Katrina Porter

Katrina Porter

Sport development

Katrina Porter is a Paralympic champion, having competed in swimming backstroke for Australia at three Paralympic Games and three World Championships. She now works in Perth, her home town, in sport development supporting local sport providers in a range of areas. A great champion, with great determination and a great story.

Transcript of the Podcast with Katrina Porter

Katrina Porter

You’re listening to an Inclusion Club Tic Talk all about sport, inclusion and human rights.

Peter:

Welcome to today’s Tic Talk. It’s a great pleasure to have Katrina Porter with us today. Katrina is a three times paralympian, three times world championships, probably your crowning glory in an athletic sense was 2008, Beijing, gold medal and world record in the backstroke?

Katrina:

Yes, it certainly was a huge highlight and something I’d worked my whole life towards so it was nice to get the icing on the cake.

Peter:

It was good icing, good icing! Your last one was in London; you did go to London of course didn’t you?

Katrina:

Yes, so I went to London as well, however my performance wasn’t quite up to where I wanted it to be but I had a fall literally exactly one year prior to London. I broke my hip whilst on camp at the AIS in Canberra so I was out for about four months with rehab – firstly hospital, operation, rest, rehab, so my training for London was very on the backburner in regards to getting my health back because as a result of breaking my hip I got a pulmonary embolus on my lung, otherwise known as a blood clot.  In London my performance wasn’t up to scratch but I made three finals so you can’t complain about that.

Peter:

That’s a pretty good reason. That’s great!

Katrina:

Yes, exactly. Going in as defending gold medallist often there’s a lot of pressure to re-defend your title but there was no pressure because just to make London was a huge achievement. I thought that was it for me. When I was lying in a hospital bed I thought “oh well, I guess I’m retiring early”.

Peter:

So how many months before London was that?

Katrina:

That was exactly 12 months, so that was August 2011 and then I got the blood clot in the beginning of October, so two months later, and then I was out for another two months so training started literally in December with trials at end of March so I had four months and then Paralympics four months after that so it wasn’t the best build up but I got to go!

Peter:

We’ll talk about your Paralympic journey and your work now with Western Australian Sports Federation but let’s go right back – you were born in Perth?

Katrina:

Yes, so Perth girl, born and raised.

Peter

Okay. You’d have seen some changes. We’re in Perth right now and that’s where you live now but you’ve seen some changes in those times?

Katrina:

Absolutely.

Peter:

What was it like growing up in Perth?

Katrina:

It was a great place to be honest. I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now and as I should have, so grew up in a nice suburb called City Beach which is literally two minutes from the beach as you’d expect and went to a lovely school nearby and had absolutely no reason to complain but as Perth often gets that tag of having ‘dullsville’ I was a true believer and I thought “well there’s nothing good that happens in Perth” Yeah we’ve got good beaches but I didn’t fully appreciate Perth until I was about 18 when I moved away and I guess through my swimming career I travelled a lot and I always saw the best parts of every city. I’d go to New York, Paris, London and I’d come back to Perth and I’m like, well, this really doesn’t have a lot to offer and then now as I’m older I appreciate it. The development in Perth is huge, the fasting growth rate for many years now and the mining boom certainly helped so it’s very expensive to live here but it’s worth it for me. I think it’s a great city.

Peter:

That’s why I asked what was it like when you were growing up here because it is a boom city. It’s changed dramatically in the past decade because of mining and things—

Katrina:

Absolutely, yeah, the housing, the development, everything, the people, the population especially, the traffic – it’s not like Sydney so I can’t complain that much but certainly to get from A to B isn’t as smooth as it used to be but that’s the way the world is now. I don’t think there’s anywhere that wouldn’t have seen it.

Peter:

So in the early days when did sport become part of your life?

Katrina:

I guess when I was about nine or 10 I started to take it quite seriously. I was obviously quite active as a child. I had triplet brothers and a sister growing up and they were running around mad so I was never really given any easy way, it was just, I had to fit in, mum and dad didn’t have any chance to fuss over me so I was always active and I had to do a lot of physiotherapy for my disability so I was always in and out of the pool doing hydrotherapy and then we bought a house with a pool in it and mum and dad couldn’t get me out so hand to glove put me in a swimming club and off I went.

