares the Australian Paralympic swim team for the 2019 World Championships in Malaysia, Tokyo Games in 2020 and Paris in 2024, he’s particularly excited about the challenges and successes which will come with his new role.

“Especially for people from regional areas to say, ‘This is a pathway, you can actually do it,’ and there’s nothing better than representing your country, wearing the green and gold.” 

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