‘Paralympics is about challenging oneself to be better than you think you can be. We overcome so much adversity and hardship in our journeys so it is more about celebrating where we have come from than the outcome of success.’
Australian Paralympian Matt Levy was born prematurely at 25 weeks and developed cerebral palsy and visual and audial impairment because of a brain bleed during the first three days of life. Thirty-three years later, on 28 August 2021, Matt won his eighth Paralympic medal, at a record equalling fifth Paralympics. He won bronze in the Men's 100m breaststroke SB6 event, adding to his haul of two golds, a silver and four bronze medals from the four previous Games he swam at.
When I asked him the day before he flew to Tokyo what he was looking forward to at the Games, Matt said, ‘I am going to Tokyo to just enjoy myself and swim my best.’
The pandemic has not surprisingly been disruptive for Matt and others in Team Australia in their preparations for the Paralympics. While the preparations started immediately after the Rio Games, the most intense stage of the preparations started in 2019. Then came the pandemic. The series of lockdowns meant Matt had to move to Queensland for training.
It also meant there was little insight of how the competition abroad was doing, to gauge their own preparations and times against that of champion swimmers from other nations. ‘We don’t know what our competition has done due to the pandemic. So, it’s just about focusing on your own race. The pandemic has forced us to adapt our training and move to Queensland to escape lockdowns. It has made us more resilient and adaptable to change. The physical preparation started when Rio 2016 finished. It has been a five-year journey to this stage. Four hours per day, six days a week. Mentally it is about staying on top of your recovery and health and knowing when to rest and when to push forward.’
This gruelling schedule is on top of his full-time job at Westpac where he works as a Change Analyst in the project management team. He is part of a regulatory project for group wide implementation of the new product Design and Distribution Obligations for issuers and distributors of financial products. Matt is also a Brand Ambassador for Right Hear and sits on multiple advisory boards including the Athlete Advisory Group for World Para Swimming. Matt is deeply passionate about his advocacy for people with disability. He believes there is still a lot of work to do to get the public to understand that not all disabilities are visible. He is also part of the leadership group for a new online global community of sports fans called SportsHosts.
We only get one shot at this
The first thing you notice about Matt Levy is an instinctive modesty. A lack of drama. But as a champion athlete there is also absolute focus, self-awareness, and drive. Goals are important for him. Because his life has been both challenging and difficult, goals are what allowed him to create a plan and then strive to get there.
In his inspirational book, Keeping your head above water, Matt writes about his life. There are no fancy flourishes in his storytelling. Just an honesty and trademark simplicity that make it compelling reading. In his first 13 years, he had 40 surgeries and countless days in hospital, for many of those, a real risk of not making it through. But then when he woke up, often still very ill and groggy, he says there was the ‘euphoria of making it through’. Matt reflects that this was what gave him a perspective on life early on. A sense of his own mortality and therefore the need to strive to make the best of his life. ‘We only get one shot at this.’
The opening line in his book is a quote from Albert Einstein. ‘Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value’. ‘That quote resonated with me because we enter this world with nothing and we leave with nothing, but we can leave a lasting legacy for those we meet and come across. Throughout life we learn so many things and experience so much. It is about learning to be better every day.’
Swimming did not come naturally to him. It was started as therapy when he was very young to help develop his motor skills. Every Sunday he would go to the pool for lessons with his parents Penny and Michael, and his sister Brooke. By the time he was 12 he was a proficient swimmer.
It takes strength of mind to compete
It was watching the Sydney Paralympics which inspired him to train harder, determined to swim in the 2004 Games. ‘It started with a dream of wanting to go to the Paralympics, but it was much more than that. It was about being healthy and active. It was about having a passion for what I wanted to do. I watched the Sydney Paralympics and saw people with far worse disabilities than myself and that’s what got me started. It was where the dream began.’ From there on for Matt it was about trying over and over again until he mastered the skills and became competition ready. Matt competed in the 2004 Paralympics while still at school. He won his first medal — gold in the men’s 4x100m medley 34 Points — at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. He went on to compete at multiple competitions. Over 50 international medals later, Matt Levy is one of Australia’s most successful para-swimming champions.
The strength of mind that is required to compete at elite levels is not easily come by Matt says. ‘That mindset is built in the tough times, the times that you don’t want to do something or can’t think of going any further. That tenacity through tough times is what gets you through all the training and early mornings and the repeated failures. It is what brings success. Disability adds another layer of challenge. And calls on even more courage and determination.’
Is it the challenge of competition or is it the ambition to win that drives him? ‘The challenge to keep improving and to better myself is what drives me. The opportunity that you have in front of you to leave no stone unturned in your quest for your own success. Whatever that may be. There is always the element of risk element Matt says. There is both the risk of not taking the opportunity or of taking it and failing.
Winning and losing
What does it take to win? How do you move forward from the adrenaline of a win to focus on what lies ahead with just as much commitment? Matt says it is about taking each step as part of a journey. ‘It is about staying in the moment and remaining calm.’ It’s also about the process and continuing to work on what you are going to do to get to other goals. ‘It doesn’t stop with a win, or a loss or a draw. It’s about remaining humble and knowing when to celebrate and when to stay focused.’
What does it take to go forward after a loss? What helps an athlete to maintain perspective? ‘It is about remembering what you have done to get this far, what it has taken to get to this stage.’ It is also, Matt says, about using the loss as an opportunity to improve and be better than you were yesterday. ‘Loss is hard and it’s tough to remain focused after a loss but if you gave it your all and ticked all the boxes in your training, that is all you can ask for. That’s what you need to remember. There is no loss; there are only learnings and experiences that can help you grow for the next challenge.’