Peter:

So they didn’t wrap you in cotton wool?

Katrina:

No, definitely not, so thank God I had the best upbringing I could imagine. I’ve got quite a few friends and it’s sad, they were wrapped up in cotton wool and you look at them now and they haven’t really reached their potential and it’s sad because I’m like “you could be so much more than what you are” so whilst it’s hard for them to see that because they don’t know any different, I look at myself and I’ve always been very, very self-driven, very independent, always gone out and done things for myself, not because mum and dad said so or because I was pushed into it, I’ve gone out and made my own career, completed my university degree, competed at the Paralympics because it was my dream, no one else’s dream so I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing and I was always quite a strong child because I didn’t have the help that probably people would expect.

Peter:

Obviously family and parents were critical in helping that, but what other critical – one of the things in these podcasts we come across is that often critical people or individuals or situations that at a moment in time kind of changed things for you. Did you have any of those moments?

Katrina:

Absolutely. Funnily enough I was talking about this last night. My condition, arthrogryposis multifactor congenital, is quite rare. There’s not a lot of knowledge about it and everyone that’s got it has quite a different form so whilst I was born with it they didn’t quite know where I would be, what my future would hold so they sort of said to mum and dad “expect the worst, probably won’t be able to walk, just take good care of her and see where she might go”. They were advised to put me in a wheelchair and really wrap me up in cotton wool because they don’t know what the outcome was going to be but as I got older I learnt to stand at four, I took my first steps at five and it was at that point that mum and dad thought well there’s no reason why she can’t do more so my dad was in a fortunate position with his business so he was able to buy a three storey house so at the beginning everyone’s like “wow, that’s just cruel to buy a three-storey house” and my bedroom was on the third floor so all of my parent’s friends and I probably would think the same now is “oh my god, why would you do that with a disabled child?” It was very hard I think for my mum. My mum was quite soft and gentle and wanted to pick me up and carry me but my dad would always say “come on, we’re going out” and they would have to sit in the car for 5-10 minutes waiting for me to get there because it would be harder for me to get down the stairs than everyone else but they would have to be patient and I think in the long run – I still live in a three-storey house now and everyone said “wouldn’t it be good to live in a one-storey?” and I’m like “no way, I love it”.

Peter:

It’s an interesting lesson isn’t it?

Katrina:

Exactly and I think that was a really critical moment in time where I had to fight. I didn’t get given everything in a little golden basket. It was sort of “if you want to go to bed well you’ll have to go up three flights, or two flights of stairs to get there”. That was really critical as a moment in my life that I think really pushed me and made me realise that whilst I had a disability there was no reason I couldn’t get to my room and then therefore do other things in my life.

Peter:

Let’s face it, the Paralympics can seem very glamorous and everything but there’s a lot of hard work that goes in, the logistics behind that is very challenging?

Katrina:

Absolutely. There’s no easier way to make the Paralympics than there is to make the Olympics. Sure, we all have disabilities and there are things that we can’t do but that doesn’t mean I didn’t train as hard as every other Olympian so leading into Athens and Beijing I trained at West Coast Swimming Club and we had four Olympians and two Paralympians all in the one lane doing the same thing day in, day out. There was no, just because (8:24) maybe have a morning off. I didn’t get that and that’s something I’m really proud of that there was easy way into the Paralympics. I didn’t just get there because “oh, good on you, you swam in a race”. We had to make the qualifying times. We had to have our skin fold measured. We had to do the weights. We had to do the training. It was part and parcel as it is for being an Olympian. It’s just as much hard work to be a Paralympian.

Peter:

Did school and your early education take a part in all that too because you obviously had the family support and your own personality that’s driven you there but school’s also a big thing?

