Greater Shepparton Sports Hall of Fame
Kate Church’s life changed forever when she was 10.
‘‘I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danios Syndrome, a collegian deficiency which means you have too much movement in the joints of your body,’’ she said.
The hereditary health condition caused the Mooroopna youngster to be permanently in a wheelchair.
‘‘I’d just won a tap dancing trophy three months before my diagnosis, (then) I was put in a wheelchair,’’ Church said.
‘‘Mum has it and grandma had it.
‘‘It wasn’t too bad to deal with in primary school because the other kids saw me go through the process.’’
As part of her treatment, she spent hours at the indoor pool using swimming as her main exercise.
‘‘I hated it and didn’t want to do it because I was told to do it,’’ Church said.
‘‘I was a stubborn girl.’’
Trained by family friend Lois White, Church joined the local swimming club at 13, where she came under the tutelage of well-known Mooroopna coach Stuart Freeman.
She immediately showed promise as she used her well-built shoulders to power through the water.
In 1993, Church competed in the National Junior Wheelchair Games, but had to compete in two sports in order to attend.
‘‘I was playing wheelchair basketball and needed another thing to do, so that was where swimming came in,’’ she said.
‘‘It was my first-ever swimming competition and I set a national record in the 100m freestyle.’’
The following year Church competed in the games again and not only did she win a gold and bronze medal in swimming, she won a medal in basketball too.
‘‘I did Year 12 over two years because of my swimming commitments, the school was so great about it,’’ Church said.
Church loved competing and would train for hours on end to ensure she stayed in top form, moving to Melbourne in 1997 to further her swimming.
‘‘I spent a year in Melbourne and trained with the head coach of the Victorian Institute of Sport, Buddy Portier,’’ she said.
‘‘But I returned to the Goulburn Valley because I didn’t enjoy it.’’
About this time Aquamoves opened in Shepparton, giving Church the opportunity to train year round under Shepparton Swimming Club coach Willy O’Callaghan.
O’Callaghan saw the potential in Church and encouraged her to try other swimming strokes beside backstroke and freestyle.
‘‘Doctors told me I couldn’t swim butterfly and breaststroke because it might cause my loose joints to dislocate,’’ Church said.
‘‘Willy convinced me to give them a crack, she was such a legend.’’
This would lead her to setting a national butterfly record, which still stands today, and her penultimate achievement to date — a world record in breaststroke at a short-course event at Aquamoves.
‘‘My time was 1:32, but it got broken about a year-and-a-half later by a Hungarian,’’ Church said.
‘‘I called Willy straight after my world record and she said it was nice, but she’d be seeing me bright and early tomorrow morning for training.’’
At this time Church had her mind set on representing Australia at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics and left no stone unturned to get there.
‘‘I competed in able-body competitions in Shepparton and the surrounds and lost nearly every race,’’ she said.
Church became sick about this time and battled depression for the rest of her career.
‘‘With that plus balancing my training, it was quite difficult,’’ she said.
‘‘My body got tired so quickly because of my syndrome and I had a weak immune system, so that was a real battle.’’
In 2000, Church completed her Paralympics preparation by winning gold and bronze at the national championships, which earn her selection in the Australian team.
‘‘I was asked to carry the torch in the opening ceremony and three hours before I was to carry it, I was in my room crying,’’ she said.
‘‘I also had pneumonia and got 21st in my last race at the games.’’
While Church did not perform as she would have liked, her story is an inspiration to all who witnessed her overcoming hardship.
‘‘Looking back, the pressure was immense and it wasn’t the best experience at the time. But now I’m so proud,’’ she said.
‘‘I haven’t raced since that day and I didn’t even get in a pool for the next six months after it.’’
Church has spent most of her time away from the pool, only enjoying a leisurely swim at the persistence of her young nephews.
‘‘I sometimes show footage of the 2000 Paralympics opening ceremony to my six-year-old nephew and he can’t believe that he sees aunty Kate on the screen,’’ she said.
‘‘They tell all their friends that I used to be famous, once upon a time.’’