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Sunday, 26 November 2017 12:30 am

Special Olympics champion swam for his cousin in Australia

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A cousin who died was a source of motivation and success for a Wellington man at the Asia Pacific Special Olympics in Australia.

Down-syndrome swimmer Richard Bruce, 33, won gold and silver medals at the Asia Pacific Games in Newcastle in December.

Richard’s cousin, who died of cancer days before event, had intended to be there in support.

“Richard was very excited to go across and compete but had a great sadness about not meeting Stuart there,” said Richard’s mother, Liz Bruce.

Mr Bruce said he was “swimming for his cousin”, and Liz added this motivation was a way her son dealt with the loss.

Richard won gold in the 50 metre freestyle and picked up silver in the 4×50 metre freestyle relay event.

Richard said freestyle was his favourite stroke because it was the one he was fastest at, but he also practiced backstroke.

New Zealand sent 10 swimmers across the ditch to compete, three of them from Wellington.

The others were Damon Catchpole and Michael Holdsworth.

Damon won gold in the 4x50M freestyle relay, silver in the 100M backstroke and bronze in the 100M freestyle, while Michael won gold in the 100M freestyle and bronze in the 100M backstroke.

“It was a whole new regime for overseas,” Mrs Bruce said of the extra training that Richard put in during the lead up to the competition.

It was the first time Richard had competed overseas, but he had been involved in many competitions in New Zealand.

Deputy chair of Special Olympics New Zealand Merill Holdsworth said the Asia-Pacific Games was a good opportunity to allow seasoned competitors a chance to represent New Zealand.

“There are a number of athletes New Zealand-wide who have particpated in the national games but have never had the chance to go to an international event,” she said.

Mrs Holdsworth, who is also Michael Holdsworth’s mother, said there was initally a dilemma about who to send to the Asia-Pacific games because they clashed with the New Zealand Special Olympics event.

“For New Zealand that is your premier event and we get 1500 athletes from every club in the country going to the national games,” she said.

“You’ve got these swimmers who have been involved for 20 odd years and this was their big chance for them in the New Zealand team,” Mrs Holdsworth said.

The Asia-Pacific games are a multi-country event but are separate to the Special Olympics world games.

“Because there was so much growth the decision was made to run multi-country events in regions to give more athletes a chance to compete at an international event.

“This Special Olympics Asia Pacific games was an inaugural event, the very first Special Olympic Asia-Pacific games,” Mrs Holdsworth said.

Team co-coach Paula Dixon said there was an increased focus on training and nutrition six months out from the event for Richard and the other swimmers.

She said all competitors attended a camp in June this year where the set food and fitness regimes for the competitors.

“It’s all about participation and doing your best,” Paula said.

She has been coaching Richard for 12 years, when she started volunteering with Special Olympics Wellington.

She said the swimmers in Richard’s squad often played jokes at her expense.

“I don’t know when my leg is being pulled. You don’t know if they’re telling porkies or truth with these guys,” Ms Dixon said.

Ms Dixon said the biggest challenge coaching swimmers with intellectual disabilities such as Richard was communication.

A week before the event, the New Zealand team discovered the competition pool was 50 metres rather than 25 metres in length.

“We thought that would be really tough for some of our swimmers to get their head around but they all dealt with it really well,” Ms Dixon said.

Mrs Holdsworth said Special Olympics events give people with intellectual disabilities opportunities no other organisation can offer.

“For Richard, to me, it seemed life-changing. He seemed so much more confident and his swimming improved, his fitness improved. He became so much more outgoing. He was incredibly confident while he was away,” Mrs Holdsworth said

“It was a pleasure to see how well he’s responded to this opportunity.”

The Asia Pacific Special Olympics Games ran December 1 to 7 and included competitors from 32 countries.

In the spirit of the Summer Olympic Games event, a torch was carried around the competing countries before the Asia-Pacific games, including in Wellington

Richard said he, as well as other members of the New Zealand team, carried the torch through the central city to Parliament.

Richard said there was camaraderie between competing nations and he cheered on international friends in their races as well as his Kiwi team mates.

When he was on the podium receiving his gold medal, his coach and other competitors did the haka for him.

Richard said he felt respected to be up on the podium but also proud of his achievement for his cousin.

Mr Bruce learnt to swim in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea where he was born.

“He started swimming before he could walk,” Mrs Bruce joked.

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is a Whitireia journalism student covering the Mount Cook area in Wellington. He has a BA in Political Science and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
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