Katrina:

Absolutely and I look back now and I did put swimming first but then again I got to achieve my goals so it was worth it but at the same time I often thought “oh swimming’s the number one, I don’t really have to worry about school” but I look back now and my school was really supportive of me.  When I went to Athens they said “look, don’t even worry about—“ I was in Year 11 at school so a critical year with exams etc leading into Year 12 and my school was very great at helping me balance the workload and then Year 12 similarly enough, I got an extra study period per day so whilst I was swimming morning and night when I should be doing study or homework I was able to do it in between classes so school was really, really great to me. I probably didn’t push myself as much as I should have but I’ve made up with it now so I put myself into gear when I left and I thought “hang on a second, I’ve got brains, I need to use them more than I have been, I’m not just an athlete”.

Peter:

It’s a critical thing to have support from school. They’re places where you spend so much time and effort in, if it’s not supportive then—

Katrina: Exactly and whilst I’m an individual athlete there are a hell of a lot of people that got me to where I am. It’s not just because I swam up and down a pool day in, day out by myself. I had a team of people around me to get me there and those people all deserve the credit. They don’t get the limelight. They don’t get the attention that I may have got, definitely after Beijing but they certainly know who they are and they know the role that they played.

Peter:

I read somewhere that you spent some considerable time in Italy?

Katrina:

I did, yes, I spent about a year and a half there.

Peter:

Nice!

Katrina:

Yeah, it was beautiful. It was tough. It sounds glamorous but there was certainly a lot that I learnt from moving to Rome. I was there for about 18 months over three years so I used to date a wheelchair basketballer, Michael Hartnett who also was playing for Australia at the London and Beijing Games – a gold medallist from Beijing – so he was contracted to play over there so I went over there just as a WAG – I’m just not the wife yet. It was real learning experience. I was 19 when I left and when I got there I thought “oh I’ll be walking to the Trevi Foundation” and “I’m going to wake up next to the Vatican” it wasn’t that easy. I was an hour out of town. I had to learn to drive.

Peter:

In Italy, oh, good luck!

Katrina:

Yeah I know, but I was very proud. I did not have one car accident. I think my road rage probably got a lot worse and I’ve had to learn to tone it down since I’ve come back to Perth.

Peter:

Have you got now extravagant hand movements?

Katrina:

No, because I use hand controls to drive I had to always be more vocal than physical so I’ve had to tone that part of my driving down. Thankfully I don’t have all the physical attributes to go with it but certainly it was a lesson in driving. I guess one thing for me was tying it back to the Inclusion Club was there was no inclusion with swimming. There was a massive divide between able-bodied swimming and Paralympic or disabled swimming. Whatever level you were at there was no integration.

Peter:

What disadvantage do you think that gave? I’m assuming there was a disadvantage in that?

Katrina:

Absolutely. I think physically and also mentally because the confidence that I found from the swimmers within the disabled club that I was at, it was just so much lower. They didn’t have the aspirations. They didn’t realise what they could be. Similar to what I mentioned before. Their parents were there at the side of the pool with their towels when they got out at training, similar to what you’d see at a Learn to Swim program when you’ve got toddlers and babies and these are adults and their parents are there “oh good job, you did a good time tonight” and I just thought my mum—

Peter:

Even when you didn’t kind of thing?

Katrina:

No, they were always giving positive reinforcement and whilst that’s important there was no negative reinforcement. Like, you need some drive. You need to be pushed. Well you need to learn to push yourself as well and that’s a huge critical element but I also think that there was just too much of ‘mummy and daddy’ on the sidelines. There was no one there that questioned why they weren’t integrated. It was just the way that it was. There was no one that really stood up and said “hey I’m just as fast” or “I can make this cycle” [in swimming talk] to say “Well why can’t I actually move the club down the road?” so I actually took that step upon myself.

Peter:

Did you?

Katrina:

Yeah, I got really frustrated because geographically the closest club to me that was a disabled swimming club that I was invited to train with was an hour and 15 minutes away so in traffic it took me forever to get there. It was basically a day to go to swimming because it was an hour and 15 there, train, whatever, and then get home again, however the closest able-bodied swimming club was 500 metres walk and I kept thinking “why aren’t I swimming with them?” like logistically that just makes more sense so I got a friend of mine, Brad Ness, who is actually Captain of the Rollers. He was my next door neighbour and he spoke Italian so I said “Brad, I need your help with this. I need you to help me translate” as my Italian was a bit broken but I went down to that local club and walked in. They gave me the up and down like “what are you doing here?” They didn’t have any exposure to athletes who – sure, they might have seen the Paralympics on TV but they would never have had the exposure to it in real life and had to swim with one so I watched them train for a couple of days, learnt what they did and thought “I can make that. There’s no reason why I can’t. I might be at the back of the lane but that’s standard. I’ve always been at the back” so I went down and spoke to the coach and originally she wasn’t very happy with the idea. I don’t think she thought it could fit. It was just ‘too hard basket’ so I said “give me one shot, give me one chance, I’ll come down here, I’ll do one session. If I can’t make it, I don’t belong, fair enough, it’s going to be too hard for you, I get that but there are ways that we can make this work”. So I went down there. It was probably the hardest set I’d ever done in my life. I think she actually did that so I wouldn’t make it but honestly – it was 2½ hours, 7.5km in a 25 metre pool so for me not having the use of my legs very well it was even harder but I made the whole thing, so that was the deal, if I made it I got to stay. So I stayed. It was tough. Every day was a killer.

Peter:

But that’s what you wanted?

Katrina:

That’s what I wanted. I wanted to prove that I had a backbone, that I wasn’t just going to give up because I only had the use of half my body and, yeah, I got two seconds rest when everyone else was getting 20 but it didn’t mean that I would take the next 100 off. I still did exactly what they did and that’s my whole life. I’ve always been that way and for me that was a really important lesson, not just for me but for the girls and guys within that squad to be able to see that you can have challenges and still fight them. I don’t know if they understood that I was there for one session and if I didn’t make it I wasn’t going to come back.

Peter:

Did you see a change in attitude from the coach and you mentioned the other swimmers as well?

Katrina:

Yeah there was – for some reason it actually turned into a bit of an intimidation I felt from them. They were very ignorant of me. I don’t know whether it was a language barrier. My Italian improved a lot. I was there for 18 months but I often found they would—

Peter:

You learnt to swear in Italian?

Katrina:

They’re the first words you learn, but I often found that in the change rooms they would say things about me and I could understand them – it was rude – and I’d understand them and I often said “yeah, I understand” and they would just mumble things and then I wouldn’t be able to because I knew they were trying to speak faster and they obviously knew I couldn’t keep up but I thought originally it would really change their mindset but it didn’t, which is a real shame. I don’t know whether it was a language barrier. I don’t know what it was but I felt that they were either intimidated by me and they didn’t really want to warm to me. I stuck it out though. I was like “there’s no way in hell I’m going to leave”. That was my mission. I don’t know what they’re doing now. I left.

Peter:

I guess one of the lessons from that is that it doesn’t always result in transforming attitudes, you know, exposure around that kind of thing doesn’t always?

Katrina:

No. It’s obviously the goal and that’s what we hope but it doesn’t always work that way and that’s I think a common theme that it’s not just one leg and a clip/click for everyone, it’s a persistent ongoing, that’s why we have things like the Inclusion Club in 2015. It’s been around for awhile but it doesn’t just happen overnight so hopefully when these other swimmers mature, mentally, physically, they might realise, they might think back about “oh that Australian girl that was on crutches, she was great” or “she could make it” so I bet it’s a transition over time and like I said it doesn’t happen overnight.

Peter:

I think you might be right, maybe on reflection and people look back at times so there might be some transformation of attitudes in that way?

Katrina:

Definitely. Absolutely.

Peter:

Because you don’t know at the time that it might be really weird for them or whatever?

Katrina:

Yeah, I think we all go through our life where we obviously look back on reflection and maybe regret things or think “why did I think that way?” Even I think like that in terms of many things. As you get older you develop mentally and emotionally and you might think back and think “gosh, that did have an effect on me that I didn’t quite acknowledge at the time” so that’s one thing I really hope to do at the end of the day. It doesn’t happen overnight and I learnt the hard way over there. I didn’t get accepted. I didn’t get appreciation. I didn’t really make any friends but I was determined that I was going to stick it out. I was there to prove a point for myself and also to the coach that just because I had a disability there is no reason why I can’t be in that club. I guess hopefully I paved the way for someone else to come along and challenge the thoughts and the processes because like I said people get stuck in their ways. They think this is how it is. It should be like this forever.

Peter:

I’m sure you would have done and that was before Athens?

Katrina:

No before London so that was just after Beijing and I took my gold medal there and I thought I’m going to have to really show off here and really get it to include me but that didn’t really make any difference. It was really interesting. It was something – I guess culturally we are quite different and I learnt that and I learnt that. I’d been to Italy travelling before. We had our staging camp pre-Athens in Rome so I’d been there and I thought “what a beautiful city” and then when I lived there I was like “this is different”. It still is wonderful and I’ve been back there for a holiday since but I guess travelling and living is completely different.

Peter:

Yeah it is different.

Katrina:

Absolutely.

Peter:

Beijing! Crowning glory!

Katrina:

Exactly, the crowning jewel, yep.

Peter:

How did you feel at the end of that? Now I’ve spoken to other athletes as well. Did you feel that was – you achieved what you set out to achieve and now you move on or is it—?

Katrina:

Yeah, absolutely. I guess – I was 19 in Beijing so still quite young. I’d put everything into winning that gold medal. That was everything I’d ever wanted to achieve. If you’d asked me what my goal was, that was it. There were no other goals, academically, emotionally, anything. That was my goal. Going to Beijing, winning the gold, getting the world record. I’d had world records before but never at a Paralympics and that was really a huge moment for my life and I did it in a heat in the final. It was absolutely amazing. It was a day that I’ll never forget and I get shivers watching it now but it was also really quite defining for me in every other area of my life because I won the gold medal and I was on this huge high and then I moved to Italy eight days later so whilst everyone’s having their welcome home ceremonies, Paralympian of the year dinner, swimmer of the year dinner, I’m sitting on my couch in Rome watching BBC world news with no one – well I had Michael but he was living his dream of playing professional basketball.  He’d won gold but his dream was to play professional basketball in Europe so he was living that dream and I felt “well, what other dreams do I have?” and it was really a hard thing to go through to be honest. I think if I’d have stayed home I would have just been on a high and just continued with the media and continued on that path. I don’t know when that would have ended but it was quick change to my reality. I got there and it was like “okay, so there’s no one here to congratulate me. There’s no one here that wants to catch up for coffee and talk about Beijing”.  I had friends that wanted to Skype obviously but it wasn’t the same so it was really defining and it was at that point in time that I thought “I’ve got other things that I can achieve” so I enrolled in Uni and did a double degree in Economics and Finance. I got a career at the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. I was training for London and I was so much more fulfilled as a person, not just because I won a gold medal and known that my life goal was achieved but also because I realised there’s a whole lot more than winning a gold medal. It’s absolutely doesn’t discredit it whatsoever. It was absolutely amazing and I’m sure if I didn’t win gold I don’t know where I’d be but I think that it was really defining for me to realise that’s just one element of my life.  There’s a whole other lot that I can fulfil. I might not be a gold medalist but that’s not the be all and end all.

Peter:

You can’t have a very quick recalibration of your life?

Katrina:

It was really tough.

Peter:

Which is good I guess.

Katrina:

I ended up planning to go to Rome for nine months the first stint but I came home after two because I just mentally couldn’t handle it. I just thought “what am I doing with my life? I’ve swum for this many years. Got my goal but now what?” I felt empty so I left end of September. I got home for Christmas which was totally unplanned. Stayed home for five weeks. That’s when I enrolled in Uni. I got in touch with the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and did some work in Rome with the Ambassador so I was very fortunate to be able to get my life in order quickly but at the same time it was a real shock that I would have those emotions. I thought once I got a gold medal that would be everything. I’d be on a high till I was old and gray but it didn’t last as long as I thought but I’m still very proud and I’m prouder than what I was back then because I’ve got a gold medal which is everything to me. I’ve got the Order of Australia Medal, I’ve got OAM after my name but I’ve also got a career. I’ve got a degree. I’ve got great family, great friends so it’s sort of a complete package.

Peter:

It’s good you were kind of grounded in that way because it can be that that euphoria – euphoria of such a massive event carries on far too long—

Katrina:

Absolutely and it’s not to be just celebrated, it’s a huge achievement and I did put a lot of work into that and it certainly was my life but it also makes you realise and I’ve spoken to other fellow athletes that you’re in this bubble of sport and it’s absolutely amazing. It was the best time of my life but it’s a bubble and it’s going to pop one day and you’re going to think “hang on a second, what have I got?” so I think that’s a lot of problems with some sports people that we see now, they live in that bubble, they don’t think about life after or life outside and they get their goals which is amazing and what you want to get out of it but then you get to that point where you don’t live on that wave forever. You’ve got to realise that at some point in time you need to fulfil other areas of your life. There are 24 hours in a day. Swimming doesn’t take up 24. It’s hard to balance it but I think there’s a real fine knack.

Peter:

In Australia right now as you know there’s quite a discussion around mental health issues and sports people and a few high profile cases of that but certainly that bubble, it’s a nice way you’ve described it. It is a bubble so a bubble will burst and it’s preparing for that isn’t it I guess?

Katrina:

Yeah, absolutely and having the support around you as an athlete is second to none. You’ve got people who care genuinely for you and they’re recording absolutely everything. You can be on this pedestal where you think “well it’s all about me. I don’t need to think about life after because everyone’s invested into me and I’m going to make these people proud. I’m going to get my goal and hopefully their goal as well. They worked for this as well” so there is that feeling and it’s required. To be the best athlete you need the support of the people there as well but you also need to take care of yourself mentally. I think you need to continue the momentum, not just physically to be the best athlete but I found my best times of swimming to be when I was studying and working. I was busy. I didn’t get the rest periods that I had before with the daily naps etc but I was fulfilled in all aspects.  If I had a bad day at training I might have a great day at work and it would even out, not just if I have a bad day at training I have a bad day all round and that continues—

Peter:

Yes, it’s a good balance.

Katrina:

Yeah, it’s required so something that I think is really important for all athletes and people in general. Life balance is such a critical thing nowadays. It’s not just for athletes.

Peter:

It kind of translates – and we’ll fast forward to your work now with Western Australian Sports Federation there. It kind of fast forwards doesn’t it? Your attitudes and your approach kind of reflects in the work you’re doing now which is quite often about attitude change, whether it’s to do with alcohol or whether it’s to do with things so I can see that now.

Katrina:

Yes. It’s really lovely now that I’m working on the other side. I’m still involved in sport but I’m not coaching or pooled out. I’m not directly involved with athletes. I’m looking down and saying “how we can influence change” and like you said change attitudes to sporting clubs, sporting associations to at the end of the day create what we want as a sporting club or as an association which then translates into the members, the athletes, the officials, so it’s a whole ballpark of things I guess and working within training and education I’m fortunate that I work directly one-on-one with those sporting clubs and the officials and the volunteers who really are the life and blood of sport so I am very passionate about grassroots sport and I think that starts with training and education around the many different areas but I think you need to start from the bottom and hopefully that transcends and is delivered through all aspects.

Peter:

Excellent. Well Katrina thank you very much.

Katrina:

No worries. Thank you very much for coming over to Perth so welcome to the sunny capital.

Peter:

It’s a beautiful day here I have to say. So yes thank you very much. We could keep talking all day I think.

Katrina:

We could indeed. I’ve got work till 9:30 at night so unfortunately not but yes, it’s a beautiful day, 31° outside so poor people in Canberra or wherever you’re listening.

Peter:

Thank you very much Katrina for talking to us on Tic Talks and the very best of luck. I’m sure you’ll go from strength to strength from here and I know you’ll do some great work here with the Western Australian Sports Federation and Department here.

Katrina:

Thanks very much Peter and we’ll keep on pushing in the same direction.

Peter:

Keep pushing.

 

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